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Saying Farewell to Fran Fisher, the Voice of Penn State Football

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Yes, Fran Fisher was the undisputed voice of Penn State football. But he was so much more than just that.

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Especially toward the end, and by his own admission, Fran Fisher was not necessarily the most polished of broadcasters. His delivery could be awkward, stilted, choppy. He would occasionally fumble over words. And, of course, when things got a bit too exciting on the field (see: Penn State-Ohio State 1997), he could occasionally go off the rails completely—yelling and screaming not so much to the Penn Staters listening on the radio, but right along with them.

And really, that was the point, wasn't it?

As a radio man, sure, Fran may have had his flaws. But as a Penn Stater? And as the undisputed voice of Penn State football during the most important years the program has ever seen? Well, he was absolutely and unquestionably perfect—perfect for the program, perfect for the place, and perhaps most importantly, perfect for his time.

When I heard the news today that Fran had passed away at the age of 91, I couldn't help but think that his passing was about more than just the loss of a good man, a good broadcaster and a loyal Penn Stater; it seemed, too, to be yet another reminder that the good old days of Penn State football, and good old days of college football—the days when the sport was a great deal less polished, a great deal less corporate, and a great deal more fun—are indeed gone. Which of course is very sad. But for anyone who grew up with this crazy and beloved game of ours back in its more imperfect past, and for anyone who recalls Fisher calling games for Penn State as the program clawed its way toward national glory, well, those times are certainly not forgotten. They can’t be, because they were the times when the game was at its very best, and I can only assume Fran knew that he was blessed to find himself thrown into the middle of them.

He arrived at Penn State in 1966, the same year that Joe Paterno was promoted from assistant coach to head coach, and would go on to serve Penn State in any number of capacities (some official, some not) over the next half-century: as radio commentator and play-by-play man; as assistant athletic director and executive director of the Nittany Lion Club; as a historian of all things Penn State sports; as a trusted mentor to many; as a voice of reason in troubled times; and forever and always, as a true and loyal friend of Penn State—somebody who represented the place with pure class, and with great dignity.

Simply, Fran was there for (and, indeed, was part of) pretty much every major event in the modern history of Penn State football. He was there in the booth as Paterno slowly but surely built Penn State into a national powerhouse—calling such momentous games as the back-back Orange Bowl wins in 1969 and 1970, the 1972 Cotton Bowl crushing of Texas and, yes, the deflating Sugar Bowl defeat at the hands of Alabama in 1978—and he was there, too, when Paterno finally won that long-sought national title by besting Herschel Walker and the Georgia Bulldogs in the 1983 Sugar Bowl.

In the wake of that triumph, and with his duties at Penn State expanding, he retired from the booth shortly that great triumph, and five years after that, retired from the university completely. But when Penn State came calling in 1994, looking for play-by-play man after losing Bill Zimpher to the Miami Dolphins, Fran stepped in to fill the void. And yeah, he was rewarded for doing so.

Fran returned to the radio just in time to see perhaps the greatest Penn State team of all time roar through the 1994 season with an unblemished record; fittingly, it was his voice that served as the soundtrack to all of the highlights of that oh-so-perfect year: the eye-opening early-season win over USC, the historic beat-down of Ohio State, the nail-biters against Michigan and Illinois ("Never in doubt!") and, of course, that brilliant afternoon against Oregon in Pasadena, college football’s paradise. To see the Nittany Lions play that day was to see, we know now, the program at its very best; it was only fitting that Fran was there to make the call.

He stuck around for another four years, but finally stepped away for good after the star-crossed 1999 season—one that started out with so much promise, and ended with such bitter disappointment. It was, without question, one of the greatest full-team failures of the Paterno era—a season that will forever be defined (unfortunately) not by the stunning comeback win over Miami (and Fran’s honest and jubilant and over-the-top call of Chafie Fields’ game-winning touchdown: "No flags! No flags! No flags!") but rather by the loss that seemed to haunt Joe, and the program, for years to come—that heartbreaker, on Homecoming Day, against Glen Mason and Minnesota. It’s no reach to say that it might have been the worst loss in program history; I guess, in some way, it was only fitting that Fran was there to see that one, too.

Eventually, Joe would regain his footing. He changed things up and modernized the program and finally got Penn State back among the national elite, if only briefly. But the reality is, that 1999 season represented the end of something—the end of Penn State as one of the nation’s true powerhouse. It also represented the end of Fran Fisher as every Penn Stater’s gameday radio companion. He had started to slip in those last years. It was time to move on. So that’s what he did.

But even as he stepped away from the spotlight, Fran was always there. He was always there to share a story about the good old days with any fan, young or old, who was willing to listen (and there were many). He was there to mentor young journalists and broadcasters who dreamed to one day have what he had—a college football dream job. He was there to see Paul Posluszny, Michael Robinson and Alan Zemaitis give Joe one last great season. He was there to serve as a measured, calm influence when everything went to hell. He was there when Bill O’Brien arrived and began the work of rebuilding the program, and he was there, finally, to see the James Franklin era begin.

Sadly, he won’t be there to see if Franklin can get Penn State back to what it once was—back to what it was in those glory days of the 1980s and early 1990s. But maybe he wouldn’t mind that; after all, he already seen so much. He saw, really, nothing short of the creation of Penn State football as we know it—the slow build to gain national respect, the climb to the pinnacle, the world-changing entry into the Big Ten, that perfect season in 1994, the collapse of everything in 2011, and the arrival of the promising new eras of O'Brien and Franklin.

He didn’t always see great teams during his years in the booth. But he certainly didn’t see many bad ones. Which is to say, yeah, Fran had a good gig. A great gig, actually. And I think we would all agree, he did a great job. Through his words and his actions, he became part of the fabric of Penn State football. He always will be.

Yes, Fran Fisher made an impact. Whether on the radio or behind the scenes, whether working officially on behalf of Penn State or simply in the interests of the university he loved and the people who loved it, he made a real, lasting, positive impact.

He made an impact on Penn State football. He made an impact on Penn State. He made an impact on every single person who ever had a chance to meet him, to talk with him, or merely hear him call a game on the radio.

He wasn’t a Penn State alum. In some ways, he kind of just landed among us by accident. But he decided at some point that he should stick around, to make Happy Valley his home, and give his all for Penn State University.

That’s precisely what he did. And Penn State is all the better for it.