STATE COLLEGE — The theme song from “Skyfall” crackles out of raised speakers in a hotel ballroom festooned with chandeliers. You’ve heard Adele’s lyrics. She sings about standing tall together when the sky crumbles, “where worlds collide and days are dark.”
As the song fades out, Franco Harris takes the stage alone, wearing a navy sports coat. His hair is thinning, but his beard is thick. He has a microphone in his hand, a captivated audience at his feet and another man’s legacy on his mind rather than his own.
In the wild month of November 2011, when Penn State football coach Joe Paterno was fired, Harris visited State College several times. Driving back to Pittsburgh from one of these jaunts, he called Bob Capretto, his friend and a former Penn State football player. Mr. Capretto remembers Harris saying, ” ‘Look Bob, I’m going to be very vocal about this. You’d better distance yourself from me because there are going to be people coming after me.’ “
The first time Harris spoke out in support of Paterno in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal, Meadows Casino and Race Track halted a sponsorship deal it had recently made with him. Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl then asked him to step down as the chair of the Pittsburgh Promise charity.
In the weeks following his dismissal in 2011, Ravenstahl received more criticism, and Harris was quickly reinstated.
Appreciation for his former coach and a gut feeling drove his actions.
“It was a start where you really felt that you didn’t know where this was going,” he said. “You felt kind of alone. In my wildest dreams I wouldn’t have guessed where we’ve come out today.”
Harris’ one-man rebellion has evolved into a widely resonating movement. He’s pestered the university’s board of trustees constantly, sometimes crashing their meetings, other times signing up for the public comment sessions. He’s hosted several heavily-attended pro-Paterno rallies. On 36-hour notice in December, Harris found out NCAA president Mark Emmert was scheduled to speak at a luncheon in California, flew from Pittsburgh to ask one question about the NCAA sanctions then flew back that night.
Most recently, he helped endorse three candidates for the trustees’ May alumni elections. Before their victory was official he addressed the current trustees at their meeting, saying, “We’ll never understand your lust for power, board of trustees, but we will never back down.”
Whether Harris is flying to California, commanding attention at a trustees meeting or espousing his views on TV, many involved say he is not only the key link holding this chain of protest together, but the original designer.
“If it’s not Franco, I don’t know who it is,” Penn State trustee Anthony Lubrano said. “Without that notoriety, without that push, I think it would’ve been much easier to just say, ‘You know what, we’re just moving on and we’re not looking back at this at all.’ “
After screening the mini-movie “The Framing of Paterno,” passing out diagrams of the infamous Lasch Building coaches’ locker room and bringing up possible conspiracy theories at his “Upon Further Review” rally in the State College hotel ballroom, Harris asks the crowd, “Who can we believe in? Who can we trust?” Quickly, somebody yells, “You Franco.”
Even when discussing heated issues, he sounds remarkably calm, almost soothing. His steady cadence masks the complexity or, as many would say, the extremeness of his rhetoric.
There is no reluctance when it comes to divulging his hard-core beliefs about Paterno, who died in January 2012. Harris discussed how after analyzing Paterno’s grand jury testimony he now thinks Paterno was “briefed” by somebody on what to tell the grand jury because of language he considers unusual.
Another one of his major points centers on a conspiracy to fire Paterno that he believes is linked to John Surma, the former trustees vice chairman, who is the CEO of U.S. Steel. His evidence toward this conclusion is largely based upon a frayed relationship between Paterno and Mr. Surma’s brother, Victor Surma, a former Penn State football player, depicted in a series of emails recovered from a 2007 Penn State letterman’s listserv group.
Neither Victor Surma nor John Surma responded to interview requests.
Harris qualifies his theory by saying he’s just “showing information,” a strategy that parallels the way radio host Glenn Beck and other well-known contrarians often portray arguments, presenting a view for several minutes to a like-minded audience and then telling those people they don’t have to accept the premise — that it’s just a possibility.
They are listening, though. Whether that influence is being used for good is another question.
Harris has been joined at most of the “Upon Further Review” events by documentary filmmaker John Ziegler, who directed “The Framing of Joe Paterno,” and Ray Blehar, a Penn State graduate and former federal government analyst who has tirelessly studied the Freeh report and authored numerous rebuttals of it.
In State College, Blehar attempted to discredit the testimony of some of Sandusky’s victims, saying they exaggerated how small and young they were when they were sexually violated by Sandusky. In a later email exchange, Blehar wrote, “[prosecutor Joe] McGettigan coached many of the witnesses into changing their stories.” He said his purpose of dissecting their testimony was to draw attention to Pennsylvania’s child protective services.
In late March, the name of Victim 2 was leaked on Ziegler’s website. His prison interview of Sandusky, broadcast on the “Today” show, prompted the Paterno family to disavow him, saying in a statement that Ziegler’s interview was “transparently self-serving and yet another insult to the victims and anyone who cares about the truth in this tragic story.”
Harris continues to associate with Mr. Ziegler, assigning him to the panel at his April presentation in State College and his May presentation in the Lehigh Valley.
As Penn State continues to move on from the Sandusky scandal and Harris and his “team” veer further toward personal vendettas and the questioning of Sandusky victims, how long can the grace period endure?
Chuck Franzetta was a senior when Harris arrived on campus as a freshman. He said he respects Harris as an athlete, person, humanitarian and businessman, but considers his actions detrimental to the university, preventing Penn State from showcasing its academic achievements and thwarting football coach Bill O’Brien from assembling and leading the best team.
Further, he questions the veracity of Harris’ message. Of the board of trustees, which Mr. Harris has accused of conspiracy, Franzetta points out that four of the 32 board members in November 2011 were former football players who respected Paterno. Three of them, Dave Joyner, Paul Suhey and Steve Garban, were captains. Mr. Franzetta said he has asked Harris via email and in person to discontinue his actions.
“Their attacks on those people are wrong,” Franzetta said. “I get a little emotional about that. They’re wrong. They shouldn’t be doing that. They are going after people who are good, decent people who have committed themselves to this university. I guess at some point somebody has to stand up … and say, ‘Stop it, shut up.’ “