Penn State coach Bill O'Brien (front row, center) and the Nittany Lions waiting to get their photo taken before the 2012 season. (AP)
To write his forthcoming book "Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football," author John U. Bacon embedded himself with four Big Ten programs—Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan and Northwestern—in search of the sport's old ideals as it is roiled by money, greed and scandal. In this excerpt, he offers a behind-the-scenes look at how Penn State's team reacted to the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal last year.
On July 23, 2012, Penn State's football players gathered in their lounge to watch on television as NCAA president Mark Emmert walked to the podium for a news conference.
Eight months earlier, prosecutors had arrested Penn State's former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky on 40 criminal counts, including the sexual assault of several boys over a 15-year period, one of them in the showers of Penn State's football building. Within three months of Sandusky's arrest, Penn State trustees released their president, a senior vice president and their Hall of Fame coach, Joe Paterno, who died soon afterward. The athletic director also ultimately lost his job. Then a report commissioned by the university found that those leaders knew enough of what Sandusky had done to report him to the authorities, but cared more about protecting the university's image than his victims.
Most Penn State players didn't know who Sandusky was until they saw his picture on TV. Only then did some recognize him as the "old guy who worked out here once in a while."
Their reactions were swift. "They used to hang people at the Centre County courthouse," linebacker Mike Mauti told me, "and frankly, I would have been OK with that. Hell, give us the rope, and we'll do it for you."
Now it was time for the team to pay for Sandusky's sins.
Emmert laid out a series of penalties. One erased a wide swath of Penn State's rich history, vacating all victories from 1998 through 2011. The sanctions also threatened Penn State's future, with a $60 million fine, a four-year postseason ban and a drastic reduction in the number of scholarships from 25 to 15 a year, with a maximum of 65—20 fewer than Penn State's rivals could give out. Emmert declared Penn State's penalties might be considered "greater than any other seen in NCAA history."
But the players, coaches and staffers in Penn State's players' lounge that Monday morning understood immediately that another stipulation of the NCAA's sanctions, which got far less attention outside that room, threatened Penn State's season opener, just six weeks away: The NCAA would allow other schools to recruit Penn State's current players, who would be permitted to play for another team that fall without having to sit out a season for transferring. In practice, Emmert had declared open season for opposing coaches to cannibalize Penn State's roster, and all but prodded Penn State's players to run for the hills.
Within minutes, Mauti recalled, "our phones were ringing—blowing up. My high-school coach had to turn his phone off because he got 40 calls that day asking if I wanted to jump."
Bill O'Brien, a former New England Patriots offensive coordinator hired just six months earlier as Paterno's replacement, immediately called a meeting. "We're not here to understand the rules," O'Brien told the players. "We're here to follow them. It's my obligation to tell you that you are free to go anywhere you want, with no penalties. However, if you stay, I promise you, you will never forget it."
But that didn't stop running back Silas Redd—who had run for over 1,000 yards his sophomore year—from taking a flight to Los Angeles to check out Southern California.
Penn State players assumed that if the popular and talented Redd left State College, Pa., the floodgates would open. That same day, recalled starting senior defensive end Pete Massaro, an academic All-American majoring in economics, a freshman "started listing a ton of guys in the freshman and sophomore classes who were going to leave, too. I was freaking out. Next thing he said to me was 'Penn State football is dead.'
"I thought it was the end of Penn State football."
The Paterno Way
Sometime after Penn State's undefeated 1994 season, Paterno's passion for coaching began to wane. In 2006, after a Wisconsin player ran into him on the sidelines and injured his leg just below the knee, he hardly coached at all, watching games from the press box without a headset. After he recovered, he returned to the sidelines, but he still didn't wear a headset or carry a clipboard, and he rarely attended team meetings. Privately, the staff joked that the less the 84-year-old Paterno got involved, the better things usually went. When Paterno did weigh in, he often confused the situation, got players' names wrong or just yelled at them by their numbers.
Still, his assistants clung to certain symbols of the Paterno Way. "Shave your face, cut your hair," Mauti said, recalling the mantra. "If we weren't shaved for a practice, we would have to work out on Saturdays in the off-season. It got almost to the point where that's all that mattered."
Few programs in college football at the time could have claimed a richer tradition than Penn State's. It looked like Camelot—but only from the outside. Almost every Penn State senior I talked to last season repeated some version of the following: "We felt like we were protecting an image. And only we knew it."
Through a spokesman, Paterno's son Jay Paterno called the characterizations inaccurate, saying Joe Paterno scripted every practice to the minute, led every team meeting and had "direct play-calling input" on game-winning or clinching drives in five close games during his last season (2011).
The morning after Emmert's announcement, after barely sleeping, Penn State fullback Mike Zordich got up to work out at 7 a.m. "First thing I do, I look at my phone, and I already had a bunch of calls from [opposing] coaches," he said. "That meant everyone else was getting them, too."
He walked out to the living room to see Mauti, his roommate and best friend, looking at his phone, too. "He's got the same thing happening," Zordich recalled. "And I said, right then and there, 'Look. I'm staying,'" he recalled. "And once I'm staying, he's staying, so now the question is: Who else is going to stay?"
The two went straight to their sanctuary: strength coach Craig Fitzgerald's office.
"What are you guys hearing?" Fitzgerald asked.
The two seniors cut to the chase, rattling off all the teammates they'd heard were leaving. "We just started writing names on legal pads," Zordich said, "listing who was in and who was out, trying to figure out if this guy leaves, is this guy going to follow, so will it trickle down? We practically made a playbook of who's getting calls, from where, and who's going to stay."
Fitzgerald looked at the list. If even half the players on the "gone" side of the ledger left, Penn State might not have enough players to run a decent practice, let alone suit up for opening day. Fitzgerald grabbed his phone to call O'Brien in his upstairs office.
"I'll be right down," O'Brien said.
O'Brien saw Mauti and Zordich, normally upbeat, slumped in the couch against the window. "When Coach showed up, our body language, sitting around, was basically 'We're screwed,'" Mauti recalled. "We weren't hiding anything. It was too late for that."
While O'Brien and Fitzgerald listened, the two seniors read the names of teammates they'd heard were about to bolt. O'Brien had coached these players for only six months, but he had no reason to doubt them. He'd been hearing most of the same things they had, and some they hadn't. He looked at them, then at Fitzgerald, then exhaled. He knew he had to make some big decisions—decisions that could determine the very fate of Penn State's football program—and he had to make them fast.
O'Brien made many that week, and his instincts in uncharted waters proved almost unerring, but one decision gave his captains pause.
"Coach was saying, 'We need to make a hard deadline,'" Zordich recalled. "'This can't go on forever. So I'm going to tell them, 'By Aug. 1, you're either with us or you're not.'"
"I'm thinking, Aug. 1?" Zordich said. "That's one week. This dude's got (guts)."
Zordich soon proved he had some guts, too. After initially agreeing, he said: "I don't think that's a good idea. The players here don't know you well enough yet."
As soon as Zordich said it, Mauti decided his teammate was right, and they explained why. They believed the more players got to know O'Brien and his program—which they viewed as a long-overdue step toward the future—the more likely they would stay.
And second, if O'Brien threatened them with a deadline, it might incite a rush to the doors. "You say, 'Now or never,'" Zordich said, "you're going to lose a lot of guys. They'll get scared."
"And make an irrational decision," Mauti added. "If we've got a deadline, word's going to get out to (opposing) coaches, and (players') phones are going to blow up all over again the night before the deadline."
At that moment, Zordich and Mauti might have been the only college football players in the country with the temerity to question the decision of their head coach. And O'Brien might have been the only college-football coach willing to listen.
After scanning their faces one more time, O'Brien started nodding. "OK," he finally said. "Then that's what we'll do."
The four men started working their phones, contacting every member of the team, their parents, their roommates, even their girlfriends—some several times. They started at 7 a.m. Tuesday and went to 10:30 that night—and did it again, all week. "We had a whole operation going," Zordich said. "This was nuts."
For all of the calls they made, Mauti and Zordich received almost as many from coaches across the country—including some former Penn State staffers, who wanted to see if anyone wanted to transfer.
On July 25, two days after the sanctions were announced, Penn State cornerbacks Adrian Amos and Stephon Morris both tweeted: "We have chosen to stay at Penn State and opposing coaches are outside our apartment, was that the intention of the NCAA?"
But Penn State's fate ultimately would be determined not by the NCAA or the scavengers on the phone or in the parking lot, but by Nittany Lion players, who would vote with their feet.
On July 26, three days after the sanctions were announced, O'Brien decided to invite every member of Penn State's Letterman's Club to meet with the players "to talk about what it means to play here," he said. O'Brien's secretary sent out more than 1,000 old-fashioned letters asking the lettermen to come to campus that coming Tuesday—just five days' notice. O'Brien had no idea what the response would be. "Let's be honest," he told me, "State College is still not exactly the easiest place to get to." But on Tuesday night, roughly 500 lettermen showed up. "The airport was packed with private jets," he said. "It was a scene, man. Amazing."
O'Brien asked Franco Harris, Todd Blackledge, Jack Ham and some players who had become business successes to speak. All of the talks were fast and fiery, but most agreed the most powerful speaker was the last one, former star player and NFL team executive Matt Millen. "Forget about what you lost," he told them. "This is what youhave. I can only promise you, you will have a brotherhood. You may not realize it now, but that's worth more than anything."
When Millen finished, the players jumped to their feet and cheered for a solid minute. "If someone doesn't want to stay after that," Fitzgerald told the lettermen, "they weren't Penn State guys in the first place."
A Domino of One
Several days later, a few players did leave, including kicker Anthony Fera, who transferred to Texas to be closer to his mom, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, and Justin Brown, a wide receiver and kick returner who transferred to Oklahoma.
But the key, everyone agreed, was Silas Redd. A week after the sanctions, he still hadn't left—but he hadn't committed to staying, either. "We figured," Mauti told me, "the longer he drew out that process, the more he isolated himself from the rest of the team."
The suspense finally ended the day after the lettermen spoke, when Redd decided to transfer to USC.
Losing their best offensive player was undeniably bad news, but they could accept it if Zordich and Mauti's theory proved true—and O'Brien was right to take their advice. Eight days after the sanctions hit, Redd proved to be a domino of one. No one followed that day, or the next.
In the midst of this media frenzy, none of the Penn State players had time to ponder the irony.
An NCAA spokesperson said the organization "worked to minimize the impact of its sanctions on current and incoming football student-athletes."
But the NCAA sanctions were encouraging "student-athletes" to behave like athlete-students. They were putting the lie to the NCAA's own propaganda, which officially discouraged transfers because "student-athletes" are supposed to pick their schools for the education, not the athletic opportunities.
But there Emmert was, inviting Penn State's student-athletes to jettison the university that graduated 91% of its student-athletes—a big reason many of them chose Penn State in the first place—to transfer penalty-free to bowl-eligible football programs, whose graduation rates were often much lower.
Not only did it suddenly fall to O'Brien, Mauti, Zordich and every Penn State player who stayed to protect their storied program from disintegrating, they could only do so by upholding the very values the NCAA itself could apparently no longer proclaim with a straight face.
As Zordich told me, "I've never been closer to any team in my life than this one."
At the end of the season I asked Mauti to look back on his decisions to commit to Penn State in July of 2008, and to stay after the NCAA sanctions hit. Did he think he made the right decisions? He grinned very slowly, nodded, then said, "Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah."—Excerpted from "Fourth and Long" (Simon & Schuster).