Q&A with Penn State Coach Guy Gadowsky
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Penn State hockey was born over a year and a half ago when billionaire alumnus Terry Pegula donated over $80 million to fund a new arena and some scholarships for men's and women's programs. The arena is being built, to be complete for 2013-14, when Penn State begins play in the Big Ten. This season is its first in Division I, where it will play one season as an independent. Guy Gadowsky was hired last April as the program's first coach, amid much fanfare.
Cut to a year later, and Penn State is awash in scandal. Its revered football coach, Joe Paterno, was fired, then passed away, amid criticism for not turning in his former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky. Former administrators, including athletic director Tim Curley, who hired Gadowsky, are facing criminal charges. Sandusky is in prison on 45 counts of child molestation charges. And the NCAA smacked Penn State with major sanctions that included a $60 million fine, a reduction of football scholarships, and four years without bowl game ineligibility.
Gadowsky, of course, had nothing to do with any of it, but this is the climate he must deal with as he leads Penn State hockey into a brave new world.
CHN: How are you feeling through this?
Gadowsky: Honestly if you're here and you get the energy of the student body, I think it's a whole different deal. The negatives that are surrounding us are warranted in terms of transparency, but as far as the student body is concerned, they are honestly the best I've seen anywhere. It makes them even more motivated to show what Penn State is all about. They were grouped in and don't deserve to be. In terms of the culture and work ethic of the student body, they're more motivated to prove what they are.
CHN: There have been incidents that allow people to point to the Penn State student body for their lack of sensitivity on this issue. Have you seen that?
Gadowsky: I see 10,000 students who came out for a vigil (for the victims). The only things that are reported are a few negative aspects, but as a whole on campus you see the caring. This student body raised $10.6 million for cancer recently. I don't know if any other student body came close to that. A lot of the talk now is about making sure we do the right things and show through our actions that we do the right thing. So being around that, and the coaches here, we're all extra motivated and that's really inspiring.
CHN: There's an aspect of piling on because certainly no one's going to complain right now if you criticize Penn State.
Gadowsky: Going through this, they have painted the entire university with one brush. People stood up and said, we understand the mistakes, but Penn State is still Penn State for these reasons. It's a world class academic institution, they have great graduation rates, and are strong in general in terms of compliance. These things have never changed. Those things have nothing to do with the negative aspects. We understand the mistakes that were made. But we're not going to let that mistake by someone who had nothing to do with us, define who we are. And you see everyone stepping up to show what we're about.
CHN: Despite the positive feelings you're talking about, was there a period of reflection about the role of sports on a campus and reassessing what that means, in terms of the bad things that go on in NCAA sports?
Gadowsky: You go through a process of things. I'm a parent and a father, and when everything broke, your initial stance, for me, are from that aspect. You get pissed off and everything. But when you step back and take a look at all the great things, whether at this university or others, the lessons that athletics brings — you realize why I am a college coach in the first place. And it made me think why I came to Penn State and why I'm so passionate to be a college coach. ... You say there's bad things, but there's a lot of good things. When there is bad stuff, it gets a whole lot of attention, and so many good things don't. And bad things happen in other parts of campus from time to time, but we're not shutting down medicine or the clergy. But when there is a tragedy, it's just natural that people will be upset.
CHN: How tough was it to see these guys, the guys who basically brought you to Penn State, go through this — by their own doing, of course?
Gadowsky: It's surreal in a sense, but I didn't come to Penn State because of a couple of individuals. I came because of what was built and what I see from the student athletes and the student body and what they stand for.
CHN: But they put you in a tough spot. No one blames you, but when you came to Penn State, you talked a lot about how Penn State is never in the news for bad things. And they really made you look bad.
Gadowsky: I used that (phrase) more than once, and it's true. I came from a place, Princeton, where I like to think there were similar values, and Penn State, prior to this news, was the shining star in that. And that was an honest reason why I came to Penn State. So to have this happen — I think that's partly why this is such a big story, because they were on that pedestal. But again, it's the actions of a very few, not the action of the athletes. So that statement still applies to me. That's still a reason why I came to Penn State — the people. There's so many other people than a few at the top who have even more reason now to be an example of that (ideal).
CHN: There had to be a moment, or period, of anger, though.
Gadowsky: Your first reaction was as a parent, of course. I would be completely dishonest if I didn't go through that emotion. But the people that look at this from the outside, they see this (incident), they don't see the student body and their dedication and spirit. And I see that, and it's phenomenal, and it's a higher level than I even imagined.
CHN: How often have you spoken to Terry Pegula?
Gadowsky: Not a ton, but I talked to him three days ago. And I see him when he comes to town. And I have interest in his other job (as owner of the Buffalo Sabres) — it's fun to hear him talk about the Sabres. And he likes to hear me talk about Penn State. He really is a great guy. I've spoken to him enough and met him — he has a way of easing people — you forget about him quickly and he becomes just a hockey guy. So, he's fun to talk to and he loves Penn State, and he's the leader of the band here, and he's great.
CHN: And he is remaining totally committed to Penn State hockey and the funding he promised? He was even closer to all those people than you were, much closer.
Gadowsky: He loves Penn State hockey and he shows it by his actions. Of course it's been tough for everyone, but also, because of what we believe, what Penn State is about, it's also inspiring. What also you don't see — I've gotten so many notes, e-mails, phone calls, from hockey and non-hockey alums. Sometimes it takes a tragedy to get people to really look at things. You're not getting that in the media. But on the ground floor, there's an aspect to this, and the way people are handling it, the way (football coach) Bill O'Brien is dealing with things, that's inspiring.
CHN: You're just a hockey coach, of course, but have you thought about the bigger picture of the NCAA, and how sports fits in on campus, and what will happen going forward? It's a layered issue. I'm not going to say the Penn State administration was evil, but the culture of sports on a campus is something the NCAA claims it was looking at, and we'll see what they'll do going forward. But do you have any thoughts on what it means and what the NCAA can do or should do?
Gadowsky: Like you said, there's a lot of issues and a lot of moving parts. I'm sure this wasn't a quick reaction. It was well thought out. I'm not privy to a lot of those angles and precedents, so I'm not going to comment on the validity of the NCAA's sanctions. But from our standpoint, it's accepted and we move forward. I wasn't involved in those conversations.
CHN: From what I understand, the other sports' budgets are walled off from the sanctions, right? So this will have no effect on recruiting budgets?
CHN: So let's get to hockey. Tell me about the team and how it's shaping up.
Gadowsky: We'll see. It's new. And I had that feeling last year, and I'll probably have that feeling all this year, and probably next year. I don't have any measuring stick to fall back on. It's all new, which makes it exciting. I feel good about the guys coming in — they are good character guys — and I'm excited.
CHN: What was last year like, coaching the club team?
Gadowsky: It was great. One of the things I liked was that all the guys love Penn State and loved hockey. They were not scholarship athletes. They were not given something to come here. Maybe we asked a little more of them than they expected because of our knowledge that we are going Division I, but they're great. There's so many great quality guys that I got to know, and they came to Penn State to play club and they'll end up D-I athletes. Every one has a great story.
CHN: What was last year about, and why you wanted to coach the club team?
Gadowsky: It was about setting a foundation of what we know as coaches. I'm happy to have a staff all from Princeton and we know what it takes to be successful in D-I, and how to do things the way we want to do them, the commitment that it takes. And it was fun. It was not as much about teaching Xs and Os, but teaching a foundation.
CHN: What has been the reaction of the recruits, and their commitment?
Gadowsky: They're absolutely committed. When it broke (last fall), we communicated with all our players and parents and welcomed any questions they might have. But these are all families that have done a lot of research on Penn State, so they didn't just make a snap decision then see the news. They know why they're coming to begin with. They know all the great things that were built up over so much time. They're very aware. ... We spoke to all of them last fall, and again after the NCAA sanctions.
CHN: Some must have been wondering whether it was still a good idea to go.
Gadowsky: Certainly there's questions and there should be. Some questions were how I feel about it personally. So I'm just honest and tell them I'm a parent and father and you're angered. But then I also tell them about what's going on on campus and all these people who had nothing to do with it, and they're very hungry through their actions to show what Penn State is all about.
CHN: What do you expect this season to be like, or what do you want it to be like.
Gadowsky: A lot will continue what we started. Another is part of the unknown, the Big Ten (which starts in 2013-14). I have competed against all those teams, I played in WCHA, coached in the CCHA, so I'm very familiar with them, but I'm not sure anyone knows how it will be night in and night out. But we're building a foundation, and the expectation is a lot of fun. It's new, it's exciting, and every time we practice, I look down the road and see a magnificent arena that we're going to be part of. And now we can see tangible things going on in the rink.
CHN: What's your take on all the changes in college hockey the last couple years? Everyone blames you guys.
Gadowsky: I've been in college hockey now a long time, and up until the Penn State announcement, every year without fail, people said, "We gotta expand, we need a great institution to come into college hockey." We finally get it and everyone was upset. It's funny.
CHN: The concern is whether everyone is still interested in college hockey as a whole. The creation of the Big Ten was inevitable once Penn State joined, but the rest was kinda chaotic and every man for himself after that.
Gadowsky: I was in the CCHA five years, and I was listening to guys like Ron Mason and Red Berenson, and they always spoke about — the first criteria in issues was looking at college hockey first. So all of the coaches that got a chance to be with coaches like that, understand the responsibility to college hockey. (Current Michigan State coach) Tom Anastos was a big part of that. When you ask about the state of college hockey, I think it's in a very exciting place right now. Part of that is because the Big Ten conference will really escalate the opportunity for the sport to promote itself.