Those close to a revered coach do something they shouldn’t do, the coach is forced out, and the community and team’s fans seem more upset about the coach’s treatment than the misdeeds. We’re talking about Penn State, Joe Paterno and the child sex scandal, right?
Well, yeah, but—bear with us—the tale of a fallen icon also has broad parallels to the Jerry Tarkanian saga 20 years ago. After he built a national championship program and survived years of NCAA hounding, the sledgehammer hit on May 26, 1991, when the Las Vegas Review-Journal published photos of Richie “The Fixer” Perry, who had been convicted for his role in basketball point-shaving at Boston College, hosting three Rebel players in his hot tub. Tarkanian said he knew Perry slightly and had told his players to avoid him. They didn’t. Within two weeks, Tarkanian announced he would resign after the coming season.
For too many Las Vegans, the villain wasn’t Perry or Tarkanian or the players, but UNLV President Robert Maxson, who was hoping to build up the university’s academic image. In the year that followed the hot-tub scandal, the community divided into pro-Tarkanian and pro-Maxson factions—and Maxson’s popularity swiftly evaporated.
So, as Penn State tries to recover from the unpopular sacking of a popular coach, is there anything it can learn from UNLV’s experience? Yes, and so—even all these years later—can UNLV and its community:
Remind people of the university’s mission. Granting that Nevada never has been known for big spending, attacking UNLV and its budget became easier and more popular after the Tarkanian fight—town vs. gown, run amok. UNLV didn’t respond well in the aftermath of the Tarkanian-Maxson wars, and the trend has continued. Penn State needs to emphasize the good things it does—not just on the turf, but in the classroom and the community—and stick to its message.
Remember that no man is an island. Some Tarkanian supporters abandoned UNLV. UNLV suffered for that, partly by figuring that hiring a big-name coach (Rollie Massimino) would solve everything. Penn State needs to emphasize that the problem wasn’t simply Paterno, but an entire culture that will now be changed, just as the culture surrounding the Runnin’ Rebels enabled them to associate with someone called “The Fixer.”
Master the art of accountability. Not just for athletics, but across the board. Even in a hierarchical institution like a university, buck-passing doesn’t always cut it. Individuals must act with integrity, and institutions should expect nothing less from them. Penn State didn’t hold its leaders accountable, and the result was far worse than a gambler’s hot tub.