I immensely enjoyed spending a few hours with Fran Fisher in preparing to write a feature story on the longtime Penn State radio broadcaster that ran Tuesday.
As with anything in the realities of journalism in 2014, I could have/would have/should have written much more. As you might expect from a 90-year-old that is approaching a half-century of association with Penn State, Fisher has a wealth of stories. Writing a story on him is easy – the toughest part is deciding what will fit into a 750-word package
I could have written 12 articles or 12,000 words on him. Out of what didn’t make the Trib story, there’s way too much to recount it all on the blog. But here’s a small sampling of other anecdotes from Fran Fisher.
On his tenure as a student at Penn State:
“I went to Penn State in 1942. I lived in the Sigma Nu house. One of the mistakes I made in my life – and I made many of them – was I dropped out of school and joined the navy. Very, very un-smart thing to do. I shoulda stayed in school. I thought Pearl Harbor was a girl.
How’s this for a history lesson: Fisher remembers when State College was a dry village. It was so small that Beaver and College avenues were both two-way streets.
On the relative insignificance of Penn State football prior to Joe Paterno:
“Notre Dame was much, much bigger (in central Pennsylvania). It was Penn State, but was it Penn State University yet? When I went to school it was Penn State College. But to give you perspective as to what Penn State football was at that time, outside of the commonwealth and maybe even inside, most people confused it with the University of Pennsylvania. And early on there had to be at least three occasions I did an interview outside the state of PA where guys said ‘Well, we wish you well in the Ivy League.’ That was very, very common, and I suspect that a large percentage of people outside the commonwealth had no knowledge of the fact that there was a difference between Penn State and Penn. That’s how insignificant the program was.”
On the forgotten Penn State’s first great team, 1947’s 9-0-1, No. 4-ranked Lions:
“I’m not sure people anywhere – including in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania and including (the media) – realize what a great team the 1948 Cotton Bowl team was. If you were to look at those statistics of what they compiled (six shutouts, 4.0 points per game allowed), it had to be one of the best defensive teams in the history of college football. Now, nobody knew that, nobody knows that now. But that kind of started the ascension of the program. The 1948 Cotton Bowl team was a magnificent football team. And Rip (Engle) built from that after he got the job in 1950, and it kept just getting better and better and more recognized and more recognized through when Joe took over.”
On Joe Paterno growing the program into the national powerhouse it became:
“I don’t think anybody anticipated the program would become what it is. Or become what he made it. Including Joe himself, because when they decided to move the stadium, he was totally – absolutely – against it. ‘Putting it way out there in a wheat field? That’s the most ridiculous thing that could ever happen.’ That was his stand on the stadium. Nobody thought it would be other than adequate. And somehow, the state embraced Joe Paterno, his ethical procedures and his winning so that even in the hardcore region, Notre Dame fans became Penn State fans and they bought season tickets and they came and they tailgated and they put Christmas savings packages on order for them to be able to save the money.
“And the big-hitters came – and Joe sold them. You talk about fundraising – Joe was a fundraiser. When he said, ‘I want your bucks; I don’t want your two cents,’ he meant it. And he got ‘em. To the point where all of a sudden there was a financial flow to enable this program to improve the facilities and do all of these things, and when you take a look at what is now the athletics facilities, it’s absolutely amazing. Of course, the Big Ten had something to do with that because once you’re in the Big Ten, you’ve got to keep up with the Jones’, so all of these things that happened, that didn’t happen overnight, but they all gradually happened. And all of a sudden we have a 107,000-seat stadium. Impossible! Who the hell is gonna buy tickets for that?”
On Joe Paterno:
“I’ll tell you what – he was a tough sucker. But there will never, ever be another coach like Joe Paterno. We’d go on a bowl trip and there’d be people waiting to get on (a plane) wit players getting on, and he’d be like, ‘Let these ladies on first!!’… ‘Take your hat off!’ ‘Tuck your shirttail in!’ That’ll never happen, ever, ever again.”
On the beginnings of the Penn State football radio network:
“The thing about the radio networks was, I went to Joe and asked him one question when I was moved over to athletics and charged with putting the networks together. I said, ‘Joe, what do you want – do you want money, or do you want coverage?’ He said, ‘I want coverage; I don’t give a damn about money.’ Well, that’s a salesman’s dream. So I put together a pretty good network. I was able to manipulate the per-game fee that the stations had to pay – if we needed the market badly enough. We didn’t make any significant money… subsequently, of course, money became the driving factor over the years, so the rights were put up for bid – blah, blah, blah, blah. Now they get 97 commercials in every game.”
On his favorite memory of attending a Penn State basketball game at Rec Hall:
“One game I’ll never forget,.. not the game, a sidebar if you will. I was sitting in a row with the Athletics people, and Joe and Sue were in the front row and somebody didn’t show up. And Joe says, “Fran, Charlotte, come sit down here.’ So we go down and Charlotte sat next to Joe, and the television – the game was televised — and of course they shoot Joe the whole time. And I was told afterwards that Olbermann was on TV for ESPN and he made the comment, ‘I wonder if that’s Joe’s mother sitting beside him.’ I never let her forget that.
(Incidentally, Fisher recalls broadcasting a Penn State-Syracuse game. “The captain of the Syracuse team was Jim Boeheim.”)
On broadcasting Penn State’s first win in a national championship game Jan. 1, 1983:
“The celebration and coming back from the Sugar Bowl was an event I’ll never forget. We got off the plane at the Capital Campus in Harrisburg, and the governor was there and there was a thousand people there. Joe was (ticked off) – and I’m the one who had to tell them we had to stop at Capital. He didn’t know that. On the plane, I had to walk up to Joe and said ‘Joe, we are bussing but we have to go the way of the Capital Campus.’ ‘That’s out of the way; what do we have to go that way for?’ he said. I said, ‘Well, there’s a whole crowd there; the governor’s there.’ So we went there.
“And then when we came home as we got into Mifflin County, lined up along 322 were fire engines and people waving all the way from Lewistown to Millroy, and when we got to the narrowest part… there were so many people they had to stop the bus. And people waving and cheering and there were firetrucks escorting us in State College. It was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen. And Joe said on the subsequent “TV Quarterbacks” program, ‘I had no idea this team meant so much to so many people. It’s amazing.’ There’s a video made of it, as a matter of fact. It was fortunate a guy on the bus had a camera, and we did a video. It was remarkable.”