Does strong leadership make poor leadership look worse, or is it the other way around?
O'Brien handled a tough decision on Zayd Issah's future with a clear head.
I was struck this week by the contrast between the leadership traits of Penn State football coach Bill O'Brien and former Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice. And then there's the guy who sits at the head of the organization that governs -- I use that term loosely -- both programs.
O'Brien, as he told the Associated Press on Wednesday, decided to remove Zayd Issah from the immediate Penn State football picture after charges of forgery and conspiracy were filed against the Central Dauphin star linebacker. Issah, who allegedly tried to pass counterfeit bills at a McDonald's restaurant, will have the opportunity to join the Nittany Lions eventually -- after spending a year at a prep school or military academy -- and the road back to the Lasch Building "will be determined by him," said O'Brien.
It was a simple but sharp, and more than fair, move by a coach who needs healthy linebackers the same way Rice needs anger management therapy. O'Brien could have permanently cut ties with Issah. He could have waited until the legal process ran its course in hopes that the young man would be exonerated and thus available to attend and play at Penn State. What he did was not unlike what Joe Paterno did, in various situations, for several years -- give Issah a chance to learn from his mistakes and, more importantly, to prove that he had learned and fully understood the opportunities those mistakes could have cost him.
It sends a message to all current and future Nittany Lions that unacceptable behavior will not be tolerated but also that O'Brien doesn't have a desire to toss the baby out with the bathwater. It's yet another instance in which O'Brien, in just 15 months on the job, has demonstrated firm and responsible leadership.
Which brings us to Rice and Mark Emmert. Earlier this week, we saw video evidence of how Rice led his Scarlet Knights teams -- by firing basketballs and homophobic slurs at his players -- as well as the lengths to which his mealy-mouthed athletic director, Tim Pernetti, would go to defend the questionable decisions that allowed Rice to continue coaching there even after the athletic department had received complaints of his behavior. Call it a case of the (selectively) blind leading the blustery.
In an in-depth, two-part investigative piece by USA Today, we saw a history of controversies at the universities that previously employed Emmert -- UConn, LSU and Montana State -- and a wake that left top officials unemployed and messy scandals on the doorstep but left Emmert mostly unscathed. During a news conference at the Final Four, we saw the NCAA president lash out at several members of the media, who had tough questions about the ways Emmert and the NCAA have handled recent incidents at Penn State, Miami, Syracuse and Auburn.
Emmert does not have an enviable job. If Rice was responsible for the actions of a dozen players and O'Brien is responsible for the actions of 105 (not to mention the players who haven't arrived on campus yet), the NCAA is responsible for the nearly 1,300 institutions that make up its membership, and Emmert has, by virtue of his position and by what many believe is a clear lust for power, put himself at the very head of the table. The NCAA is, in its current form, ill-equipped to properly investigate, let alone effectively enforce, all of its members, in the same way that a lone kindergarten teacher is ill-equipped to control a group of 100 5-year-olds.
But it is the repeated arrogance and hubris that Emmert has displayed -- to say nothing of the inconsistency of the punishments the NCAA has recently doled out -- that make even the necessary discipline difficult if not impossible to swallow. In the same way that Rice's antics set a terrible example of leadership for his players, Emmert's leadership style inspires little confidence in an organization that was losing credibility and trust even before he assumed the role of president three years ago.
The way O'Brien handled a tricky situation with Issah sent a clear message, and it meant that he won't have to answer any uncomfortable questions in the future; if Issah follows the plan, he could rejoin the squad. If he doesn't, he won't. If you make the right decision initially, you won't have a larger mess to clean up later.
Pernetti didn't do that with Rice, and the mess that followed cost him his job. The NCAA, with Emmert calling most of the shots, has had a history of not handling things the right way initially, which is why they're still dealing with old messes as well as the new messes that continue to surface.
But then, Emmert knows all about leaving old messes behind for others to clean up.