In 1987, when Penn State was the reigning national champion, Matt Paknis was a graduate assistant coach working with Penn State's offensive linemen.
Paknis is also a survivor of childhood abuse. He found part of his salvation in football and the support of his high school coach. Paknis went on to play at Brown University, just like Joe Paterno, and turned to coaching after a few NFL tryouts. In addition to working at Penn State, he coached at Brown and the University of Rhode Island. Now Paknis works with technology companies to identify individuals with leadership capabilities.
In the wake of the allegations against Jerry Sandusky and Penn State administrators, Paknis -- who says of himself "I was an offensive lineman, I'm a protector by nature" -- shared his memories of the culture inside Penn State football and offered suggestions as to how it might be improved going forward.
SI: How would you characterize the leadership style inside Penn State football, from your experience?
Paknis: It's just a classic control dynamic hierarchy, like the Catholic Church. When I was there, everything had to be approved. It was a very external validating culture. Coming from Brown, which prides itself on being independent -- it was a little too independent for me -- Penn State clearly was the other way.
SI: Penn State has the opportunity and obligation to do some housecleaning now, but some of the interim replacements, like acting AD David Joyner who played for Paterno and has two sons who played for Paterno, are very much insiders. Do you think they can lead a culture change?
Paknis: Culture is made up of three things: values, beliefs and behaviors. It's going to take a while. Paterno's power went way beyond Penn State. Clearly, somebody delayed this whole thing until Paterno could get his record. Using people from the same pool they pretty much know is repeating the dangers of what they had. I don't see how there can be really effective change unless others come in and set the groundwork, or you bring in new blood completely. I'm not trying to jeopardize Tom Bradley's opportunity, but he's been there forever. He went to school there. Anything that's a holdover like that, it's crazy to keep it.
SI: It seems like the Penn State football program is unusually isolated even by the standards of big college football programs. We compared it to the innermost Russian nesting doll in our story. What was your impression?
Paknis: Yeah, it was unbelievable. Guys could basically live there and not leave. But Paterno projected a totally opposite image. He would take maybe one or two freshmen and put them in a dorm, two kids that he probably thought could make it. But everybody else was in those [football] apartments.
SI: So the image of being integrated with the community ...
Paknis: Not so much. The academic advisor at the time would complain to me, roll his eyes, and say, "Here we go again," when Paterno would take guys that might have had a class that overlapped practice a little bit and Joe would say "get 'em out of there."
SI: Still, Penn State had avoided major NCAA problems, even though they had had a number of other problems that didn't gather a ton of attention.
Paknis: You have to look at how this happened. It obviously happened because Joe's been given so much free reign. No one would ever approach him because he keeps the graduation rate so high, and they steered clear of every major NCAA violation, though now they'd probably be willing to trade every major violation in the book for this one. I think they were looking at their metrics and measures, the end result being that maybe the ends justify the means.
SI: Did you ever see any behavior that would have suggested these allegations in the grand jury report?
Paknis: When I coached at Brown and at Rhode Island, there was never any contact with the players other than very professional contact on the field. And it looked primarily like that at Penn State too, but I noticed Jerry always had these kids around him. And I noticed even when he was criticizing his players he'd get right up in their cage, in their helmet, lean right up on them. And I noticed he'd be grabbing the kids who were always around. Headlocking them, poking them, pinching them.
SI: Did you ever consider saying something?
Paknis: Now I just feel awful that I didn't report it. But it wasn't really suspicious. I just said "That's strange." And he was doing his Second Mile thing and he was being lauded for it, and this was before the Catholic Church stuff had become public.
SI: You survived abuse yourself. What would you say to others out there who may have gone through something similar?
Paknis: I want to encourage everybody, once they share these dark things in them, the things you feel like you can't share, a weight is going to be lifted. But you want to be sharing that with a licensed, certified and trained professional who knows how to respond in a constructive way. Then they'll be able to see it's not them, it's really the perpetrator, and they can start getting whole again and start interacting with healthier people. The authorities are a good place to start; they can direct you to the help you need.
SI: What were the positives of your time at Penn State?
Paknis: I loved the players and the community. And I got really involved in my classes ... I didn't buy into the Kool-Aid, but some of the coaches were really great. Ron Dickerson was a guy I really admired on that staff. We had Jimmy Caldwell [now head coach of the Colts] on the staff. We had some guys that were pretty good. It was just a very strange dynamic.