Is it maybe time Dave Joyner got a little love for Penn State’s survival and revival?
Former Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner (2011-15) now lives in Pensacola, Fla., where he is senior vice president of the Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine.
He stood at the epicenter of the seismic shift that shook Penn State during the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. Yet, he’s been all but forgotten.
Dave Joyner slipped out of his position as Penn State athletic director a little over two years ago, took a job as vice president of a large orthopedic/sports med center near Pensacola, Fla., a few months later, and seemed to evaporate from the PSU consciousness.
While he was Penn State’s AD, Joyner was a lightning rod during the stormiest period any university athletic operation has probably ever endured. He was loathed by many for his vote as a trustee to fire Joe Paterno in the wake of the Sandusky scandal. He was disparaged as a convenient scapegoat when Bill O’Brien returned to the NFL. And his choice of James Franklin as O’Brien’s successor was met with skepticism by some and fully panned by others, including me.
When he left in early 2015, it’s fair to say few mourned his departure. Since then, it’s as if he barely existed, so rarely do you hear his name mentioned in PSU circles.
But, this occurred to me once I had a chance to exhale in the aftermath of the 2016 college football season:
How many would have believed not only Penn State football but also the university brand could have been so quickly rehabilitated so soon after the events that sent quakes through the university from November 2011 to July 2012?
From left: PSU athletic director David Joyner, new football coach coach James Franklin and president Rodney Erickson at Franklin’s introductory press conference in January 2014.AP/Jon Beale
It’s fair to say Penn State’s image will forever bear the stain of the horrors endured by Sandusky’s victims. That is as it should be.
And still, it’s rather amazing how the football program at the scandal’s nexus, manned by diligent folks young and old who bore no remote responsibility for the scandal, has helped rebuild and positively shape the school’s profile since.
Who are most responsible for that? Bill O’Brien and James Franklin, two very different men who met two very different challenges with their own unique methods and personalities.
Who was in charge of the hires of each? That forgotten man, Dave Joyner.
Now, you could argue that it was the Penn State brand itself, the unassailable strength of the program Paterno built essentially from scratch, that guided it through the maelstrom.
But without the resolute O’Brien to churn through the eye of a hundred-year storm and the buoyant Franklin to rebuild after it passed, we don’t get from there to here. Not even close.
The two are near 180 degree opposites as people. Yet, you could make a compelling case that each was the perfect man for his individual task.
Joyner hired them both.
And if you want to quibble that Ron Jaworski and heavyweight PSU donors Terry Pegula and Ira Lubert had as much to do with seeding the idea of O’Brien in Joyner’s head as Joyner himself, fine. But Franklin was entirely Joyner’s idea.
And both worked out about as well as could be fathomed. Penn State never had a losing season. Who predicted that in 2012?
Further and maybe more important, the image of Penn State around the nation seems to have been remarkably nourished by a succession of people recruited to the school by O’Brien and Franklin. It has been not just their playing style but their overall integrity.
To me, this was crystalized during a moment late in a scintillating 2017 Rose Bowl when the Nittany Lions knelt in support of injured Southern California kick returner Adoree Jackson. Not only did this group of young men play with audacity in the epic 52-49 loss to USC, they acted with humanity. Many, many USC fans noticed that moment. I heard from dozens of them through either emails or comment posts.
When I called Joyner on Wednesday to ask how he thinks people react to the name “Penn State” now, he had a perspective we don’t:
“I just can feel that people feel good about Penn State,” said Joyner from his Pensacola home where he’s executive vice president of the Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine in adjoining Gulf Breeze.
“Even down here, where we’re in the middle of SEC country and Florida State [in nearby Tallahassee], people here have a very positive image of Penn State.”
I didn’t think he was BSing. When I travel, I feel it, too.
Would Joyner, now 67, have believed five years ago that this could happen this quickly?
“I don’t know about this quickly. On the other hand, I was hopeful about the foundations there.”
Joyner used as a comparison the U.S. Navy’s Tailhook sexual-assault scandal in 1991:
“The Tailhook situation was really terrible. But the Navy still stands for what it stands for.
“I think Penn State’s basic beliefs and values – the whole university – are strong and they remain strong.”
Dave Joyner didn’t always act with perfect grace. He wasn’t always nimble with a phrase. He made his share of missteps as anyone thrown into a job in such circumstance might. But he served his university when it needed him most.
And, as it turned out, he made a couple of pretty damn good hires, didn’t he?
Joyner cites O’Brien as the foundation for Penn State football’s rebirth. In specific, he mentioned the coach’s “One Team” slogan in 2012 uniting all the athletic and academic organizations:
“Those coaches and student-athletes at that time certainly were aware of a very difficult and unfortunate situation. But they knew they had a job to do and they kept doing the job they were there for. I just saw that strength in those students and coaches every day.”
Joyner was doubted about both his football coaching hires. But he pulled the trigger on each and would ultimately have been blamed had either failed.
It’s true that his old PSU wrestling teammate Lubert, now a multimillionaire investor, was a staunch backer of O’Brien as the lead member of the 2011 search committee to find a replacement for Paterno.
But in the end, it was Joyner’s decision to make and president Rodney Erickson’s on whether to sign off. Joyner was already intrigued by a Skype interview O’Brien had done with Penn State’s committee. And he came with a sizable endorsement:
“Here’s the thing: Bill Belichick told me, ‘He’s as good a football mind as I’ve ever been around. And he’s a really good person, too.’
“So, there you go. He has a great pedigree. And no head coach starts as a head coach.”
From left: PSU athletic director Dave Joyner, new football coach Bill O’Brien and president Rodney Erickson at O’Brien’s introductory press conference in January 2012.AP/Andy Colwell
Still, the new AD took a lot of heat initially for hiring an outsider in O’Brien with no ties to the university, no head coaching experience whatsoever, and a limited amount of recent college mileage, coming as he did from the New England Patriots offensive coordinator position.
“It’s the Friday night before the press conference. My iPad’s going off, it’s going ‘ding, ding, ding, ding.’ And it’s really getting crazy. The emails are saying: ‘Are you nuts?’ … ‘You’re totally insane.’ … ‘You just destroyed the program.’ Just random folks. Literally, probably a thousand of them.”
According to Joyner, this went on through the night and into then-president Erickson’s short introduction on Saturday morning, until O’Brien got up to present himself. Then, a funny thing happened:
“They all stopped. Because they heard him speak.”
And then some of the original emailers backtracked:
“A little bit later, a few – not a lot – sent second emails that said, ‘Oops. Sorry, I take it back.'”
That presence, the gravitas that O’Brien projected, was legit. It was backed up by an ability to motivate that was rooted in a personal connection he made with players that very first year.
That connection was necessary to rally them and keep the great majority of the team intact once Mark Emmert’s crippling and unanticipated NCAA sanctions broadsided the program in July and made immediate transfer easy.
How many other men, let alone one who had not yet even led his guys into battle, could have projected the strength and ignited the loyalty to pull the team tighter and prevent it from fragmenting?
“Bill Belichick texted me the day of the Super Bowl,” said Joyner. “In true Belichickian fashion, very short. He said: ‘You’re getting a really, really good guy.'”
Penn State had O’Brien for two years. He powered through the most acrimonious period of infighting and backbiting the school has ever seen, factions separated by their polar viewpoints about what did and didn’t, should and should not have occurred in the aftermath of the scandal.
Apolitical as they come, O’Brien applied his blinders and earmuffs, lowered his head, fixed his gaze straight ahead and asked that everyone do the same. Some did, some did not. But his example was exactly what not just the football program but also the school needed at the time to endure the crosswinds of the storm’s backside.
When O’Brien departed for the Houston Texans on Dec. 31, 2013, after a near-miraculous 15-9 record over the two seasons, Joyner was already at work on a short list of replacements.
Vanderbilt coach James Franklin was the one he isolated within a week. And this time, though there was another search committee, it’s fair to say the selection of Franklin as the frontrunner was entirely his doing. He was interviewed and hired within another week.
Again, there were severe doubters. Franklin had some baggage including a lurid and, at the time, ongoing rape scandal in which four of his recent Vanderbilt recruits were involved. There were also some comments out there made on Clay Travis’ local Nashville radio show a year prior that suggested Franklin judged his assistant coaching candidates by how their wives or girlfriends looked. That bothered some people.
But, especially in light of Sandusky, it was the rape case that unsettled many, myself included.
Joyner said he and university investigators vetted the case thoroughly and that he believed Franklin acted quickly and appropriately in every fashion:
“We had extreme due diligence on that. And we knew how James reacted in an extreme crisis situation. He had a very serious crisis he had to navigate. And he dealt with it very well.”
But he recruited the players who committed the rape. That didn’t give Joyner some trepidation?
“Not really. Because sometimes, you just don’t know a hundred percent when you recruit somebody.
“There were personal connections I found out I had with him that I didn’t know when we started our search. And they all told me what a fine person he was.”
“They were winning at Vanderbilt where they never had. Plus, he was improving the academic performance there every year at the same time they were winning.”
The winning didn’t happen right away at Penn State, at least not in the way fans here expected. This was not Vanderbilt.
Joyner remembers O’Brien midway through his tenure – and before any of the NCAA sanctions had been rolled back by the Mitchell commission – analyzing what he thought would be the nadir of future seasons:
“He said, ‘Looking at the scholarships and where we are,  is going to be the bottom year. I think we can be 7-6 but that’s about it.’
“And sure enough, James was 7-6 in his first year, exactly as Bill had predicted. I don’t think I ever told James that Bill said that. But I kept coming back to that privately. I thought 7-6 was a really solid year.”
Those who didn’t understand the profound impact of the sanctions on depth and quality while they were in effect, especially after they had been reduced and then eliminated altogether, were not happy with 7-6 – either in 2014 or especially in 2015.
But, throughout this period, a constant was Franklin’s nonstop salesmanship and promotion of Penn State. Though it might have been annoying to the rank and file and seemed unnecessary to those already onboard, Franklin’s unsinkable countenance had a larger value, one that I frankly missed myself.
Call it BS if you like – and I did – but throughout a dreary and dispiriting era, it served to drown out the quarrelsome strains of those still reliving the Sandusky aftermath. And you know what? It worked. Franklin’s team began winning big in 2016. And winning, as always, fixes everything.
Joyner calls it “almost like divine intervention” that he found O’Brien and Franklin at the perfect junctures:
“Bill was tough when that’s what we needed. And James’ exuberance and enthusiasm was very engaging and contagious. I didn’t see it as bull—-, just that that’s the way he is. I didn’t think: Gee, he’s the perfect guy for now. Though, that’s the way it turned out.
“I think they were both tailor-fit for the environments of their times. And had the order been reversed, I think that would’ve worked out fine.
“That being said, having it in the order that it was, I guess all you can say now is, thank goodness.”
Or just maybe, thank Joyner.
DAVID JONES: firstname.lastname@example.org