Penn State Alumni Association Myrtle Beach Chapter Spring Dinner
April 8, 2016
Leadership in the 21st Century
It is great to be here and see such a large crowd of people all here. Although we are many miles from our common home at Penn State the feeling in the room is certainly reminiscent of an afternoon strolling up from College Avenue towards Old Main.
This is the first time I have spoken to a Penn State group in South Carolina—so it is a first....but given the number of Coal Region natives here it feels a little like the Penn State Scranton Chapter.
I have spoken all over the place but every time I am among Penn Staters I take heart in being among friends.
The Palmetto State has indeed been good to Penn State Football over the years. In the early 1980s Ray Roundtree came to Penn State from Aiken, South Carolina because he wanted something different—he wanted to be at a school where he could pursue academic and athletic excellence.
After that a steady stream of student-athletes from South Carolina came north looking for something unique. Soon Ray Roundtree was followed by others from places like Columbia, Johns Island, Camden, Sumter and tiny places like Moncks Corner, Charleston and Goose Creek. Ivory Gethers, Chris Mazcyk, Bobby Engram, Wally Richardson, Courtney Brown, Paul Cianciolo and Rodney Kinlaw all became Penn State starters and more importantly Penn State graduates.
What they saw as their calling to Penn State was a beacon—a beacon of leadership, a unique commitment to a principled pursuit of academic and athletic success and a determination to pursue that regardless of what the ever-changing values of the day were.
And that is what I want to talk to you about tonight—leadership and a commitment to values that endure.
Leadership is an ever-evolving dynamic, it requires adjustment to new realities as time marches on.
But it also requires foundations set on bedrock and not the ever-shifting sands of situational ethics and situational values that have become commonplace.
Maybe I am an old school soul that is too old for my own good. But given the sense of history and the perspective on human nature across centuries that comes with an understanding of history and literature—I am pretty confident that my ideas are based in an enduring sense of what leadership has required and will always require.
On top of all of this I was blessed to live in a house with a man who had great leadership skills. As a member of Joe Paterno’s teams and as a coach on his staff for 17 years I saw quite a bit.
Much like the fictional character Forrest Gump’s story the arc of my life’s story put me in the same room with many notable people over the years. My coaching career began at the University of Virginia working for Hall of Fame coach George Welsh. My personal life and political life has afforded me the opportunity to meet several Presidents, Vice Presidents, Championship Athletes, Coaches, Corporate CEOs, Senators, Congressmen and women.
I even corresponded with Donald J Trump in the summer of 2012 after he took to twitter to defend Joe Paterno and blast the Penn State Board of Trustees and NCAA. I have a letter that he sent after I had written to thank him for his support. I have kept that correspondence private but suffice it to say that nearly all Penn Staters would rally behind his words.
I guess there are some things that we can all agree on.
Having said all that, Leadership is something that is being defined by the media and swallowed by a willing public. It is too often defined as simply responding forcefully in the moment. Deliberation and analysis by leaders to get things right is no longer appreciated and is even ridiculed as a sign of weakness.
Leadership is now analyzed and graded in days or hours or even minutes rather than years or decades. The truth is leaders can only be appreciated after the steps they have taken and the seeds they have sown have borne fruit. That takes time….something completely lost in a society that has grown increasingly impatient and whose attention span and understanding of complex issues barely cracks the 140 character limit of Twitter.
But truth and leadership requires a little more depth and nuance that a tweet or the bottom ticker on your news station of choice.
Leadership requires that we stand tall with the courage of our convictions. My first year as the Quarterbacks coach at Penn State taught me that.
In the spring of 2000 I was in the middle of May recruiting when a story alleging a felony assault by our starting quarterback Rashard Casey emerged. The allegations were boiled down and simplified to this headline from his hometown of Hoboken, New Jersey.
“Penn State Quarterback Rashard Casey has been charged with assaulting a white police officer in a racially motivated attack.”
That is what flew around the country.
The visual that most had in their mind was a big tough black thug football player jumping a uniformed police officer and beating him up because he was white.
I immediately flew home and took him to breakfast to ask him what happened. As his coach I needed to know what we were facing. Joe Paterno and I consulted on this. Rashard had never lied to me or to Joe and when he told us what had happened we believed him based on the credibility he had built with us for over four years.
Joe Paterno stated that he believed his quarterback and planned to start Rashard when the season kicked off. The cries of hypocrisy came like a tempest wind from all segments of the media. They’d taken the allegations as gospel truth and decided to use it as a weapon to wield against Joe Paterno’s and Penn State’s integrity.
Into the gales of media protest Joe Paterno stood firm. To their credit the University administration led by Graham Spanier and Tim Curley also showed a willingness to withstand the media criticism.
As the accusations piled up, we stood firm in our belief in our player. By the time due process played out Rashard was not only cleared but in fact was never charged.
Years later after he had died we found a note in Joe Paterno’s files from that time. In it he expressed that he was willing to lose a few games if need be to stand up for his player against a corrupt prosecution.
It probably did cost us some games that fall—but in the end I’m reminded of another of Joe Paterno’s quotes:
“Losing a game may be heartbreaking, but losing your sense of excellence or worth is a tragedy.”
Joe Paterno was willing to endure the heartbreak of loss in order to stand for what was right, for due process and fairness. In the end the heartbreak of loss was the short term price to be paid for maintaining our program’s sense of excellence or worth.
Only after seven or eight months when Rashard was cleared did members of the media understand and extoll the virtues of the leadership Joe had shown when this happened.
In 2016 the pressure is even greater. In social media every time a story erupts the race is on to be the one who is most outraged, the one who is most vested emotionally at the injustice of it all—even if no injustice has yet been proven to have occurred.
As our outrage grows we demand action—and swift justice. Even before an investigation takes place we grouse that something must be done. People who are alleged to have done something must be suspended or banished.
Having someone even linked to a bad story in the public eye is a case of bad “optics”.
How often do we have to hear about the “optics” of the moment? “Optics” is one of those buzz words that everyone uses know when they analyze a leader’s actions and analyze whether that action was a success or not.
In the end “substance” matters more than “optics” ever will. It is the age-old argument of actions speaking louder than words.
That is what Joe Paterno taught me in handling the Rashard Casey allegations and in so many other situations.
It was an idea of leadership that came from Abraham Lincoln—who had a deliberate style that served him well in the most difficult days in our nation’s history. His leadership remains as one of the most enduring legacies of human history.
Would Lincoln’s leadership style have survived in this age? Without a doubt they would have. Too many people in leadership positions worry about winning every day’s news cycle. Lincoln played the long game. Winston Churchill played the long game. In College football Joe Paterno played the long game.
All understood that you would never win every news cycle, nor should you expend your energy trying to do so. They picked their spots and won the battles that would win the war—and endured setbacks that were just minor skirmishes in the grand scheme of things.
It was former Vice President and a Senator from South Carolina John C Calhoun who once said “Beware the wrath of a patient adversary.”
Lincoln would get emotional or angry as all of us as human beings are apt to do. But one of Lincoln’s greatest leadership techniques was to write a letter to the offending party. He would put the letter in his desk and then re-read it the next morning to consider his next course of action.
The benefit of even one night almost always gave him new perspective on each issue and most often changed his course. As the fact that all of us are standing in South Carolina in the United States of America over a century and a half later tells us that his instincts and his leadership style were pretty good.
Lincoln understood this; leadership isn’t doing what is popular or what will get you liked.
Leadership is about having a sense of right and wrong and acting to do what is right.
As he once said “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side, for God is always right.”
Leadership is about honesty, integrity.
Leadership is about lifting up and inspiring, uniting not dividing.
It isn’t pandering to the wants of the lowest common denominator.
I see that pandering in college football today maybe more than I have ever seen it—particularly in recruiting.
Recruiting is a circus of creepy media voyeurism of every detail even down to what each recruit ate for breakfast on their latest visit and how that might impact the decision of the 5-star recruit that is visiting your school.
The over-hyped coverage would be bad enough but the coaches and Universities are getting in on the act as well. Recruiting has become a hustle, a dodge to insure that your “branding” is right—the imagery and messaging that a 17-year old will like more than the branding from your competitors.
There was a time when Coaches were men who inspired high school student-athletes to seriously consider which school would be the best fit academically and athletically for their future on and off the field. Coaches were grown Men who asked high school players to grow up and make a mature decision for their future.
Now we have coaches going out of their way to act like the 17 year olds they hope to recruit. They do silly dances, they boast on social media, they get into twitter wars with coaches from other schools. They promise to build lavish over-the-top facilities. One school will be spending tens of millions of dollars to add among other things laser tag, miniature golf and a movie theater.
Facilities were originally built to best develop the student-athletes on your campus. Now schools are spending tens of millions of dollars to build facilities whose sole purpose is as a recruiting tool. It has been labeled an “arms race” by coaches and administrator’s—including by Penn State President Eric Barron.
It is an unfortunate choice of words. Football is not war. Recruiting does not require an arms race. It simply requires a compass that points you and the young men you recruit towards the true north of core values that encompass telling the truth about what it takes to excel in the classroom and on the field.
I am reminded of one recruiting trip that illustrates my point. We were recruiting a player who had not lived up to his potential academically—it was a case where his school had not done a great job of guiding him. Other schools were willing to take him right away but we insisted that he go to a prep school.
As Joe Paterno told him “Even if you are eligible by NCAA rules you are not ready to do well in school.”
What I told that young man was that he needed to look at this and make the decision that a man would make. A teenager would say “Go play right now.” A man would say “Be patient, look at this with some maturity and take the longer path.”
Joe didn’t come in and dance or tell him what he wanted to hear or promise him he would start right away.
When Tamba Hali was being recruited from New Jersey he had 65 offers from the best college football teams in the country. Joe Paterno challenged him to meet the demands of Penn State.
Tamba once said “Joe said Tamba if you don’t want to come to Penn State don’t come. I realized that Joe Paterno had more to offer me than I had to offer them.”
Guess where Tamba Hali went?
It didn’t always work though…..
On another recruiting visit we had a highly rated running back from Pennsylvania in for a visit and when Joe Paterno said he wasn’t there to make a sales pitch.
With a cocky attitude the Running Back said “Come on Coach sell me.”
Joe looked at him and then said “You will, have to go to Study hall 4 nights a week. You will have to go to class. You will have to get up and go to breakfast every day. You will cut your hair, you won’t wear earrings when you represent Penn State, you won’t wear your hat indoors.”
At the end of that presentation I knew that was not exactly the sales pitch the kid was looking for. Joe simply smiled and said “If he’s the right kid he’ll come to Penn State. If not, we’re better off without him.”
It was honesty. It was playing to the highest ideal and not the lowest common denominator.
All the glam and glitz of college football is a mirage. At some point in every player’s life the clapping stops. That is when substance emerges. That is when optics no longer matter. That is when the enduring values that are shown by consistent and demanding leadership will carry the day.
In the end recruiting salesmanship and facilities are hollow attempts to manufacture tradition and can never replace the best recruiting tools of all-time: success on the field in the classroom and stability in your program.
But leadership is in short supply not just in college athletics but also in University administrations across the country. Time and time again Universities have gotten on the wrong side of issues of political correctness.
Penn State’s administration over-reacting in November of 2011 before the facts had been established. The University of Virginia Rolling Stone story. Story after story about “micro-aggressions” and “safe-speech-space” on campuses.
What role does education have in providing “safe-spaces”? None. It has no place in the world. If we had real leadership on our campuses they would be educating and explaining that while hate speech is wrong—it will happen, it is a reality and that no one or no entity can ever protect you from those who may dislike you or judge you or say things that offend.
The leadership that is required for this generation is to prepare them for what lies ahead—not to cocoon them from things that they dislike or that make them uncomfortable.
It is the ultimate lesson that should be part of high school and college athletics. They are just games, but ultimately those games should be an extension of the educational mission of the institutions they represent.
In athletics, leaders can show their players how to compete, how to battle through adversity. There are no “safe-zones” in athletics and on game day there are certainly no “micro-aggressions” but rather an entire game of “macro-aggressions” that must be faced down and overcome. Leaders help their players understand that not everyone gets a trophy, but that there is valor and honor in dedicated preparation and in competing to the fullest extent of your abilities.
Across the spectrum of college athletics and indeed in this country we seem to have lost a sense of what Leadership should look like. It is the long game, it is pointing us towards our highest ideals while possessing the confidence to ignore the carping of mindless naysayers.
That ultimately was the leadership lessons I learned from my life—a life that has enabled me to see firsthand the hallmarks of true leaders.
The truth is that this country still possesses people with these skills, the question is whether or not we are tuned in with hearing acute enough to recognize the voice of leadership amid the din of the non-stop babble of the 24/7 news cycle.
That is the challenge of the next decade—the future will belong to the people who recognize what makes the difference in a highly competitive world and whether or not we are willing to hear what needs to be said over what we want to be said.
It is all there for us.
Thanks for your time.