NCAA President Mark Emmert stated this week that the death penalty is now on the table for Penn State football. Following revelations that high-ranking university officials, including former coach Joe Paterno, covered up the pedophilic activities of former assistant Jerry Sandusky, calls for terminating Penn State’s football program are legion across the country.
The eyes of the college football nation are turning toward Emmert to see if he’ll make like Tony Soprano and drop the hammer.
Husky fans well remember the last time Emmert was under this type of public pressure. It was December 2007, with the Huskies finishing a 4-9 season under then-coach Tyrone Willingham. In the three years under Willingham, the Huskies were 11-25 and had developed a reputation for weekly collapses.
A Seattle Times poll at that time revealed that 70% of Husky fans wanted Willingham replaced. But support for the coach was vocal and fierce, with luminaries like Seahawks RB Shaun Alexander and groups like the NAACP insisting on Willingham’s return.
Well-intentioned KJR radio hosts Mike Gastineau and Dave Grosby fiercely defended the importance of bringing him back as “the right thing to do.” It was largely understood that this support was given because Willingham was a black man in a high-profile profession notoriously lacking in minority hires.
However, many competent people quietly had Emmert’s ear, emphasizing what a disaster Willingham’s practices were, and how the coach’s boorish behavior was destroying team morale.
With pressure ratcheted to high, Emmert decided to bring Willingham back for the 2008 season. The response from the media was gleeful.
Jerry Brewer of the Seattle Times denounced the “haters” and said this was the morally right thing to do. A Dawgman.com columnist proclaimed Willingham as “one of the most respected men in the coaching profession.”
But the fallout was historic: Over thirty UW players met in secret to discuss a boycott. However, they failed to follow through, and later that year Husky Football was burned to the ground.
Washington suffered through the first 0-12 season in conference history and a year of disillusionment and hell. UW athletic department officials, including new AD Scott Woodward, apologized profusely to the players in private for Willingham’s behavior.
Willingham essentially fired himself, and was replaced by Steve Sarkisian in 2009. A year later, Mark Emmert moved on from UW to become NCAA president.
Now once again, here’s Emmert, as leader of an organization being called upon to make a profound decision about a football program. If the NCAA guts Penn State, the repercussions will be messy. The entire state of Pennsylvania would be up in arms. Internet crazies would spout hateful nonsense toward Emmert. And the Big Ten conference would lose one of its primary earners.
But Mark Emmert is a political animal. He can locate and exploit that gray area that makes it appear he made a tough decision worthy of national praise.
Here’s his solution: Pull the strings and get Penn State to hire Tyrone Willingham.
The national media will delight in the hire. They’ll continue to project the qualities onto Willingham they wish to see. They’ll write countless articles about Willingham being a man of integrity and a molder of men.
They’ll champion him as the chosen one to “clean up the program.” Penn State will receive plaudits for putting education first and starting fresh with a clean slate of integrity. Everyone wins!
Everyone will win, except the football program (This is where the quasi-death penalty comes in). Willingham will exert little effort in recruiting. Probably take a two week vacation right after being hired, like he did at Washington (I hear Martha’s Vineyard is beautiful!). He’ll golf quite a bit. He’ll hire a semi-incompetent staff. His practices will be sloppy and unstructured. He’ll steadily alienate boosters. When facing media microphones and not knowing what to say, he’ll glare silently or throw a curveball by mumbling a quote from Confucius.
And the destruction of Penn State football will unfurl before us. 7-6 the first year, followed by a couple of 5-7 or 4-8 campaigns. Quarterbacks and wide receivers will fall out of sync. Special teams will unravel. And the offensive line will develop beer guts and pencil arms.
Then comes the catastrophic collapse: A 2-10 or 1-11 season accompanied by journalists writing phrases like “…the worst season of Penn State football in 75 years…”
It’s like in The Sopranos, when the aging Feech La Manna gets out of prison and returns to the mafia fold. He begins stepping on toes and taking business away from other mobsters. Tony Soprano recognizes that it will only get worse and that he needs to remove La Manna from the scene. But for personal reasons, Soprano doesn’t wish to create ill will from others by actually killing him.
So Tony Soprano sets him up. Dupes the old man into fencing stolen TVs. Then the FBI magically receives a tip and shows up at La Manna’s home to bust him for violating parole.
Penn State could become the Feech La Manna of the college football world. All eyes are now on Emmert
Derek Johnson is the author of three books, including Husky Football in the Don James Era, The Dawgs of War, and Bow Down to Willingham. To read free excerpts go to derekjohnsonbooks.com