was the college football program that stood for the varsity jacket-wearing, golden era of college athletics.
Even as other schools stumbled, tarnishing the sport's image with stories of recruiting violations and player misbehavior, the
' throwback uniforms, respectable graduation rate — even the stodgy, no-nonsense approach of iconic head coach
— suggested a program that was above the fray.
That ended this week with allegations that former defensive coordinator
sexually assaulted as many as nine young victims and that university officials failed to stop it, dealing a damaging blow not just to the football program, but also to the university to which its image is inextricably linked, experts say.
To repair its brand, Penn State officials will need to do what the leaders of major commercial brands like
have done to restore public confidence after a major scandal: Take decisive action to clean house, beg for forgiveness and take concrete steps to prevent it from ever happening again.
"I think the biggest thing we have learned about when a scandal happens is they just absolutely have to turn themselves inside out with transparency in dealing with it, and express shock and outrage and fire everyone who had anything to do with it," said Michael McPherson, partner and creative director at Corey McPherson Nash, a branding firm near Boston that has done work for educational institutions.
The board of trustees' statement released Tuesday night, expressing outrage and promising an investigation, is a good first step, McPherson said. President Graham Spanier's anticipated departure is also encouraging. Paterno's decision to retire at the end of the season is another matter.
"In my opinion, it would be better for the program and for PSU if Paterno resigned immediately," McPherson said. "As long as he is there, the first thing everyone is going to think about when they see him on the sidelines is [the scandal]."
To the outside world, the university's initial steps were anything but confidence-inspiring, allowing the story to get a life of its own, said Steve Dittmore, a recreation and sports management professor at the
who wrote a textbook on sports public relations.
"What I am seeing here is there is a fiercely loyal culture at Penn State and almost a denial that this could actually happen at Penn State" he said.
College football fans are highly loyal, Los Angeles-based sports marketing expert Adam Nisenson said.
"Will this hurt the brand? Yes," he said. "Will the brand survive? Yes. But with Joe leaving will it ever be the same? I doubt it."
For the university to recover from a scandal that doesn't fit with any of the traditional "college sports scandal" narratives, it will take a new leader who can convincingly open a new chapter, said David Rogers, executive director of the Columbia Business School Center on Global Brand Leadership.
"You don't want any smirches on their record," Rogers said. "It would definitely benefit you if [the new leader is] someone who is a good public voice, who when the time comes to make a statement on this issue and turning around the program, that they could do so sincerely and eloquently and persuasively."
Rogers said he thinks the damage will be primarily to the football program, and that sports programs' brands typically recover from scandals in time if the people who were involved are shown the door. It wouldn't hurt for the university to pump some money and volunteer efforts into charities that fight sexual abuse.
In that vein, acting athletic director Mark Sherburne issued a statement Wednesday saying the university's "athletics family was devastated" and "outraged" by the allegations and would work to rebuild the community's trust.
Penn State's response to the crisis will affect everything from its football program's ability to recruit players and merchants' ability to sell Penn State merchandise to the university's ability to attract donors and advertisers.
Even minor scandals can affect fundraising, said
, president of Schultz & Williams, a Philadelphia-based fundraising firm that works with nonprofits. This one is of such a disturbing nature, it is difficult to draw a parallel.
"Alumni in the short term will hold back on making some of their gifts," Schultz said. "In time, it will depend on how the university handles it."
The university will forfeit the lucrative fundraising opportunities that could have been tied to Paterno's retirement had the scandal never happened, he said. It will need to stay in close communication with its major donors and assure all of its supporters that their contributions will aid students and research efforts, and not legal fees.
With the economy struggling, the scandal couldn't have come at a worse time for university fundraisers, said Rae Goldsmith, vice president of advancement resources for the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.
In 2010, donors upped their support of U.S. universities by a "lackluster" 0.5 percent to $28 billion, according to the Council for Aid to Education, on par with 2006. That came on the heels of a disastrous 2009 in which contributions declined nearly 12 percent,
"People will come back," Goldsmith said. "Even those people who are angry now will tend to come back because they are passionate and they want to feel good about their affiliation with the place they got their degree. And they will if they have confidence in the direction of the institution."
The scandal's fallout was on the mind of Tracy Bell, coordinator of the Family Clothesline, one of the larger retailers of Penn State gear in downtown State College. Bell said Monday there hadn't been a drop in business, but she wouldn't know the scandal's full impact until this weekend's home game against Nebraska.
"I think once you're a fan, you're kind of always a fan," Bell said.
Reporter Adam Clark contributed to this story.