Over the past four decades, I have searched the papers of over 200 university presidents from the 1800s to the 21st century in about 60 university archives. I have never found a president naïve about intercollegiate athletics, and I have seldom found a president who truly wanted to reform athletics.
It is nearly universal that college presidents are cheerleaders for winning athletic teams. Although they sometimes call for the reform of other institutions, they almost never move to reform their own. How much departed Penn State President Graham Spanier covered up will likely be revealed in the criminal and civil suits that will inundate Happy Valley in the months and years ahead.
Spanier was a cheerleader, not a reformer, though he liked his name to be among those who called for reform. No university leader is a reformer who allows into college “presidential admits,” those who are unprepared for a college education but who can immediately add glory especially to the football or basketball teams.
Two cases from more than a half-century ago are reflective of what presidents do to cover-up illegal athletic activity in both small and large institutions of higher learning.
In 1951, William and Mary president, John Pomfret, delayed firing the football and basketball coaches at his institutions for grade tampering and falsifying high school athletes’ transcripts. Little William and Mary was trying to become big-time by playing the likes of Oklahoma and Michigan State.
When the cover-up was discovered, it caused the resignation of the president, dean of the college, the executive director of the alumni association, several professors, and the head of the library. It took William and Mary years to recover academically.
At the University of Tennessee, Robert Neyland, was the football coach with the highest winning percentage in football history, when he took over as athletic director in the early 1950s. He had an illegal slush fund used to help his football players, a violation of NCAA regulations.
Tennessee president, Cloide Brehm, knew of the slush fund and called seven of his closest advisors to a meeting to discuss how those funds could be taken away from the South’s most famous coach and current athletic director. A transcript of the entire two-hour meeting reveals that Tennessee had been buying a team since 1924 and continued under coach Neyland. Brehm asked his vice-president if Tennessee football could “get by without this slush fund.” Brehm admitted he covered up, stating, “I have kept quiet and have tried to be adroit.”
Brehm charged that Neyland “will resort to devious techniques to get what he wants and will give you the run-around and that makes it a difficult situation.” The president and his advisors all agreed with Brehm that if this gets out, the trustees will “cut his throat.” The result was to continue the cover-up until Neyland retired. The cover-up was successful.
Andy Holt, who was present at the meeting, became the next president of Tennessee. Today Tennessee has an Andy Holt Tower and Andy Holt Avenue, and the Neyland Stadium and a nine-foot bronze statue adorn the campus. Brehm has no such commemorations in his name..
When a coach, such as Neyland, has far more power than the president and has the backing of the trustees, as Joe Paterno had at Penn State until recently, a coach can do pretty much as he pleases as long as he is winning. He can bully his subordinates, cover up what he wishes to, ignore the press, and act as any other authoritarian leader has done in government or business.
Education is not exempt. It is no wonder that a modern president in the 21st century may cover up to preserve the image of athletics and the university as well as his own position. Sometimes they are caught, sometimes not. Heads sometimes roll, and the institution is besmirched, as is the case of Penn State today.
A building named for President Graham Spanier is now problematical, and the bronze statue to Joe Paterno may not last the test of time. It could be covered up.
Follow Steven Levingston on Twitter @SteveLevingston