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Franco Harris embarks on quest to lessen Penn State sanctions

| Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012, 12:16 a.m.
“At the time, that play didn’t hold any significance to me,” Franco Harris says of the Immaculate Reception. “I tell people that we really didn’t reflect on it during that decade. It just wasn’t at the top of your mind because we were doing so many other great things.' Reuters

Franco Harris is on a mission to visit all 18 NCAA board members seeking leniency for Penn State University to restore some of his alma mater's erased gridiron glory.

The Hall of Fame former Pittsburgh Steelers running back began his quest on Tuesday in California, where he tried to meet with UCLA Chancellor Gene Block and Timothy White, chancellor of the University of California, Riverside. Harris said neither made himself available.

He's not sure whether any of the NCAA board members will see him, but he's determined to press his case.

“Is he on a fool's errand? Who knows? I think all of us who work and live in the NCAA world have been watching this whole thing because it is such an aberration,” said Stephen Morgan, a lawyer and former NCAA Division I chief of staff.

Harris, 62, of Sewickley said the NCAA's sanctions in the Jerry Sandusky child-sex scandal were a rushed judgment against the university and the late head football coach Joe Paterno. They included a $60 million fine, a ban from post-season bowl play and elimination of 111 victories from 1998 to 2011.

He didn't detail his itinerary. Board members work at places such as the University of South Florida, Utah State University and Rice University in Texas.

Harris wants them to consider reinstating at least six years of Paterno's wins. He argues that during the first three years of the period, law enforcement had cleared Sandusky, a former assistant coach, and in the final three years the matter was in the hands of the state attorney general, who he said could have filed charges much sooner.

Paterno died in January, two months after university trustees fired him in the wake of the Sandusky scandal. Sandusky, 68, is awaiting sentencing for his conviction in June for sexually molesting 10 boys.

“This happened to someone very dear to me. But I really believe everyone deserves due process and this hurt the university,” said Harris, adding he will be at Penn State on Saturday to cheer the Nittany Lions when they begin their first season in six decades without Paterno.

Harris said he never imagined himself calling on college presidents.

“But then I never imagined anything like this could happen. I'm still trying to come to grips with it,” he said.

Neither Block, who aides said was traveling on Tuesday and Wednesday, nor White could be reached for comment.

Penn State trustee Anthony Lubrano, a critic of the investigative report cited by the NCAA in its sanctions, commended Harris.

“Penn Staters take strength from Franco's unselfish acts on behalf of their alma mater. I just wish we had more Franco Harrises in this world,” Lubrano said.

Sandy Deveney, a Harris classmate, said it would be a mistake to underestimate him.

“I don't know if I'd try to cold call people of that stature. But it's not Sandy Deveney knocking on their doors; it's Franco Harris. The man is on a mission,” Deveney said.

Josephine Potuto, a University of Nebraska law professor and former member of the NCAA Infractions Committee, said she has never heard of anything quite like Harris' quest.

“I doubt very much that it will harm Penn State, but I also can't imagine it will help,” she said.

The investigative report by former FBI Director Louis Freeh concluded that Paterno and other top university officials concealed allegations about Sandusky.

University officials and the leadership of its board of trustees accepted the report and the NCAA sanctions, but others, including some trustees, former players, alumni and a group of faculty leaders, have lambasted the findings.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or

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