STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Penn State athletes answered questions about how they’re dealing with the fallout from the crisis that enveloped the school with statements on the field or in the gym.
This spring alone, the embattled athletic program won a second straight NCAA wrestling title; advanced to the NCAA women’s basketball tournament regional finals; and advanced to a 14th straight NCAA men’s volleyball Final Four.
“In the last six months, our athletic program has been as successful as we’ve ever been,” Acting Athletic Director David Joyner, who took the job in November, said Wednesday in an interview with The Associated Press. The athletes are “holding up together really well.”
Separately, donations to the athletic booster club are also ahead of last year’s pace.
Football season-ticket sales are slightly off, Joyner said. Still, four months remain until the season opener, and the athletic department is still actively promoting the availability of tickets.
It’s all part of a challenging period for Joyner, charged with leading a department at the center of one of the biggest scandals in college athletics.
Joyner replaced Tim Curley, who was placed on administrative leave. Curley and former school administrator Gary Schultz are charged with lying to a grand jury and failing to properly report suspected child sexual abuse allegations against retired defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky.
Joyner also headed the committee that selected New England Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien to succeed the late Joe Paterno as head football coach after Paterno was ousted by school trustees days after Sandusky was charged in November.
Joyner was part of the board at the time, then left to take the acting AD post.
On Wednesday, Joyner gave his first extensive comments since his hiring in a series of interviews. He told The Patriot-News of Harrisburg that he has not talked to a grand jury investigating Sandusky, but has spoken to investigators for former FBI director Louis Freeh, who is spearheading the school’s internal probe.
Joyner told the AP inquiries by the NCAA and Big Ten related to the scandal continue to be in a holding pattern as the university awaits the results of the Freeh report, which is expected to be released around the start of the next academic year in late August.
Freeh and his team have interviewed more than 400 current or former Penn State employees
“Tough times give you, sometimes, great focus,” Joyner said in his Jordan Center office. “I’ve said to our department from Day 1, the way we go forward is to do what you do well.
“What we need to do is pay attention to our mission here. Our mission is integrity, academics and winning national championships,” he added. “Our 31 coaching staffs, our administration and people here have grabbed hold of this and are really pushing us forward.”
This would have been a unique time for Penn State athletics even if the scandal never occurred.
Across the street from the Jordan Center, construction crews are busily working on a new ice hockey arena scheduled to be completed by 2013. Penn State is upgrading its men’s and women’s hockey programs to Division I, with the elevation of the men’s program the crux to the formation of a Big Ten hockey league, also scheduled to start next year.
But for every bright spot is another question about the scandal and the various investigations trying to sort out the past.
As Joyner spoke to reporters in four separate interviews Wednesday, the Centre County courthouse in Bellefonte prepared for another pre-trial hearing in the Sandusky case. Jury selection is scheduled to begin in a month.
Sandusky has maintained his innocence, as have Curley and Schultz in their separate case.
Joyner said the vision for the program he outlined in his introductory news conference on Nov. 18 remains the same — with the focus squarely on “integrity, academics and athletic success.” Though “Acting” is part of his job title, Joyner said he’ll serve his alma mater as AD as long as he’s wanted.
Some changes have been instituted, including tighter security in athletic facilities. The Jordan Center, for instance, now requires swipe card access for entry for employees.
The university has also already said it has strengthened policies on the supervision and treatment of minors taking part in programs on campus, including summer sports camps
Football season-ticket sales, Joyner said, “are accelerating and moving in the right direction, but we haven’t caught up pace yet.” He suspected that could in part be due to fans’ feelings about the scandal, along with changes implemented last season to the season-ticket policy that angered some fans.
About 76 percent of tickets sold in 2010 were renewed in 2011, according to associate athletic director Greg Myford. To date, about 64,500 season tickets have been sold for the upcoming season, including 2,500 new season-ticket holders. About 69,000 season tickets were sold for all of last season.
While football games typically fill up 108,000-seat Beaver Stadium, Myford said the school continually faces a challenge of letting people who previously have not had season tickets know they are available.
A department spokesman said contributions to the Nittany Lion Club’s annual fund already amount to $17 million in a fiscal year that ends in June. That amount matches the total for the entire 2010-11 fiscal year.
The donation increase could be a precursor to improving season ticket sales, Joyner suggested, since a booster club donation is required to purchase tickets.
Joyner is also hopeful the introduction of O’Brien to fans this month in an extensive series of appearances before alumni groups from Connecticut to Washington, D.C., will help generate more excitement. O’Brien appears to have already won over Penn State’s massive fan base just four months into the job.
When asked about potential changes to the BCS, Joyner said he preferred scenarios that involved four teams, but also favored preserving the bowl system. Like Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany, Joyner said he would also prefer to “preserve the integrity of the Rose Bowl,” which has historic tie-ins to the Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences.