President: It's not a 'Penn State scandal'

Updated: January 13, 2012, 3:27 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

KING OF PRUSSIA, Pa. -- Penn State President Rodney Erickson says it "grieves" him when people refer to "the Penn State scandal" because he thinks it centers on just one person -- former football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, who's accused of molesting boys.

Erickson said at an alumni meeting outside Philadelphia on Thursday he believes people should call it "the Sandusky scandal."

About 650 alumni attended the sometimes heated 90-minute session, part of Erickson's effort to repair the school's image. But most of Thursday's questions involved concerns over the firing of Sandusky's former boss, legendary football coach Joe Paterno. Erickson said he hasn't had time to sit down with Paterno and his wife but hopes to when the scandal dies down.

Former Penn State and pro football star Franco Harris scheduled a competing event at the King of Prussia hotel after broad dissatisfaction with Erickson's first talk in Pittsburgh on Wednesday. A third alumni meeting is scheduled for Friday in New York.

But even some critics say Erickson shouldn't be getting all the blame for what many view as a floundering public relations effort. Erickson, who received polite applause Thursday, is trying to repair the school's image more than two months after Sandusky's arrest on sexual abuse charges brought controversy, criticism and contemplation to Happy Valley.

A 2002 alumnus, Ryan Bagwell, who's seeking a trustee seat in voting that will start next week, said Erickson "takes his marching orders from the Board of Trustees," which has "sent him out on this three-day spree."

"We want to hear from the trustees," Bagwell said. "We want them to explain why they made the decisions they did."

Erickson has said openness and communication are his guiding principles and the school "will do better in the future."

At the Pittsburgh alumni meeting, the most passionate applause came after one questioner suggested that the entire Board of Trustees step down. Several others questioned why Penn State is still struggling to manage questions from the public and the media so many weeks after the crisis began.

"If you keep doing the same thing over and over again, you shouldn't expect different results," said Tim King, vice president of the greater Pittsburgh alumni chapter.

The alumni meetings come as investigators re-interview current and former employees of Penn State's athletic department as part of the case against the 67-year-old Sandusky, who's charged with sexually abusing 10 boys over a 15-year period. Sandusky, who maintains his innocence, remains out on $250,000 bail while awaiting trial.

Two Penn State administrators are facing charges they lied to a grand jury investigating Sandusky and failed to properly report suspected child abuse. Gary Schultz, a former vice president, and Tim Curley, the athletic director, have denied the allegations and await trial.

Paterno has described the scandal as one of the great sorrows of his life and has said that in hindsight he wishes he had done more after allegations against Sandusky were raised.

While many alumni are unhappy about the way the school fired Paterno, some said there were no good options in the situation.

"I don't think there was any graceful way to handle that problem," said John Burness, a former senior vice president of public affairs for Cornell University, Duke University and the University of Illinois.

Harris, who played for Paterno from 1968 to 1971 before helping the Pittsburgh Steelers win four Super Bowls, castigated the Board of Trustees for showing "no courage" by firing the longtime coach. Harris stepped down as chairman of the Pittsburgh Promise, a scholarship foundation, after Mayor Luke Ravenstahl complained about the statements, but he was reinstated in December.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.