This weekend marks the continuation of one of the Nittany Valley’s most remarkable stories. What we know today as THON began humbly some 42 years ago and grew into a phenomenon. “The world’s largest student-run philanthropy” raises millions annually for pediatric cancer patients while uniting the Penn State community like little else. The appearance of various PSU personalities, including the head football coach, to address the crowd has become a highlight of the annual 46-hour celebration (insert #footballculture joke here). I decided to share three THON speeches by three different coaches to reflect on the tenor of the event throughout our recent past and consider what they can reveal about our shared story.
“I wish the whole world could see and feel what’s in this room right now. Love and commitment… in 58 years at Penn State, I’ve never been more proud than right now.” —Joe Paterno
In 2009, one of his final seasons on the sidelines, Joe Paterno famously spoke to an enthusiastic audience at the BJC, as seen in the video above. It has been only three years since his death, but already the name, image, and memory of Paterno seem increasingly remote, more and more like icons or totems. Layers of meaning and political subtext – positive and negative – are projected onto them, further separating us from the simpler reality of the flesh-and-blood creature.
I love this clip in particular for the ways in which it distills and captures Joe the person, earnest and disarmed. It recalls a happier time and reminds us of the actual human being who undeniably gave copiously of himself to better the institution and his community, who inspired such affection and stirred such controversy. I do hope that, one day, Penn State and the Nittany Valley will properly honor the Paternos and, when that time comes, we will find the wisdom to do so in a way that is fundamentally grounded in their humanity.
“Just having arrived at Penn State, you don’t know anything about THON until you’re in the arena. It’s awesome… I have all the respect in the world for everything that you guys do.” —Bill O’Brien
THON 2012 was probably one of the most emotional weekends of a uniquely tumultuous year. Facing a barrage of baseless and vitriolic attacks pouring in from the outside, internally wracked with anguish, confusion, and uncertainty, the community rallied around THON and its irrefutable statement about who and what “We Are” and clung tightly to it, comforted by the reminder that no amount of venom could dilute all that good done each year in Penn State’s name. It was with this backdrop that new head football coach Bill O’Brien took the stage. Only two weeks into his tenure, O’Brien was tasked with establishing credibility with a hopeful, but unsteady and unsure (in some quarters, quite skeptical) NIttany Nation, beginning the process of injecting enthusiasm and drumming up support for his football program, comforting a reeling and grieving community, and paying proper respect to the event and its purpose. His success here was a sign of things to come.
O’Brien stayed for only a short time, but probably two of the most critical years in the history of the town and school. He is seen here passing one of his first (of many) tests, standing in the same spot as his legendary predecessor and praising the special qualities of Penn State in that direct and honest way that endeared him to so many of us so quickly.
“What makes us special is the people, the people that understand we are part of something greater than just ourselves. We can make a difference in people’s lives. We can make a difference in the community.” —James Franklin
If Bill O’Brien’s tenure represented the time of painful transition, the energy and optimism of James Franklin capture our hopes for a gradual return to normalcy, the true arrival of a new era. Looking back on O’Brien’s tumultuous two years, the memories all possess a hazy, dream-like quality. As I note the disconnected tone in many of his remarks since leaving, I wonder whether there’s not some of that for the coach himself. As if we all passed through a fiery disaster together and, having survived it, then went our separate ways and on with our lives. The community now faces the necessity, the challenge, and the excitement of accepting that the identity of Penn State football will become the purview of new arrivals. Franklin and his staff must make this program their own, but with the luxury of keeping the focus on the field. They will pick up and carry forward the banner for Old State, ingraining themselves and their personal styles indelibly into its history—as will Eric Barron, Sandy Barbour, David Gray, Nick Jones, whomever replaces Roger Williams at the PSAA, and an entirely new generation of Penn State leadership.
We close with Franklin’s 2014 THON debut, the third speech from a third coach in five years, each representing the spirit of a moment. I hope it is the first of many for Franklin. I know it is just the latest in a long line that will march us ever further away from the living memory of Joe Paterno and that night in February 2009. The story goes on, and I hope you, like me, look forward to seeing what comes next.