Commitment, Trust, and the Death of Loyalty in Modern Sports

January 22, 2012 was a landmark date for a number of reasons. The winningest coach in College Football passed away after a tumultuous final few months, defeated in the end by a vicious form of small cell lung cancer which has a median survival of 1-2 months. It was an important and pivotal date in the history of the Pennsylvania State University as thousands mourned the passing of a legendary figure who taught them some basic tenets on how to live, how to compete, how to strive to do great things.

I still remember when I found out about his passing. I was studying in my school's medical offices, approaching one of the most daunting tests during the 2nd year of medical school, which encompassed all of renal, pulmonary, musculoskeletal, and dermatology pathology. The irony was palpable as I opened up my computer, slammed closed the packet on "Tumors of the Lung," and the news flashed violently up onto the screen. It was one of those moments most expected (including myself), especially after the news of Paterno's dire condition in the hospital. But just like so many of these larger-than-life moments, it was hard to predict the mix of emotions that would hit me like a landslide.

My initial reaction was a deep sadness, and tears welled up in my eyes. Like many in PSU nation, I considered JoePa almost as a father-figure. Besides my own father, I have incorporated more of his life lessons than any other person I've ever known. I can still remember with surprising clarity, shaking his hand at Paternoville the night before the Michigan game as he said, "you kids are alright!" I remembered capturing his legendary fist pump, from 10 yards, just outside the Orange Bowl earlier that year, with his son Jay Paterno following closely behind. A flood of PSU memories rushed through me, all the way back to when I first visited the creamery (at least first I can remember) when I was less than 10 years old, and we attended a Michigan State game on my birthday, eating Peachy Paterno ice cream en route to the stadium. And up through my experiences at school there, walking across campus from East Halls, in the middle of a snow-covered fresh winter scene or down the Allen Street mall after class, on a crisp fall evening, the Friday prior to a home football game. I realized that this man was the reason I was here today, working hard throught the rigor of medical school, the reason I had driven myself to attend Penn State instead of the local state school in my area. The reason my parents raised me this way. His loyalty and life lessons have spanned multiple generations. It's overwhelming to think about, even as I write it out now. Which brings me to my second thought, and the one which, along with the current threat to lose BOB to the NFL, inspired me to put down my thoughts in this article, that the death of this extraordinary man likely marks the end of an era of loyalty unlike any other.

Joe Paterno began his life as a Penn Stater in 1950 when a young coach named Rip Engle offered the fresh Brown grad a job as a coaching assistant. In 1965, Yale pursued Joe Paterno for its head coaching job, but Joe refused citing "loyalties and deep rooted friendships." In 1966, following the retirement of Engle, the Grand Experiment began. Only two years later (!), Joe Paterno spoke to the University of Michigan AD Don Canham, who offered him the head coaching job at UM. Paterno, again refused, and the job was later taken by Bo Schembechler. In January 1969, the Pittsburgh Steelers contacted Paterno after having never won a playoff game in their history. Paterno, albeit torn, turned down the job yet again. The job was later taken by Chuck Noll. Finally, in 1973, Billy Sullivan of the New England Patriots offered Paterno a 7-figure salary and the promises of becoming a GM and a head football coach. Joe Paterno said in response, "[At Penn State] I can influence not only football players, but the rest of the student body." He didn't want to be "just" a football coach. [1]

The rest of this story, from 1973 onward, is still being written by the readers of this site, and the students and numerous Penn State alumni spanning the United States and the globe. It's amazing to think what would have become of the small town in Central Pennsylvania without all of the positive influences presented throughout the years by Joe. And I think one of the most powerful parts of his example is his undying loyalty.

Loyalty is dead in the modern sports era. This was strongly foreshadowed on November 9, 2012, but assured on January 22, 2012. It is frighteningly commonplace to see a coach or player jump colleges like they're playing a game of hopscotch. The cited benefits can range from an extra $1,000,000, to a slight increase in playing time, or even more ridiculous, an outside chance at playing in a good bowl game (a meaningless, for profit game, where the majority of participating educational centers lose money to big businesses).

Bill O'Brien entered State College during Penn State's lowest period in its history. He had, at the very least, a decent idea of what he was getting into, and that this job was not going to be easy by any measure. He took full responsibilty for his decision as a leader of the PSU football family from his first press conference: (emphasis added)

"The last thing I'd like to do is send a message to the Penn State football family. This is something that I worked on over the last two nights on my own, and I feel like it's very important. In order to get this football family moving in the right direction, and I'm the leader of that, and it's my job to bring both sides together or all the different sides together, and I understand that there's some controversy out there right now. I can see it. I understand that. But it's my job to head it in the right direction.

So what I did was a put together a letter, and I'd like to read it to you right now. "We respect the right to one's opinions" -- this is again from my football staff and myself. "We respect the right to one's opinions, beliefs and contributions to Penn State. We admire one's loyalties to Penn State, Penn State football, its grand tradition, Coach Paterno and all of his football staffs and present and former players.

We respectfully request the opportunity to earn your trust through communication and feel that through our abilities, ethics, beliefs, work ethic and commitment to Penn State, in time we will find that we have more common interests and goals than not. We are here now with you. You should be proud of Penn State's numerous accomplishments. You should be proud of Penn State's football program. You should love this school. You are why we want to be here."

He has made strong statements about the "bonds" and "relationships" he has formed with players on the Penn State squad from the very beginning. He cited these relationships as key features of why he thought many players would stay. He has earned our trust, and we have faithfully followed his lead. His repetition of buzzwords: "honesty" and "integrity" and "academics before football" rang familiar to our weary ears. He took responsibility for leading Penn State through this tough time, and if he were to decide to leave, the work that he has accomplished will unravel.

Fair or not, it will be more than a little unnerving to me if Bill O'Brien decides to leave Penn State. I do not want to imply that he is going to be the next person like Paterno, I'm quite confident there will never be another person quite like Joe, and I hardly expect him to stay enough years to allow for sportscasters to flash the "number of US presidents in office" during his tenure. No, I'm continuously disturbed by the lack of commitment, the lack of basic loyalty many coaches display toward the programs they lead, and I thought that maybe this once, we may have found a guy that is willing to finish the job that he started. I've been taught throughout my life that once you make a commitment, you follow through with it. If you make a promise, you're damn well supposed to keep it. When commitments are upheld and promises are fulfilled, good things happen, those buzzwords I mentioned earlier, honesty and integrity, become a fabric of who you are, not just hollow words ringing against the back of a sports journalist's notepad.

I know it can often be argued that programs hardly show loyalty to coaches, but in this case, O'Brien's long-term future is secured with an 8-year contract and a hefty buyout. He's making plenty of cash for his commitment to State College. His family, from all reports, are thoroughly enjoying the stability and respect they are receiving in State College. He has one of the better recruiting classes in the country AMIDST the mess of last year. He has been given the reigns to lead a fanbase and serve as an example, and "with great power, comes great responsibility."

Why leave now?

It has always seemed to me that the most respected and vaunted individuals in the coaching profession have always stuck by their school or program. John Wooden, Vince Lombardi, Chuck Noll, "Bear" Bryant, etc. Even less legendary figures such as Tony Dungy, Bill Cowher, or to give a modern example, Brad Stevens (Butler basketball), receive a tremendous amount of respect for the job that they do. I doubt I will ever understand the insistent desire to mess with the stability of a successful coaching job to "move up" for a couple extra bucks. This goes in any profession. Loyalty displayed from leaders is often rewarded, as people gravitate to their powerful message.

On January 22, 2012, much more died with the legendary figure than many have feared. The loyalty and honesty that Joe Paterno brought to College Football is unmatched by any college coach employed today or who will ever be employed in the future. What little remains of his loyalty is, even now, being picked at by the vulture sports broadcasters who insist that the time is not only ripe for BOB but it is currently morally justified to leave Penn State, even after all his words of commitment.

Obviously, Bill O'Brien hasn't made his decision to leave yet, and I've actually been fairly confident he would never leave after this particular season. Unfortunately, I've been stuck in this scenario before. I was fairly confident the BOT would give JoePa the benefit of the doubt. I was fairly confident the NCAA would keep their grimy, corrupted hands out of a criminal matter.

If BOB leaves, I'm afraid for what the future holds for PSU. These loyal players and recruits, who have showed the NCAA the loyalty that has been instilled in them by Penn State, are unlikely to withstand that difficult decision again. I'm afraid that loyalty may not just die, but become extinct, a whisper from a bygone era.

[1] timeline summarized from

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