Paterno's Legacy Includes Lessons for Building a Great Brand

The Name 'Penn State' Meant Unfailing Belief in Education, Character and Hard Work

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Fitting tributes about Joe Paterno's roles as coach, humanitarian and philanthropist have poured in since his death. Largely overlooked is his success in creating a passion brand at Penn State.

When Paterno took over as head football coach in 1950, Pennsylvania State College was a relatively obscure backwoods operation, three years from becoming the Pennsylvania State University. He was recruited by his former football coach at Brown University and earned a salary of $3,500 a year. His father, Angelo, was upset at the notion of his son taking a job coaching football, and told him, "If you insist on doing this, make an impact." He did that , not only building a model athletic program but creating a national brand that endured for decades.

Rare for the world of college sports in his time, Paterno emphasized education first, winning second. That meant he would lose some top recruits, but Paterno didn't care. He believed that both academics and athletics were important, and that his job was to prepare student athletes for their life after graduation. He stuck with this message his entire coaching career, and it was to become a crucial piece of the identity of the Penn State brand he created. Personally, Paterno put his money where his mouth was: He donated more than $4 million to the university's library, not its athletic department. His reputation for prioritizing education quickly spread around the country, and many parents of high-school athletes wanted their sons to play for him.

Paterno's approach to coaching turned eminently successful, leading to several undefeated seasons and two national championships. He built the Nittany Lions into a national model by never wavering in his values, showing compassion for his players and recruiting the country's best linebackers (his view was that defense won games). His formula for a lasting brand was to instill the right values in the team, set high academic standards for players and check in with their professors to make sure they were learning properly, grow players to become moral citizens, establish a rigorous work ethic, and develop the right strategic plan for game day. Then execute with consistency, and reinforce the standards at every touch point.

Paterno was so consistent that detractors dismissed his coaching as boring and predictable. His offensive approach became known as Run-Run-Pass, but his defensive style was intimidating. Say what you are going to do; then do it again and again, with excellence. That's how great brands are built. As a result, over the decades students and athletes alike sought out Happy Valley. Even though 99% of students didn't come to play football, they were largely attracted to the things that Paterno -- and by association the university -- stood for. Two brands emerged with headquarters in State College, Pa. -- Penn State and Joe Paterno -- and they were inextricably linked.

It's a good lesson for those who do what we do for a living. Set a smart strategy, instill the right cultural values and execute at the highest level. If we do that at the shops we run, our agency brands will thrive, and our clients will prosper.

The recent sexual-abuse scandal that led to his firing has severely tarnished Paterno's brand and his reputation. Even if it turns out -- as I believe it will -- that Paterno didn't actively cover up the matter, his handling of it certainly isn't something for branding executives to emulate.

While the nature of the charges against Paterno's former assistant coach are particularly gruesome and trying for Penn State, the life cycle of any brand has ups and downs. Tylenol recovered from its crisis in the 1980s. Apple Computer staved off shrinking market share and bankruptcy after Steve Jobs was ousted and a new CEO installed in the 1990s. Starbucks experienced its first brand upheaval in 2008, when it lost focus, customers went elsewhere and it had to close 600 stores. The list goes on and includes brands such as Domino's Pizza, Toyota and most large banks emerging from the recession. How one deals with a brand in crisis defines its viability.

The plan to restore the Penn State brand is under way. The interim president, Rod Erickson, is hard at work to reach out and repair the damage from the scandal. Hopefully, the truth about what Paterno did or didn't do will come out. Whatever that ends up being, it's important that we not forget the good that this coach represented.

Marc Brownstein is president of The Brownstein Group, Philadelphia.
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