Power versus Popularity – Part One

Debunking the First of Freeh’s Overarching Faulty Premises

More than four years have passed since Penn State’s Board of Trustees’ (BOT’s) Special Investigative Committee (SIC) purchased a report from Louis Freeh. While that report contained some good recommendations – especially regarding the size and makeup of the BOT – many scholars have pointed out its shortcomings and its unsubstantiated claim that four employees, including Joe Paterno (JVP), behaved with malicious intent. My family continues to petition and ask PSU leaders to read and evaluate for themselves how little Freeh’s conclusions about JVP are supported with any facts. More confounding than the lack of facts, there are several overarching premises contained in the Freeh report that set the tone for his unsubstantiated claims. By allowing such false premises, the reader is setup for accepting unsupported conclusions. The focus of this paper is on the first faulty premise that JVP “controlled every thing / knew everything that happened at PSU.”

Joe Paterno was popular. He was well known, widely respected, and influential – yes. Was he an all-powerful man controlling everything at PSU as Freeh suggests? – Ridiculous.

This premise conflates Power with Popularity.  There is a huge difference between Power and Popularity and if we are not careful, we can forget how very different these things are – especially with respect to running a large institution like PSU. Freeh chose to ignore this clear difference – and in fact, equated them as being the same to vilify JVP. This matters because it is one of several incorrect overarching premises of Freeh’s report, which gives Freeh’s conspiracy theory illegitimate credibility in falsely damaging our alma mater’s reputation. Yes, “conspiracy theory” because it is at best that – a stretching hypothesis that four men were involved in a conspiracy to conceal and cover up criminal activity. Until PSU comes to terms with the damage they have done by accepting the incorrect opinion of Louis Freeh, they will not be able to recover some of the greatest qualities of PSU’s history that could be, and ought to be, leveraged into its future.  Joe Paterno was popular.  He was well known, widely respected, and influential – yes.  Was he an all-powerful man controlling everything at PSU as Freeh suggests? – Ridiculous.

University Organization:

First, let’s look at the structure of Penn State.  In 2008, PSU had 44,000 employees – 30,000 of which were full time (Tripp Umbach report).  Hundreds of pages of organization charts for numerous PSU departments show reporting structures and authority. Head coaches are only shown to have responsibility over their players and assistant coaches – as it should be.  The president’s council lists Athletic Director (AD), but no head coaches. The Office of Physical Plant’s (OPP) Org chart is 23 pages long and nowhere is there a coach listed. Same for Human resources, Faculty Senate, Student Affairs, Central Controller, Hershey Medical Center (HMC) and so on. Freeh should have and must have known that it takes a great number of qualified, responsible, professional people organized into many departments to best run PSU and that it is ludicrous to think that thousands of employees would have thought they were to make sure Joe, a football coach, “knew everything” that happened on campus – as is Freeh’s opinion.  If Freeh can make such a flawed overreaching premise, we must suspect he is just as lazy about facts in how he draws all his opinions.

The university has hundreds of exectors and executives, (Officers), have specific authorities enabling them to bind the university legally in contracts, set policy, execute budgets, grant procedural exceptions etc. JVP was not an executive, director, or officer, and the University did not carry Director and Officer (D&O) insurance on JVP. There was no need to since Joe did not have any university authority to warrant it!

What about control and authority over money?  PSU’s operating budget exceeds several billion dollars annually. The Football budget in the 2000’s was around $40M and Joe was a budget administrator not a budget executive. Once JVP received an approved budget he could order things approved on said budget – through the Purchase Order process and by following the Purchase Order procedures, and under the oversight of a financial controller.

PSU Annual Budget, Penn State Budget Football, Joe Paterno Budget


DPaterno Feb2017 students served graphDuring the last several decades, the Athletic Department served Varsity sports, Intramurals, Commonwealth Campus teams, Club sports, etc. – serving close to 20,000 students a year. In more recent years, it has been reorganized to only serve Varsity Athletes.

While Joe was well known and “popular,” these bar charts illustrate how small a part of PSU the football program was.

How Athletics Fits into the Broader Scope of PSU:

In the 2000’s, the total Athletic Department staffing was about 300.  About half the staff in the Athletic Department offices, and at the athletic staff meetings, were not actually Athletic Department employees and did not even report to the Athletic Director.  Embedded in the core staff, these roles reported to their other departments.  Those employees included Financial Controller, Team Doctors, Academic support, development staff, etc.  This provided greater oversight and avoided conflicts of interest. It also made Athletics much more integrated with the rest of the university culture than Freeh’s opinion.

Similarly, about half the general staff in the football offices also were employees reporting to other departments not in the football office.  Office Managers and admin staff reported directly to the AD.  But, the financial controller went through the university’s central controller’s office, academics integrity monitors reported through the Vice Provost, and the trainers and doctors to the college of Medicine, etc.  Only the assistant coaches and graduate assistants reported to JVP – with the admin and management duties handled through the office management staff that reported to the Athletic Dept. This makes sense. Coaches are subject matter experts, not administrators.

Employment contracts and merit increase letters for assistant coaches were signed by the AD, not JVP. JVP had supervisory authority over the other coaches but did not have formal control – hiring and firing authority of assistant coaches is with the AD. For example, on one occasion, an assistant coach wanted a better raise than JVP had in the approved budget, so JVP said “no.” The assistant coach went on to ask the AD, and the AD decided to grant that requested raise. The AD had budget executive authority to do so, JVP did not. These three men continued to work fine together after this because they knew the chain of command and JVP understood the AD had authority to grant that raise.

There are tens of thousands of people working at Penn State and JVP had authority over less than 1/10 of one percent.  JVP worked within a budget he did not control, and one of which was about 1% of the university’s overall budget. JVP’s main job assignment was managing the athletic development of the 100+ student athletes and assuring these students followed all university standards and represented the university well. In terms of popularity, more people may know Joe than other staff at PSU – but that does not mean he was in charge!  (See PSU Head coach job descriptions appendix A).

What About Actual Authority and Oversight?

For athletics and football, policy and procedures are set university wide, and each area has a “Policy and Procedure Executive” in charge. These executives make determinations on policy and procedures for their respective areas. There are dozens of such departments – for example Human Resources, Admissions, Physical Plant, Financial Controller, Academic Integrity, Police Security, etc. Contrary to Freeh’s opinion, there was not a special “Football Policy and Procedure Executive,” but rather, the football and the Athletics Department were required to follow all 250+ University-wide Policies and Procedures. (http://guru.psu.edu/policies/)

Which university rules did the football office need to follow? All of them. The football office had to operate 100% in compliance with all University policies and procedures – nearly all of which were dictated and controlled outside the Athletics Department.

PSU has over 43,000 non-sports related employees.  Human Resource rules are crafted to blend the roles of staffers, (52-week year, 9am – 5pm) and faculty (semester classes based work loads) so vacations and hiring type policies are centric to those roles – not sports seasons and recruiting rules. Yes, there were standing approved exceptions to the HR policies.  Obviously, coaches had less flexibility for vacation requests during game season and recruiting that standard PSU policy permits for other positions. Posting an opening to hire an assistant coach may have been allowed without required posting of the opening in the local paper, or a need to wait 30 days from the posting before making an offer. But all activity basically followed PSU policy and procedure – including obtaining an exception when needed. All such exceptions required sign off by the appropriate executive of the department responsible for that policy. JVP was not an executive of any department at all, and could not authorize any exception to any of the 250+ university Policies & Procedures.

Joe had popularity because he had earned it by decades of hard work, display of character and integrity, and intimate understanding of how things worked at PSU that came over the years of service. He was more widely known than others because a lot of people watch football. Joe also had influence because he sincerely always wanted what he believed was best for PSU the institution at the highest level. Above football, above personal gain etc, and most everyone felt that about him. Was this influence Joe had inappropriate?  No, in fact it is expected of PSU head coaches. In the PSU job descriptions for Head coaches of levels (4) and up, the job duty lists no less than 15 departments and outside groups that Head coaches are expected to “Collaborate with” and provide “leadership to about the University’s mission…” (see Appendix A attached)

Influence / Popularity / Recognition

Yes Joe earned it over the years, and he used it to help raise billions for PSU. The university enjoyed sending the biggest donor prospects over to his house where his wife cooked for and served them in her home – just like they did for the recruits and their families for decades. JVP and his wife influenced these people to donate to PSU. But, PSU executives handled the terms and legal agreements for receiving donations. JVP couldn’t take the money in – he just used his influence to get the donors to want to and then the PSU officers with authority to process gifts took care of the administration.

It was in his job description to develop and grow his influence for the betterment of the University – which he did every day of my life until he was terminated without cause.

Evidence Joe Was Not in Charge

Joe was opposed to having a professional baseball program on the college campus and he tried vigorously to convince others not to do it. He even tried to convince the governor not to use state funds to assist a pro team program on Penn State. The University heard Joe out, and then did what the University and the Athletic Department felt was best – despite Joe’s passionate objections. Joe did not want a Visitor’s Bureau at the Stadium either and argued against it. Yes, he was heard out, but the university controlled that decision and built it anyway. And nothing terrible happened to those who went against Joe!

Decades ago, a pair of colleges in the College Football Association were suing the NCAA for monopoly of TV contracts, and at that time AD Jim Tarman and Joe were trying to persuade PSU to join on as a third college on the suit.  PSU was very close to doing so when at the last minute, President Oswald pulled back. Yes, the President has authority over the coach and AD! Did Joe negotiate contracts – NO.  He could not and did not.  Certainly, he was often asked for his opinion, but he could only make recommendations – he did not have signature authority to bind the university on anything.

Where is the Power?

Who has actual Power over everything at PSU?  – the Board of Trustees / President / President’s Council / Vice President and General Counsel etc. Look at the PSU org charts and you will see Head Coaches are nowhere to be found as far as control / authority or power goes. Head coaches have supervisory power over their student athletes, and supervisory power over assistant coaches – period. (see also appendix A, PSU job description for Head coaches level 5.)


JVP’s popularity at PSU grew with every year of consistent principled hard work for and commitment to the university. More than 60 years of doing his best for the university, his student athletes, and where possible college athletics on a national stage – certainly amounted to significant influence. But as this brief has illustrated, Joe’s influence never equated to control or authority of PSU. It is not only misleading and false, but highly insulting to all the committed, intelligent, professional, and decent employees and leaders of Penn State to suggest that they were all under some hypnotic spell of one man. Hopefully this helps put in perspective the actual roles and finite responsibility Joe had at PSU, and just the shear fallacy that on top of his coaching responsibilities, he would have the spare time to also oversee a large, diverse, and complex institution such as Penn State.

Power is the ability to execute and inflict control of others.

Let this paper serve to shine light on the false premise in the Freeh report that JVP controlled everything / knew everything that happened at PSU.