EDITOR'S NOTE: Longtime Penn State radio voice and goodwill ambassador Fran Fisher passed away Thursday, according to his family. He was 91. Back in 2007, Penn State sports historian Lou Prato, one of Fisher's closest friends, penned the following feature story for Fight On State The Magazine.
We thought this would be the perfect time to revisit the piece, so you can learn a little more about the man who touched so many lives in Happy Valley (and beyond).
The Voice of the Nittany Lions
Broadcaster Fran Fisher's most memorable moment may have been the 1983 Sugar Bowl. But it was simply one part of an amazing career
With the exception of Joe Paterno and a couple of his outstanding players, no one is more synonymous with Penn State football than sportscaster Fran Fisher. Eight years have passed since he broadcast his last football game (the 1999 Alamo Bowl) and retired for the second time, but his popularity continues with the blue-and-white masses.
No matter where he goes, there are always Penn State fans who want to say hello, shake his hand or recall some pleasant encounter or remembrance from the past. Maybe the conversation will be about an experience they shared when he visited their town to speak at a Penn State event or broadcast a football or basketball game. Maybe it will be about TV Quarterbacks, the statewide show he co-hosted for 20 years until 1986. Sometimes the remembrances are personal. Someone Fisher hardly knows will thank him for some favor he did over the course of his four decades broadcasting Penn State football.
It's not simply his longevity that has made Fisher such a recognizable and approachable figure. His friendliness, warm personality and sense of humor are contagious, and he makes everyone he meets feel like a friend. Even now, with the usual creeping health problems that come with aging and sometimes restrict his travels, Fisher's kind words, frequent smiles and witty but sometimes corny wisecracks keep strangers and close friends alike spellbound.
I like to tell people I was Penn State's play-by-play broadcaster for so long that I was there in 1906 when Mother Dunn became our first All-American, Fisher said with a smile.
Certainly, his familiarity throughout the Nittany Lion nation stems from his ubiquitous radio and television presence. Football was the foundation and radio was the prime outlet that transformed him from a small-town radio station manager and part-time sportscaster into a Penn State legend.
When Fisher was in his heyday as the acknowledged Voice of the Nittany Lions, the football games were rarely televised live. Penn State fans who couldn't attend games in person had to listen to the radio to keep track of what was happening. Occasionally, a game would air live on regional or network television, but the telecasting of college football games was limited until a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1984 opened the way to the present day free-for-all. Thus, Fisher and his radio contemporaries around the nation became celebrities and an integral part of their football team's image. Even now, the men who broadcast games on radio are well known to the team's fans, but the media landscape has changed with cable TV and the Internet. Few broadcasters today have the same iconic stature their predecessors once enjoyed.
Since the first Penn State football game was broadcast on radio on Oct.1, 1927, more than 20 men have handled the play-by-play, with at least 15 others involved as analysts or field reporters. Only gregarious Mickey Bergstein comes close to matching Fisher's time in the booth. But Bergstein was an analyst for all but three years of his two decades behind the mic, while Fisher did the play-by-play for 19 years, with four years as analyst.
Fisher was managing WKVA Radio in Lewistown in 1966 when he was hired to assist play-by-play man Tom Bender and his partner Bergstein.
Castleman Chesley, who owned the rights to the Penn State broadcasts, wanted to add a third voice. I was asked to send a tape, and got the job, Fisher recalled. It was awkward because it had only been a two-man thing and I was the odd man out. Actually, what I was hired to do originally, believe it or not, was to cover the network every time we cut for a sponsored commercial. One of our prime affiliates, WCAU in Philadelphia, didn't want to have someone on duty at the station, so I had to fill with something so that WCAU wouldn't have dead air. That was my job. But then I began doing some of the color, as we call it, along with Mickey. I quickly learned it's not good to have a three-man crew because you get into microphone battles.
Fisher's start coincided with Paterno's first year as head coach. Before the 1967 season, Paterno invited Fisher to help him on the TV Quarterbacks show that had launched the previous year.
I was at a banquet with Joe in Greensburg. We were BS-ing at the head table when Joe asked me if I'd consider joining the program and narrating the game films they showed every week, Fisher said. At that time, the assistant coaches did that, and they hated it. I said, sure. So, I'd zip over the mountain from Lewistown and narrate those films, live, in the studio at WPSX, off a monitor. That eventually led to being offered a full-time job by Marlow Froke, who ran WPSX [the Penn State educational television station]. I started working there on Jan. 1, 1970. A few months later I got the play-by-play job on the game broadcasts.
The play-by-play position opened because of a dispute between Bender and the radio network's prime station, KDKA in Pittsburgh. Bender was a veteran sportscaster for KDKA radio and television, but he had left for a competing station after a contract dispute, and KDKA demanded that someone else do the play-by-play. Based on a tape of the 1970 Blue-White Game, which was not broadcast, Fisher was hired to do the play-by-play with Bergstein as analyst. The following season, Jim Tarman, then an assistant to the athletic director and director of public relations, replaced Bergstein in the booth. Fisher and Tarman teamed up for the next nine years.
Fisher's work at WPSX exposed him to Penn State sports fans all over the state. In addition to TV Quarterbacks, he was soon doing commentary and play-by-play on other televised events, from wrestling and soccer to women's basketball and gymnastics to various high school sports. In 1976, the athletic department hired Fisher as radio-television-film coordinator, a newly created position. As part of his responsibilities, he continued his broadcast work on WPSX.
It got to the place where the athletic department tail was wagging the division of broadcasting dog, Fisher said. Part of the deal when I went over to athletics was to establish a basketball network, which was not exactly a piece of cake. So I put together the radio network for both football and basketball. For football, it was simply a matter of renewal, but not basketball. To get stations, we gave the football stations a break on the cost for football if they would carry basketball. I think we had eight stations that first season [1976-77].
I did the broadcasts by myself for two years and it was rough. I was the engineer, scorekeeper, cheerleader, broadcaster and one-armed paperhanger. And I screwed up those stations so badly because I'd forget to start and stop the stopwatch on the commercials cue. Finally, I asked for help. By that time John Grant was the guy doing the football with me, and so John and I did basketball until I stopped doing both football and basketball.
That was after the 1982-83 academic year. In early '82, Fisher was promoted to assistant athletic director. His new job included overseeing the Nittany Lion Club and other fundraising efforts as well as public relations and public affairs. He didn't believe he could be effective in his new position unless he relinquished his broadcasting duties. The 1983 Sugar Bowl was his last broadcast, and Penn State fans who listened still remember the joy and redemption they could hear in Fisher's voice the moment the game was over and Penn State had beaten Georgia, 27-23.
PENN STATE'S NATIONAL CHAMPION! PENN STATE IS THE NATIONAL CHAMPION, Fisher yelled at the top of his lungs as he watched the happy players carry Paterno into the center of the Superdome. PENN STATE HAS WON THE BALLGAME, 27-23, IN ONE OF THE CLASSIC PLAYS IN THE SUGAR BOWL
A tremendous, tremendous football game, Fisher continued as he calmed down. What a tribute to this football team. What a tribute to this coach, and Penn State has done it. Penn State has done it. That's the end of the game. The final score, Penn State 27, Georgia 23. We'll be back in just a minute.
Asked recently what he remembered thinking at that very moment, Fisher said: I felt so good. The feeling I had was, finally we're national champions, because I remember those undefeated years of '68, '69 and '73 when Penn State got absolutely no respect and was ignored from the standpoint of having an undefeated season but never being recognized. So what I felt was, my God, it finally happened after all these years and all this snubbing and there's no way they can take it away from them now. That plus the fact that it was a little nostalgic thinking, maybe I won't be screaming like this next year.
Over the next few years, Fisher's work in the athletic department continued to bring him into steady contact with Penn State fans. Even though he was no longer on the air on a regular basis, he was in constant demand as a speaker, and he served as emcee at the football pep rallies. Then in 1987, the radio network created a weekly call-in show for Paterno with Fisher as the host. He continued in that role even after his official retirement from the athletic department at the end of 1988.
Retirement isn't in the Fisher lexicon. Now he had time to do other things, including on-air commercials for radio and television as well as tailgating with fans at home and away football games. Then, in August 1994, he was asked to return to the Penn State radio broadcasts as play-by-play announcer.
Since Fisher's exit at the end of 1982, five men had handled the play-by-play, but none had the personal ties to Penn State that Fisher had. The latest announcer was Bill Zimpher, but in the summer of '94 Zimpher was hired by the Miami Dolphins and was forced to give up the Penn State job.
So, they came to the rest home to get me, Fisher cracked. The Dolphins blew the whistle at the 11th hour, and there's not a lot of guys available in the middle of August to do college football starting in September.
Fisher was hesitant. He knew he wasn't the same broadcaster he had been 12 years before. Then George Paterno called. The coach's younger brother had been the radio analyst since 1988, after years of working on the delayed television broadcasts. Fisher recalled the conversation:
You have to be crazy, George, he said. You don't want to work with me.
George Paterno responded: Yeah, I'd love to work with you.
Fisher considered the situation.
Am I going to listen to my sensibilities or my ego? he said. I listened to my ego. It was only supposed to be for one year.
The Fisher-Paterno combination was an instant hit. The knowledge, camaraderie, banter, sense of humor and love for Penn State and the game of football they displayed on the air carried over when the two were together off air, even in the restaurants, bars and hotel lobbies at away games where they would encounter legions of fans. In the next six years, they became the most popular Penn State radio team ever.
After the Lions went undefeated in '94, winning the Big Ten championship and almost winning another national title, Fisher couldn't reject Penn State's offer to continue. But by the end of the '99 season, he knew it was time to retire for good. I lost my edge, he said. I stopped two years too late because I wasn't very good the last two years.
Maybe the reason Fisher is so beloved by Penn State fans is that he is a fan himself and has been one longer than most of his listeners. He saw his first Penn State game as a 10-year-old in 1932, watching Waynesburg upset the Lions 7-6 at Beaver Field.
My sister was a cheerleader for Waynesburg, and we used to go to all of Waynesburg's games, Fisher wrote in the book, What It Means to be A Nittany Lion. But I became a Penn State fan even though they lost. As a little guy, I thought the place was beautiful, all that green grass and stuff.
Fisher was living in the Pittsburgh suburb of Dormont at the time. That's where his family had moved after stops in Florida, Michigan and Ohio. I was born in Salem, Ohio, he said. There's a big plaque there. The plaque is in the next town. It says, 'Thank God he was born in Salem.'
In 1934, the family moved to Greensburg, which became his adopted hometown and was where he met his wife, Charlotte, in high school. My father was in several businesses, Fisher said, but eventually he became a pioneer in the building and constructing of the Memorial Park concept, with no tombstones and everybody's marker the same. That's how he wound up in Greensburg, owning and running the Westmoreland County Memorial Park. Now, of course, Memorial Parks are all over the country.
When it came time for college in 1941, Fisher first went to Bethany in West Virginia as a liberal arts major, and then transferred to Penn State. The distance to Bethany was too far from Greensburg for my family and I loved Penn State, so my dad let me transfer, he said. At that point I wanted to be an engineer. Can you believe that?
His Penn State academic career was over almost as quickly as it began, but he did get to march at a 1942 football game with the Blue Band, playing the alto sax.
Then I got eager to help win World War II, and I joined the Navy in October, Fisher said. It was a mistake. I should have stayed in school. I did a tour in the Navy and got married. Back then, it wasn't easy to pack your wife up in Greensburg and move up to State College and go back to school. So I never went back.
Back in Greensburg, Fisher found a job teaching handwriting at a local speciality school while going to various area colleges part-time to earn credits toward a degree in speech and English. He became friends with the manager of a local radio station, George Podine, and would often complain about the sports broadcasts on the station.
I'd say, 'When are you going to get a radio broadcaster that can speak the English language?' Fisher said. 'Not only does he not know sports, George, he can't talk.' I was giving him a little bit of a jab. He calls me a couple of years later and says, 'We just decided to make a change. We're going to hire somebody who can really speak the language.' I said, 'Who?' He said, 'You.'
Fisher's first broadcast was a Greensburg High basketball playoff game at Pitt in the late '40s. The high school would not allow live broadcasts of football games, but Fisher's boss at the technical school, Bill Peterson, also was the president of the Greensburg School Board. With Peterson's help, Fisher received approval to broadcast the school's football games. But there was a catch - the station needed sponsors.
I said, 'How do you get sponsors?' Fisher said. So I was given an [advertising] rate card. I went home and a guy was installing a furnace in my house. And it just so happened that his son was the fullback. I went downstairs where he was pounding away, and I got him to be a sponsor. Then I signed up my boss at the writing school, and then the guy who did my dry cleaning. The program director told me to give myself 10 bucks per game, 10 bucks for my color guy, 10 bucks for the engineer, and 10 bucks for the statistician. Everybody got the same. I'm thinking, they do pregame shows. I can make another 10 bucks. And they do scoreboards, maybe I can do that. And before that darn first game, I had sold the pregame, I sold the game, I sold the postgame show, and I sold a Saturday morning high school coaches show. And that's how it all started. I got so involved in radio that they hired me.
In the late 1950s, while still working for the radio station, Fisher opened a radio and TV appliance and record store. One of his regular customers was the owner of a Lewistown radio station named Bob Wilson. He bought a pot full of records, Fisher said. And every time he left he would say, 'Why don't you come to work for a real radio station?' I'd say, 'Bob, you can't afford me.' This went on for several months, but when a big discount store came to town and could sell records for less than I could buy them, I went belly up. Wilson comes in that day and says, 'Why don't you go to work for a real station?' And I said, 'Okay.' That's how I wound up in Lewistown.
Although Fisher never returned to Penn State to finish college, he did return to become one of the university's most popular sports figures. He remains active in the advertising and marketing business he set up in 1996 with his sons, Jeff and Jerry, and his voice can still be heard on commercials they develop.
Fisher says he doesn't miss doing the football play-by-play on radio because he knows he would not be very good.
Oh, I do miss the camaraderie, he said wistfully. There's a lot of fun involved in broadcasting because you don't make any money. If you don't have any fun, you might as well get the hell out of the business.
Fran Fisher had a lot of fun for many, many years. And thanks to him, hundreds of thousands of Penn State fans did, too.
Fran Fisher, with his son Jeff, in Penn State's signing day "War Room" in February.