Legendary college football coach Joe Paterno died on Sunday after a battle with lung cancer. But by many accounts, some people who knew him well say the 85-year-old died of a broken heart. I think Joe Paterno’s career at Penn State University is worth closer examination because there are lessons for employers and employees alike.
Joe Paterno spent his entire career at Penn State University, coming to the school as an assistant coach in 1950. That’s not a typo — 1950. That’s 62 years ago. I’d be willing to wager that only a small minority of those reading this were working full-time in 1950. After 15 years as an assistant, Paterno was named head coach in 1966 — the same year I was born. And he spent the next 46 years winning football games and impacting the lives of young men. In that span he chalked up 409 wins, more than any coach in NCAA football history.
But Paterno was also known for promoting a balance between collegiate academics and athletics. His players graduated at a rate of 74 percent — 19 points above the national average. And Paterno was never accused of any NCAA rules violations. What’s more, he and his wife donated more than $4 million to the university for scholarships and to build a library on campus. In a world of college athletics where so much is wrong, Paterno was seen as a man who did things right.
That is until long-time Paterno assistant Jerry Sandusky was arrested and charged with 40 counts of child sexual abuse. The abuse allegedly took place over a 15-year period, some of it in Penn State athletic facilities. One incident in 2002, in which a football graduate assistant allegedly walked in on Sandusky assaulting a young boy in the showers of the football building, became Paterno’s undoing.
According to grand jury testimony, the graduate assistant told Paterno what he had seen. Paterno insisted that he was told only of “inappropriate behavior” and that he notified campus officials who should deal with it.
In light of the scandal involving Paterno’s former long-time assistant and believing that he had not done enough, Penn State’s Board of Regents fired the coach with a phone call. Of the entire Sandusky incident, Paterno said, “It is one of the great sorrows of my life. I wish I had done more.”
It’s a tragic story. But there are lessons about loyalty in it from which we can all learn.
Loyalty and longevity are great, but you must be aware of the potential downside. Paterno spent 61 years at one institution building a great reputation and a cult-like following. His immense popularity with Penn State alumni and fans gave him an incredible amount of power. Paterno was that employee who is so valuable and popular that management begins to believe he is “untouchable.” In many ways, his actions go unchecked until there’s a problem and then management finds it difficult to act fearing the repercussions. Much of the problem in this situation was that Joe Paterno became bigger than Penn State, and that just can’t happen. No employee can be bigger than the institution.
Loyalty can be blind. I don’t know what Joe Paterno knew about Jerry Sandusky’s alleged actions, but it certainly appears that he knew something and didn’t do enough about it. He admitted that when he said, “I wish I had done more.” Paterno and Sandusky spent 15 years together. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that someone close to you is capable of doing bad things. Maybe it’s because you see the good they do or maybe it’s because admitting it would mean you failed to be a good judge of character, but managers must be vigilant about assessing those who work for them and not ignore the signs of problems. Paterno did, and it cost him his job and, in many ways, his reputation.
Loyalty can make for hard decisions, but you need to handle them the right way. The Penn State Board of Regents fired Joe Paterno, a decision that many thought was the right thing to do. I’m sure it wasn’t an easy decision to make about a man who had done so much for the university. But they did it with a phone call. Sixty-one years of dedication to one institution and they don’t have the courtesy to meet with him face to face. Again, I don’t know the facts surrounding the firing, but it appears to be a very cowardly way to end a relationship that lasted as long as this one had.
Joe Paterno dedicated his life to Penn State University, and his dedication and loyalty may have cost him his life. Less than three months after being fired by the university, Paterno died — many of those close to him said he died of a broken heart. Loyalty to an organization and loyalty to an employee are both wonderful, admirable things, but left unchecked they can lead to problems all too apparent in the relationship between Paterno, Sandusky, and Penn State University.