Column: Recent big-profile hires by Penn State now worrisome

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Posted: Wednesday, May 7, 2014 12:54 am | Updated: 2:06 am, Thu Aug 28, 2014.

James Franklin is the anti-Paul Chryst.

This is the exact phrase that went through my mind when Franklin took the podium at Penn State after being announced as the university’s 17th football coach in January. He’s awesome, I thought. A legend in the making.

He’ll recruit the heck out of the mid-Atlantic region, ultimately kicking up dust along the Pennsylvania Turnpike for Chryst and his Pitt staff to choke on. Chryst, the Pitt head coach, often seems tongue-tied at press conferences and he’s entered a period of mediocrity, while Franklin’s confidence and energy levels can — and will — guide his teams to annual first-place finishes in the Big Ten and his authoritative, yet kindhearted, voice has what it takes to convert a rotten apple recruit into a 4.0 student.

To contain my crush for Franklin and his overly friendly demeanor, I spent hours — days, probably — researching in order to determine just who this Franklin character was. It turns out that he was raised just outside of Philadelphia, played quarterback at a small Division II school and eventually coached Vanderbilt University to national prominence after his hiring in December 2010.

Somewhere during my research, though, my Franklin obsession turned to suspicion. I discovered he had a connection to the sort of event Penn State has become familiar with over the past two years. 

As I scanned through his life facts, I came across his comments from a 2012 interview on Nashville, Tenn., sports radio station 104.5 The Zone.

“I’ve been saying it for a long time,” Franklin said on-air. “I will not hire an assistant coach until I’ve seen his wife. If she looks the part, and she’s a D-1 recruit, then you got a chance to get hired. That’s part of the deal.”

Huh?

“There’s a very strong correlation between having the confidence, going up and talking to a woman, and being quick on your feet and having some personality and confidence and being fun and articulate, than it is walking into a high school and recruiting a kid and selling him,” he said.

He issued a blanket non-apology for his remarks via Twitter the next day,  but this is when I sensed something fishy in Penn State’s hire.

I continued my search. A few pages later, I found a series of articles from June 2013 when four of Franklin’s former players at Vanderbilt were arrested for allegedly raping an unconscious woman at an on-campus dorm. All were kicked off the team by Franklin and he maintains that he committed no wrongdoing, acting quickly and assertively against such deplorable crimes.

But recent evidence regarding his involvement in the events have called that stance into question.  

In late April, The Tennessean, the main daily newspaper in Nashville, reported that Franklin held the case’s smoking gun.

According to The Tennessean, prior to the rape, Franklin instructed the victim to get “15 pretty girls together and form a team to assist with the recruiting even though he knew it was against the [NCAA’s] rules. He added that all the other colleges did it.”

The point here isn’t that Franklin violated a petty NCAA rule. It’s not even that he singled out “pretty” girls in sexist ways. Franklin is guilty of setting up the girl — whose unofficial job title is referred to as “hostess” in the NCAA community — with his players in the first place.

Four days later, according to the story, the woman was hospitalized for a medical examination and Franklin contacted her to say he cared about her because “she assisted [Vanderbilt] with recruiting.”

To make matters worse for Franklin, evidence from the rape case — phone calls, text messages, social media posts, DNA test results, an interview, police notes, medical records and videos — were deleted from digital history, leading to suggestions of tampering .

In September, Buzzfeed reported that “a source close to one of the defendants” was “99.9 percent sure” Franklin had seen security tape of the dorm incident and he told the player to erase it. Franklin’s attorney denied such allegations and it doesn’t make much sense for Franklin, who had kicked the players off the team, to hide any sort of information.

What adds intrigue to this information is Franklin’s position as the current coach at Penn State.

Penn State is two years removed from receiving some of the most detrimental sanctions in the history of the NCAA. They were issued because some of its highest-ranking employees, including its president, vice president, athletic director and legendary football coach Joe Paterno, chose to hide many components of a child rape case in which Paterno’s former assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, was charged with 52 counts of sexual abuse of young boys.

Paterno was fired in fall 2011 after his role in the cover-up emerged, and he was replaced with the New England Patriots’ offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien, who had clean hands and knew as little about Penn State as the average Pitt student.

But when O’Brien bolted to take the Houston Texans’ coaching job this past December, Penn State’s higher-ups were forced, yet again, to fill an unexpected coaching vacancy. Since many Penn State fans felt slighted by O’Brien’s departure, some pressured the board of trustees to hire the candidate that best exhibited Paterno-like qualities: a friendly coach from the state of Pennsylvania who would coach there for 40 years or until he died.

That was fine, but all the university’s leaders had to do was steer clear of someone with a reputation connected in some way to a sexual assault incident. But they couldn’t.

Franklin was hired early in the process without a peep from the media about the ongoing rape case. But Penn State’s higher-ups weren’t finished making ill-advised decisions when it came to placing people into the university’s most powerful and highest-paying positions.

Former Penn State President Graham Spanier resigned in 2012 after pressure from the board of trustees  relating to his cover-up of child abuse during Sandusky’s timeline of predatory activity. 

The university searched for his replacement for more than a year, which made sense. There were certain guidelines for the job. 

Penn State is a large and prestigious research institution, so a national search was conducted to find an experienced facilitator of renowned prestige.

And much like the football coaching position, all the university had to do was find someone not connected in any way, shape or form to court cases relating to sexual assault.

But Penn State couldn’t.

The university hired Eric J. Barron — the president of one of 55 schools recently named in a report by the Department of Education for its inability to properly handle sexual violence cases in recent years.

Barron formerly presided over Florida State University, a school that’s dealing with the fallout from an alleged rape cover-up scandal involving its football team’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, Jameis Winston, and a girl who has since been threatened by people in the university’s community for claiming that Winston forced sex upon her.

There is no specific evidence that Barron broke the law after Winston’s alleged incident, but a recent New York Times investigative piece about the “Flawed Rape Investigation” of Winston reported that, “The administration of Florida State mishandled the allegations against Winston, and possibly other sexual-assault cases involving FSU students.” 

Barron oversaw the university’s administration during the investigation. Much like the Sandusky case and the case involving Franklin’s players, the Winston case is far from over.

While the legal systems and investigative teams try to determine the fate of both Franklin and Barron, something even wackier than the board of trustees’ decisions is about to unfold: A restaurant owner in State College has begun raising money to build a life-sized statue of Paterno, sitting on a bench, in front of his restaurant.

How short is the human memory? We’ll see in due time. At this rate, it’ll only be five years before we could see a bronzed replication of Franklin high-fiving Barron in front of Beaver Stadium.

I don’t care if Pitt wins another conference game this decade. All I can ask of Chryst, men’s basketball coach Jamie Dixon, athletic director Steve Pederson and Chancellor Patrick Gallagher is that the Cathedral of Learning not be on the next cover of Sports Illustrated with the word “SCANDAL” plastered across its green lawn.

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