Column: Leadership finally emerges

I had a column all set to run today. It was going to talk about accountability and leadership and how Penn State hasn't shown much of either during the last several months.

That was before the Mikes stepped up to the microphones.

Michael Zordich and Michael Mauti, standing in front of about two dozen of their teammates, delivered a simple yet stirring message that held Mark Emmert's NCAA sanctions up to a different light and showed the kind of leadership -- the kind that's also been coming from coach Bill O'Brien -- that it's going to take for Penn State to rebuild its reputation.

Emmert put himself in an interesting position Monday -- he effectively made himself the arbiter of what the "culture" in college athletics should be. That's very slippery territory for a man in charge of an organization that just approved a new college football playoff plan, who oversees universities with sports programs that are little more than farm systems for the NBA or the NFL and graduate 60 percent of their players in a good year. Time will tell whether Emmert's massive blow to a program that had for so long been held up as the model of balance between academic and athletic success, the birthplace of "the Grand Experiment" was the day that made other schools stand up and vow to be better or the day when the NCAA effectively blew up the lab in which that experiment began.

But if Emmert is going to say the culture that Joe Paterno and the football team created was what allowed the Sandusky scandal to get as bad as it got, then he also has to credit that culture for shaping and molding players like Mauti and Zordich, who stood up and defended their program and their university. A lot of the players who stood behind them already had their degrees. A lot of them had raised thousands of dollars in the past year to fight cancer through Penn State's Lift For Life fundraising challenge.

None of them participated in any sort of cover-up. Nor did any of the players on the 1998 or 2001 teams. Maybe Penn State's leaders lost sight of their priorities. Maybe the fans did as well. But it's hard to say that the Nittany Lions themselves -- those currently in the program and those who have gone on to become success stories in football and other walks of life since graduating -- did not and have not had the right priorities in mind.

The players on this team are paying the price for the crimes and mistakes of men who are no longer around. It's nowhere even close to the price that Sandusky's victims paid for those mistakes but it is a burden that the players, unlike Penn State's former leaders, have not earned.

For the next few days, they'll be recruited like they were in high school, except this time where they've lived and played and while the guys they've lived and played with are being recruited next to them. For many, it will probably be flattering. For others, it will be annoying, sort of like being hit on by the waitress while your wife taps her ring finger on the table.

If you know them, it wasn't hard to understand what made Mauti and Zordich want to speak Wednesday. The sons of former Nittany Lions both understand the vast tradition and the bonds that link Penn State's lettermen past and present. They both wear their emotions on their faces and would like nothing more than for the season to start tomorrow.

"This is an opportunity," Zordich said. "This is the greatest opportunity a Penn Stater could ever be given. We have an obligation to Penn State, and we have the ability to fight for not just a team, not just a program but for an entire university. And every man that wore the blue and white on the gridiron before us. We're going to embrace this opportunity and we're going to make something very special happen in 2012."

The Mikes used no script, no notes, just talk from the heart, showing a maturity and presence beyond their years. But there is, of course, no script for how to get through this. O'Brien, who has also shown maturity and poise beyond his 42 years, knows that as well as anyone. He half-kiddingly told reporters during a conference call Tuesday that he was wasting time with them that he could be using talking to his own team, but he was half-serious as well. He knows the next few days might be just as or even more important than the first few weeks of the season for the future of his program. He has to keep this team together now, even if Emmert has all but assured that it will fracture down the road.

"You've got a group of young men here who have put in a lot of time these last six months," O'Brien said Tuesday. "You've got a team here that feels really close to each other, that has a lot of fight in it."

That team is unlikely to make it to Sept. 1 entirely intact. But the ones who stay will have in Zordich and Mauti and several others the kind of leaders Penn State needs to rebuild its program and its culture, the kind that the university didn't have in positions of leadership when it needed them most.

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