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McKenzie: Sabres' Pegula speaks out on Penn State scandal

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Bob McKenzie
11/17/2011 12:45:21 PM
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As a father of five children, three of them still teenagers, and a proud alumnus of Penn State University, Terry Pegula has nothing but concern and compassion for the victims, whomever they are and however many of them there are, in the ongoing PSU scandal.

But the billionaire owner of the Buffalo Sabres -- whose $88 million "gift" to PSU in September of 2010 to build a hockey arena and start an NCAA Division 1 hockey program is reportedly the largest single donation ever to the school -- also has some strong feelings on how the university needs to conduct its affairs now and how the vast majority of "Penn Staters" need not hang their heads.
 
"I am standing behind the university," Pegula told TSN in his first interview about the PSU scandal, although he did issue a press release last week re-affirming his financial commitment for the D1 hockey program that is set to begin next fall.
 
"Our concern and compassion should be for the children involved in these terrible allegations," he said in a telephone interview from Boca Raton, Fla. "Whomever may have been involved in any way, anyone who knew anything, they've got to come clean. They've got to step forward and say, 'Here's what I know, here's what happened...' and that includes you know who," a seemingly obvious reference to Penn State legendary football coach Joe Paterno.
 
"This is not about covering your ass. Telling the truth now will go a long way towards getting everyone through this. If there's going to be a blind allegiance to anyone or anything here, it needs to be the university and to the truth...that's how we get to the bottom of what happened, that's how we get our image back."
 
Pegula attended Penn State from 1969 to 1973, graduating from the petroleum and natural gas engineeering program. In the years since then, he's been a big booster of the school but by his own admission was never directly involved in the day-to-day affairs of the institution or administration. Since he announced his $88 million gift to the university for the establishment of the D1 hockey program, he has been directly involved in issues pertaining to the building of the arena, but his focus and involvement has been relatively narrow and hockey-centric. But now that Penn State has become synonymous with bad news, Pegula says he intends to be more active in doing what he can to make sure the "right things are done" and to help repair the reputation of what he calls "a really good school."
 
Pegula says he's convinced that John Surma, the former CEO of U.S. Steel who is the vice-chair of the PSU board of trustees, is the right man to lead the charge to clean up this mess and get to the core of what happened.
 
"I've talked to John and he's a good man and he's already on this," Pegula said. "There needs to be transparency, we need to get to the raw truth, we need to eliminate agendas, eliminate egos and find out how this could have gone on at our university. John, believe me, is well along on that page and probably ahead of me and everyone else. We're both Penn Staters and we want the truth."
 
But Pegula also has some very strong feelings about how this story has played out in the media and the consequences for another group of "victims."
 
"Let's not have anything but concern and compassion for the primary victims here, for the children," he said, "but with the coverage there's been of this, I'm starting to see a second victim and that is the students who study there, the instructors who teach there, the people who work there...there are more than 40,000 Penn State people who've been implicated in this and they have absolutely nothing to do with it..."
 
And that is why Pegula never even considered not reaffirming his financial and emotional commitment to the institution.
 
"To me, it was (a) very easy decision," he said. "If you are a student at Penn State or an instructor or an administrator, imagine how your life has changed. It would be enough to put your head down. It's such a terrible thing and you would almost want to blame yourself...but the students there can't be blamed for what happened. They shouldn't put their head down. They should be proud to to be at Penn State and carry on with their lives. It's a great school and an unprecedented thing has happened here.
 
"There are a lot of people at Penn State not involved in any of this. Most of them, actually. It doesn't help to make them feel any worse. I talked to an instructor who was teaching a business class and he went into the class and could just see how down the students were, they were hanging their heads and he told them, 'Don't you hang your heads. You did nothing wrong.' After the class, he had so many students come up to him and say, 'thank you, I feel so much better now. I was starting to question what we're all about.' Those 40,000 to 50,000 people who are there now, to say nothing of the thousands and thousands of graduates, they need to feel good about themselves and their school. They're not responsible for this."
 
And for those who suggest that it's wrong to be playing out the balance of the PSU football season when the program is so interconnected with the scandal, Pegula had some strong words.
 
"I hear people say they shouldn't be playing football, that football doesn't matter now," he said."Well, I have nothing but compassion for the victims and I want the truth rooted out as badly as anyone, but I don't think anyone should be going up to (Penn State senior defensive tackle) Devon Still and telling him he can't play in the final games of his collegiate career, that he needs to pay the price for the mistakes of others. That's not how you do things. I would say to Devin, 'you play,' I would say to Penn State, 'you play,' and while you're playing we're going to clean up this mess."
 
In the meantime, Pegula is hoping his strong words, not to mention the reaffirmation of his $88 million commitment to the hockey program, will mitigate against the potential problems facing Penn State head hockey coach Guy Gadowsky as he tries to get the fledgling program off the ground and onto the ice for next fall. Gadowsky, an Edmonton native who came to Penn State after a successful coaching tenure at Princeton University, is busy selling recruits on the benefits of Penn State, which given the publicity of late, isn't an easy task.
 
"I wanted to make sure everyone knows I'm solidly behind Penn State hockey because others were using (the scandal) against us in our recruiting efforts," Pegula said. "I heard some of our recruits were maybe wavering a bit so I wanted to make sure they knew we're fully committed to running a first-class program that stands for all the right things. That's what we're all about."
 
Pegula says he knows things could conceivably get worse at Penn State before they get better and there's a long and difficult road ahead for the institution, but is confident that if people like Surma and himself put a premium on exposing the truth, however raw and ugly it may be, the healing process for Penn State will have already begun.
 
"I don't like what has happened, no one does," Pegula says. "But I guess I'm used to controversy. I'm an oil and gas man and people love to hate the oil and gas industry...we'll get this done and get to the truth and make people proud to be associated with Penn State."

Terry Pegula (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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