Bernard Fernandez: Nike co-founder shows loyalty to Paterno

Nike CEO Phil Knight addresses Bryce Jordan Center crowd during Joe Paterno Memorial.
Nike CEO Phil Knight addresses Bryce Jordan Center crowd during Joe Paterno Memorial. (LAURENCE KESTERSON / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: January 27, 2012

STATE COLLEGE - One by one, they came to the podium to praise the late Joe Paterno. There was Paterno's son, Jay, and an assortment of former players, one from each decade of JoePa's remarkable 46-year run as head coach of the Penn State Nittany Lions. There also was the dean of the College of Liberal Arts, a female Paterno Fellows recipient and a one-time "mayor" of Paternoville, the temporary tent city that would spring up on campus whenever single-game student tickets for the most appealing contests went on sale.

Some of the speakers regaled a memorial-service turnout of 12,000-plus in the Bryce Jordan Center with humorous anecdotes of their own interaction with Paterno, who was 85 when he died of complications from lung cancer on Sunday. But for the most part the comments were respectful remembrances of someone who had touched their lives in some lasting and meaningful way. The Joe Paterno they described was a highly successful football coach, to be sure, but also a devoted husband, loving father and grandfather, educator, mentor, philanthropist and humanitarian who sought to make his university and the world better places, and for the most part succeeded to a degree almost beyond compare.

What was largely absent were references, direct or otherwise, to the 800-pound gorilla in the room that no one seemed to want to acknowledge: the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal that led to Paterno's shocking Nov. 9 firing by Penn State's Board of Trustees.

It was left to an unlikely speaker, Nike co-founder Phil Knight, to confront the gorilla head-on and to boot it out the door like an unwanted intruder.

Near the conclusion of his 6-minute, 43-minute address, Knight took aim at the trustees who dared to dismiss Paterno, his stinging rebuke earning the loudest, most sustained ovation of the 2 1/2-hour program.

"He gave full disclosure to his superiors, information that went up the chain to the head of the campus police [senior vice-president Gary Schultz] and the president of the school [Graham Spanier]," Knight said. "The matter was in the hands of a world-class university and a president with an outstanding national reputation.

"Whatever the details of the investigation, this much is clear to me: If there is a villain in this tragedy, it lies in that investigation, not in Joe Paterno's response."

Knight, recounting Paterno's accomplishments, asked: "Who is the real trustee at Penn State University?"

Had this been a nonpartisan referendum on Penn State's handling of the Sandusky situation, perhaps Knight would have been followed by someone making a counterpoint to the point the 73-year-old sports apparel magnate had just made. But yesterday's memorial service was, for the most part, organized by the Paterno family, and it concluded 3 days of public mourning for a beloved figure who had become so synonymous with his school that they were indistinguishable.

That Knight elected himself to tweak the Board of Trustees is curious. Oh, sure, Penn State has a lucrative contract with Nike - not for nothing are those ubiquitous swooshes on the Lions' jerseys and shoes - but Knight is the guy who wants all the college teams he equips to have a gazillion alternative uniforms, as is the case with his alma mater, Oregon, whose athletic department he more or less underwrites. Penn State is the most obvious holdout to that philosophy, primarily because of Paterno's insistence that Penn State's conservative look be maintained.

But Knight nonetheless held Paterno in more than simple high regard. He considered JoePa his role model, a man of such uncompromising integrity that the depth of his feelings seemed as genuine as those of any of the speakers who had deep Penn State roots.

"I'm a man who has always needed heroes," Knight said. "It started when I was a boy and I never outgrew it.

"A decade and a half ago, an Esquire magazine reporter, noting how our advertising played up the heroic aspects of great athletes, asked the question, 'Who is your hero?' My answer was simple: [It was] my college track coach and partner, Bill Bowerman. He had won four [NCAA team] championships, [coached] more sub-4-minute milers than anyone when he retired, was the 1972 Olympic coach, yet he insisted he was not a track coach, that he was a 'professor of competitive response.'

"When Bill died in 1999, I asked myself, What do I do for a hero now? Two months later, on a Nike trip, the answer showed itself across the table, wearing a thick set of eyeglasses. I said, 'I'm not asking your permission, I'm just telling you. I need someone to look up to. You're my new hero.' "

And Paterno never gave Knight a reason to think otherwise, even when the Sandusky case smudged JoePa's saintly image.

"In the 12 years since [his declaration of hero-worship of Paterno], through four losing seasons, big bowl wins, 12-win seasons, through All-Americas, players with criminal charges, 4.0 students and players dismissed from the team for discipline, never once did he let me down," Knight said. "Not one time."

Of course, Paterno, a lover of classic Italian opera, already had endeared himself to Knight by revealing an impish side of himself most fans never got to see.

For 33 years, Nike has sponsored 5-day trips to resorts where client coaches, their wives and Nike executives get together for a little business and a lot of fun. For the last 15 years of those outings, Paterno proved a regular cut-up.

"One year, we had a skit where Nebraska coach Tom Osborne played Mickey Nike and Joe Paterno was a swaying palm tree," Knight related.

The amused crowd still was trying to digest that when Knight spoke of another Paterno tradition, one which most fans were unaware of.

"One of the great highlights was 15 years ago when Rick Neuheisel, who was the coach at Colorado at the time, played the guitar," Knight said. "Rick played the guitar on Sunday evenings at the Holiday Inn in Boulder, so he was skilled. He was onstage, playing his guitar, and he asked Joe to come up and do a duet of 'Wild Thing.'

"Joe didn't hesitate. He jumped up on stage and, while it was not one of the most artistic performances ever, it was loud and enthusiastic. At its conclusion, the place exploded into a standing ovation."

Paterno's channeling the Troggs' biggest hit has been an annual staple of the Nike outings ever since.

"Twenty-one days from now in Hawaii," Knight said sadly, "there'll be an enormous void on talent night."


Send email to fernanb@phillynews.com

 

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