Penn State Football: Co-founder of CoachPaterno.com Offers His Views
Editor's note: Joe Strazza is a co-founder and CEO of WinMill Software and has grown the company from a single office in New York City in 1994 to a company with operations throughout the Northeast. Strazza has served on the campaign board of the Pattee Paterno Libraries at Penn State and was the co-founder of CoachPaterno.com.
by Joe Strazza
You are never as good as people think you are when you're winning and never as bad as people think you are when you're losing. Let’s hope that this will somehow figuratively apply to the tragic events unfolding in Happy Valley.
Joe Paterno was never as saintly as the “St. Joe” moniker that is often applied to him over the years and likewise one should not rush to the judgment that he is a monster uninterested in the welfare of young people. As is often the case — this situation is more complicated than one mighty swing of the pendulum.
In the spirit of full disclosure, it is worth mentioning that I am not an objective source for any story about Penn State. I am a graduate, I am a donor, I have sat on several different boards at the university and I was on the board of the Second Mile. I know all of the parties involved in the Sandusky story — some of whom I consider my friends.
While I may lack objectivity, I can provide a level of insight that very few people possess. From the middle of 1999 through approximately 2008, I was involved in various activities within Penn State Athletics all with the blessing of the one person that mattered — Joseph Vincent Paterno. I worked closely with the athletic department and traveled with the football team everywhere they went. I was a fly on the wall.
My entire premise of fitting in was to pretend I was invisible and to stay out of the way. I spoke only when spoken to — especially with the head football coach. I was with him when he tied the Bear’s record at Northwestern and I sat with him in an empty room in the bowels of Camp Randall Stadium after he broke his leg on the Wisconsin sideline. For a decade of highs and lows, I silently observed.
The Kingdom and the Power
I met Coach Paterno through various channels but primarily through one of his closest friends, William Schreyer. I was at Merrill Lynch pitching a private stock offering to Mr. Schreyer and at the end of our meeting he said to me, “You know who you should pitch this to? Joe Paterno – I will call him tonight and tell him about it.” I laughed off any such notion, but the next day my assistant poked her head into my office and said, “There is someone claiming to be Joe Paterno calling for you.”
For a Penn State graduate and budding entrepreneur in the 1990s, Paterno and Schreyer were two enormously influential people to have in your corner. Doors opened that I didn’t even know existed – it was exciting and fun. In my own way, I tried to add value to the relationship. My company donated a great deal of time to PSU, and we named and built the original GoPSUsports.com.
It was through GoPSUsports.com that I came to be closely involved with the athletic department. The Internet was a brand new and powerful tool for many schools and Penn State was no exception. Penn State is a very secretive place – they do not share information well with the outside world – so my being welcomed into the inner sanctum was unheard of at the time.
With the full support of the athletic director Tim Curley, key staff members within sports information and some of the younger coaches, such as Jay Paterno and Al Golden, GoPSUsports.com was able to advance light years in a very short time. Joe Paterno was not at all interested in the Internet, but he was good at listening to the people he trusted.
To be successful in working with any large (paranoid) football program, you must earn trust. There may be slightly more talented people around, but if they trust you they will choose you. While this emphasis on trust exists throughout the entire program it is especially true of Paterno. I was fortunate enough to have his personal stamp of approval and therefore my presence — while not always appreciated — was tolerated. There was no second guessing Joe Paterno.
Everyone wanted a piece of Paterno – he has been by far the biggest influence on donations in the history of the university. Joe and Sue Paterno have been exceptionally generous with their time and their money. Paterno’s best friend, William Schreyer, gave a gift that, at the time, was the largest ever received at Penn State. Like many great coaches, Joe was a likable and charming presence and Penn State milked that for all it is worth. I can still hear Joe saying half-jokingly, “I’ll take your money but I don’t want your two cents.”
While this dynamic was good in many ways, it also led to the very environment of protectiveness and secrecy that can quite unintentionally land a group of good and well-intending people in the middle of a scandal of truly epic proportions. Paterno was the goose that laid the golden egg. There has never been a coach anywhere with such far sweeping influence and support at a major institution. It is not hard to fathom how and why this would affect institutional control.
Getting Past the Myth
I don’t really know what Joe was like as a younger man, but I ran into him — literally — while I was a student playing racquetball at Rec Hall. I had run around a corner looking for the person who had just stolen my gym bag and winter jacket and ran directly into and knocked over a very surprised Coach Paterno. Needless to say I was speechless, terrified, and then very surprised when he asked, “What’s your hurry?” He was inordinately attentive and helpful. He was human, something I’ve tried over the years not to forget. Something I am clinging to now.
Paterno is a legacy, a hall of fame coach, a sporting icon, an educator, a father and a grandfather — but he is a human being. He is an imperfect human being striving to always do his best with the support of a close knit and caring family. The family side of Paterno is the one he guards most closely. So imagine my surprise when Sue Paterno called me up one day and told me when to be at the house for Easter dinner. (Sue had heard from one of her daughters that I was going to be home alone in State College for the holiday.) In the midst of all of the secrecy and protectiveness there was and still is a very real openness. Behind all of the fan fare and adulation is a very real family.
I remember that day like it was yesterday. I was nervous. I knew most of the family pretty well – but this was outside my comfort zone. I tried to relax, and in the end, everything worked out fine with one defining moment. I was playing with some of the children when I found myself on the floor just a few feet from Joe. He was holding up a Fischer Price toy and said to me, “Do you know what this reminds me of? -- The Metamorphosis.” Not having read Franz Kafka, I was baffled. Ultimately, he asked me to read it, and much to my surprise our next meeting was spent talking about Kafka and literature in general.
Changing of the Guard
My time around Paterno was full of small, illuminating moments. He didn’t let many people see it — but how could he? Most of the people around any successful person have an angle or an agenda. When I met one of Joe’s daughters in my freshman English class and kiddingly asked if she was related she simply said, “NO.” The walls and barriers were everywhere.
You see, I don’t need to wonder if Joe cares about young people or not. I know he does. I don’t know how much Joe Paterno knew about what was allegedly happening with Jerry Sandusky and I don’t think we are ever going to really find out. The University and the Board of Trustees have already begun to write Penn State’s future.
The former president of the university, Graham Spanier, has been removed. How could he not be? He was in charge of the university at which this tragedy happened. Rod Erickson and Rod Kirsch will do their best to steer the university through the murky waters ahead. Paterno wanted to retire at the season’s end. He made every effort to write his own “honorable” ending, but the Trustees took that decision out of his hands. Tom Bradley would lead the team out of the tunnel and on to the Beaver Stadium field Saturday.
Penn State and the Board of Trustees will continue to speak passionately of “improved institutional controls” and “greater transparency.” There will be speeches made about “cleaning house and a fresh start.” This is all part of the necessary process of getting Penn State back on the right track.
A Call to Act
None of this, however, will do anything for the victims of one of the most egregious wrongdoings most of us have ever encountered. There will be extensive criminal and civil proceedings. More people will lose their jobs, and the university will likely be tarnished for years to come. This scandal has already affected recruiting, enrollment and fundraising. It will affect a large number of very good people that had nothing to do with it.
Paterno and others obviously should have done more — he has publicly said so himself. It is too late to change that now.
Is whether or not Paterno should have done more really the right question?
A bigger question is why have we let athletics wield so much power at large, public universities? The ‘environment of secrecy’ that we have nurtured, whether at Penn State or anywhere else, was not invented by Joe Paterno. A lot of good people had to look the other way for a long time for us to get to this point.
It is inevitable that even the best and brightest people make mistakes. With no proper controls or oversight in place we left ourselves vulnerable. We left ourselves dependent on too few people “to get it right.” And with stakes like the well-being of young children on the line, that is simply unacceptable.
Paterno existed in a bubble — a bubble created and protected by very powerful people — and even the strongest of moral compasses could not and did not keep him from feeling that Penn State Football existed within its own standards. One of the side effects of being 84 years old and tremendously successful is that you naturally stop questioning your own judgment. You make decisions confidently and quickly and you move on to the next one.
After Paterno informed Tim Curley of the alleged locker room incident all of those years ago, I am sure he thought it was out of his hands. Unless someone brought it up to him again he would just move onto the business of running Penn State Football. That was his job — everything else was to be handled by other people.
Guess what? Joe Paterno didn’t come to that conclusion quickly or on his own. Society (we) taught him this and reinforced it repeatedly over a very long period of time.
It is easy to blame Joe Paterno or even Tim Curley, but it is not that simple. Don’t miss the bigger picture. Many people knew this secret and protected environment existed with no proper checks and balances. Yet none of us did anything about it. It is easy to be mad, but instead we should be humbled.
Our responsibility now is to make sure this can never happen again. That is on all of us.