After being at the helm of Pennsylvania State University's athletic department for less than a year, Sandy Barbour says, "every week, every day, every month" she learns more about what she sees as the overwhelmingly positive impact of football coach Joe Paterno.
And she's not talking about national championships.
"To me, Coach Paterno brought a . . . value of combining athletics and academic success that I've not seen anywhere else, the idea of success with honor," said Barbour, former athletic director at the University of California, Berkeley, who previously worked at Northwestern and Tulane Universities, and the Universities of Massachusetts and Notre Dame.
For nine months, she has met with Paterno's former players, she said. "They don't talk about the football part. They don't talk about the national championships. . . . They talk about him, his insistence on making them into good citizens and good men. That's what they learned from him."
Barbour, who spoke to the Inquirer Editorial Board on Tuesday, said she had seen no evidence of the athletic "culture" problem cited in a university-commissioned investigative report on the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal.
"I believe, based on what I've seen, that that's a mischaracterization," she said, "that there was a problem with Penn State's culture. I don't buy that."
But she acknowledged that "unanswered questions" remain about the scandal and Penn State's role in it.
In November 2011, Sandusky, a former assistant football coach, was indicted on charges of abusing young boys on and off campus. In 2012, he received a minimum prison sentence of 30 years.
The university has paid more than $60 million to settle civil suits with Sandusky's victims, has overhauled its operations, and has had to deal with a constant battle on its board of trustees about the scandal, the subsequent report, the firing of Paterno, who died shortly afterward, and the university's overall response.
"I have no doubt that at the right time, as some of the legal issues have been sorted through . . . Penn State will honor not only Joe Paterno's legacy but the Paterno family's legacy," said Barbour, Penn State's first female athletic director, who got her start in collegiate athletics more than 30 years ago as an assistant field hockey coach. "We'll know when it's time."