Monday, May 31, 2010

The Halo Effect of Coach Joe Paterno: Respect

I hung up the phone stunned. I had just asked the Rev. Charles MacEachern (Charlie) to officiate at our wedding. He was the retired pastor of my family church in Massachusetts, a friend. The year was 1987.

Charlie asked about Terry. I started with, “Terry is an avid Penn State football fan.” His response was, “Carolyn, that’s all I need to know. Anybody who’s a fan of Joe Paterno will make a great husband.” He immediately agreed to marry us.

“Joe Paterno is my hero,” Charlie explained. “He doesn’t compromise academics to win. He does college football the right way.”

Marketers would call this reaction the “halo effect.” Because Paterno had this halo surrounding him, the halo was transferred to Terry. I could describe Terry in a lot of ways, but “angel” wasn’t exactly on the tip of my tongue.

This halo effect helps us at away games. Since 1987, we’ve witnessed 125 away or bowl games against 37 different opponents. We have watched Penn State play in 39 stadiums in 22 states — not including Beaver Stadium.

At most venues, opposing team fans welcome us. They assume we’re decent because we follow Penn State. They will say, “I cheer for Penn State except when (name of school) plays them.” They will ask about Joe Paterno, like how long he will coach? They will hope he coaches for a long time to come. They will invite us to their tailgate or offer drink, food and even a ride to the game.

They might congratulate us on a win or console us on a loss.

Outright harassment has been rare. We can count our bad fan experiences at away games on one hand, and most of those were at Pittsburgh.

Here’s our top 10 list of college football venues: Penn State, Alabama, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio State, Texas, Iowa, Brigham Young, Michigan State and Nebraska, in that order.

We haven’t always won at these venues. But each of our top 10 venues built a memorable fan experience that commands our respect, even a sense of awe. It’s fun to be there. When we win, it’s fantastic, but winning or losing doesn’t define the entire experience.
Beaver Stadium has been called “The Greatest Show in College Football.” It’s true only if the customers agree. It’s easy for a Penn State fan to concur. But will visitors at Penn State agree? Even if they lose? If not, “The Greatest Show” is an empty promise.

As always, I hope Penn State wins any game they play. But I also hope we create a fantastic customer experience. I hope the away team fans leave in awe. I hope they enjoy the best tailgating environment in college football.

I hope we’re the loudest crowd they’ve experienced, that we leave an indelible impression. I hope away team fans have an unforgettable memory of a fantastic college football environment.

I hope our visitors return home saying, “It was a tough loss, but Beaver Stadium rocks. Penn State fans are great.” I hope we’re No. 2 on their list of favorite venues, after their own stadium, wherever it is.
The halo effect. It might seem burdensome to treat people with decency and respect, to live up to the legacy of doing college football the right way. But it can be a great deal of fun.

NOTE:  This is a revision of an earlier article written for the Centre Daily Times' Penn State Memories column.  To view that original column, click here.

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