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Sunday News (Lancaster, Pennsylvania)

With the hiring of James Franklin as head coach, Penn State's football program can see a new future - a future so bright, the Nittany Lions gotta wear shades.

It could be that clear. Mr. Franklin, formerly the head coach of Vanderbilt University, has a reputation as a dynamic and innovative leader. He also has the advantage of being the second coach hired after the firing of the sainted Joe Paterno, rather than the first.

We're a little concerned, though, about what politicians call the "optics."

Let's review: Mr. Paterno was sacked in the wake of allegations that he failed to act when retired defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was molesting children in the university's football facilities. Three other former Penn State administrators - president Graham Spanier, vice president Gary Schultz and athletic director Tim Curley - are facing trial on charges that they didn't do anything to protect children from sexual abuse after they learned of the reports about Mr. Sandusky.

An investigation commissioned by the Penn State trustee board concluded that top officials of the school showed "total disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky's child victims."

What does this have to do with James Franklin?

At Vanderbilt, where Mr. Franklin succeeded in turning around a moribund football program, four football players are charged with the rape last summer of an unconscious 21-year-old woman. A fifth is accused of helping to cover up the assault.

Mr. Franklin kicked the players off the team. But at least one source alleges that Mr. Franklin encouraged a player to delete a video of the attack after the coach saw it. While prosecutors say they have found no evidence implicating Mr. Franklin in the cover-up, it's still possible that he will be called to testify at the players' trial.

At any other school, the rape case might not be a critical factor in hiring. But this is Penn State, and this is Penn State just two years removed from the Sandusky child-sex scandal.

Another sex allegation? It looks bad.

Penn State officials reassured the public that they thoroughly investigated Mr. Franklin.

At a press conference introducing Mr. Franklin last week, President Rodney Erickson said, "He has been through the most thorough vetting process that any individual has gone through at the university." And athletic director Dave Joyner added, "I've responded to some people who've said, 'I sure hope you've done your due diligence.' And I've told them, 'Trust me. We have done a very thorough vetting of this and we feel comfortable with the situation.' ''

Which is good to know, considering the speed with which the search to replace departing head coach Bill O'Brien was conducted. The NFL's Houston Texans announced Jan. 3 that Mr. O'Brien had been chosen as head coach. Mr. Franklin's hiring was made official Jan. 11.

On campus, at least some Penn Staters are concerned about the optics of Mr. Franklin's hiring too. One professor started a petition at change.org to convince university officials not to pick him, because of the rape charges.

Any coach could find himself or herself in James Franklin's position. Student athletes, not to mention professional ones, sometimes do stupid shameful things - as do people in general. Even Joe Paterno had players in trouble. Holding the Vanderbilt players' crime - assuming the charges are proven at trial - against Mr. Franklin isn't necessarily fair.

The Sandusky scandal, though, changed everything at Penn State. Or it should have.

Optics do matter in Happy Valley these days. We're hoping the future stays clear.

 

January 20, 2014

 

 
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