Fran Fisher Oral History
Fran Fisher (1923-2015)
Fran Fisher, known to generations of Penn Staters as “the voice of Penn State football,” died Thursday, May 14. He was 91.
Brief Bio (from College of Communications Alumni Awards Program, 2014)
In 2014, Fisher earned the Douglas A. Anderson Communications Contributor Award, which was created to honor an industry professional for his or her work in the College of Communications, Penn State and/or the commonwealth.
No one fit that bill better than Fisher.
An original board member of the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism, Fisher through the years had been a regular guest lecturer in many communications classrooms. And he was a mentor, role model, cheerleader and friend to dozens of Penn State broadcast students and industry alumni.
He worked in a variety of roles for nearly three decades at Penn State. Most notably, as “the voice of Penn State football,” he did play-by-play broadcasts of Nittany Lion football from 1970-1983 and 1994-1999. He first joined the football broadcasts as a color commentator in 1966, before becoming a full-time employee as special projects director in the Penn State Division of Broadcasting in 1970.
Upon stepping down from the broadcasting position in 1983, Fisher became an assistant athletic director and the executive director of the Nittany Lion Club. He retired from those roles in 1988 and then returned to the broadcast booth from 1994-1999. Fran headed the group that created the University’s current logo. He also broadcast Penn State basketball from 1976-1983.
Fisher’s roots with Penn State go back more than 70 years. He was a member of the Blue Band, playing the saxophone, before leaving mid-semester to join the Navy in 1942.
Across Pennsylvania, citizens saw Fisher on public television with regularity for several years. He hosted the “TV Quarterbacks” weekly show featuring coach Joe Paterno. Fisher was inducted into the Pennsylvania Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 1997.
-- Mike Poorman
On Jan. 13, 2011, Fisher sat down with his longtime friend Lou Prato ('59 Journ) for interview as part of the Penn State Oral History Program. The text of their discussion follows:
Lou Prato: I’m interviewing Fran Fisher in his home. It is Thursday, January 13, 2011. This is for the audio history about Centre County and State College, and how Penn State’s football program in particular has affected the growth of the town and the county. Fran Fisher is the long-time, now-retired broadcaster for Penn State football. So Fran, first give me some background. Tell me about yourself, where you were born, who were your parents.
Fran Fisher: Okay, I was born in Salem, Ohio, in 1923, a long time ago. I don’t remember much of my early life in the state of Ohio. I remember mostly when we moved to the Pittsburgh area. Went to grade school up to fourth grade in Dormont, Pennsylvania. Subsequently moved to Greensburg where I spent most of my grade school and high school days. I do have two sisters, one deceased and a younger sister living in Ft. Myers (Florida). My father was a well actually a developer of the Memorial Park concept; that’s the cemetery without tombstones as it was known way, way back. I spent most of my life in Greensburg, went to school at Bethany College after having graduated from Greensburg High School. Transferred the next year to Penn State, went to Penn State for a few weeks, [and] actually played in the Blue Band as a matter of fact. Decided I ought to help end the war and joined the Navy. As a result of that I never came back to Penn State because I got married and it wasn’t easy at that time to bring a young bride back to State College, Pennsylvania. During the Navy I got a lot of education. I went to the University of Pennsylvania; I went to Lock Haven; I went to North Carolina. And I am probably the most educated man in the world. I finished my college experience at the University of Pittsburgh although I did not graduate and I do not have a degree. I have enough credits spread out all over whatever number of schools to have several. I then got back into the area when I became involved in managing a radio station in Lewistown. Got to know the situation at Penn State because that station happened to be a football network station, and all of a sudden I am back in the central Pennsylvania area getting involved with Penn State.
Prato: Okay, that’s a good overview. Now we’re going to back up here and we’re going to talk about your family. Your father’s name?
Fisher: My father’s name was Homer Fisher.
Prato: Mother’s name, maiden name?
Fisher: Ethel Evans.
Prato: Were they from Ohio?
Fisher: Yes, both were natives of Ohio. My mother was a native of a little town of Salem, Ohio, and my father was a native of Columbiana, Ohio, which is a neighboring town.
Prato: So how old were you when you moved to the Greensburg area? Is that where you moved from Salem?
Fisher: Well, I just can’t remember. My father jumped around. He was in the banking business; he was in the automobile business. And I don’t remember the Ohio condition. My first recollection was when I was in first grade in kindergarten in Dormont, that’s where he wound up and was involved in sales management at Allegheny County Memorial Park. And that’s my first recollection of my early childhood.
Prato: And so how long did you live in Dormont before you moved to Greensburg and how did that come about?
Fisher: That came about because my father and some investors bought ground in Westmoreland County to develop Westmoreland County Memorial Park and as a result we moved to Greensburg. At the time I was in fifth grade.
Prato: So you would have been about 10 years old.
Fisher: Yeah that’s about right.
Prato: How old were your brothers and sisters at this time?
Fisher: My sister was ten years older than I. And my other sister is five years younger than I.
Prato: That is the one that is still alive?
Fisher: The one still living in Ft. Myers, yes.
Prato: So at ten years old, what do you remember about Dormont?
Fisher: I do remember my sister my older sister being a cheerleader for Dormont High School. I remember her being a lifeguard at the Dormont pool the civic organization’s pool there. And I remember going to first grade. And I remember the street we lived on and I remember going to [Pittsburgh] Pirates games because my father worked in downtown Pittsburgh and he used to call me and say, “How about a game.” And I’d get on a streetcar, and I’d go through the tunnel, and we’d go to the Pirate game.
Prato: You told me once that you saw your first Penn State football game when you were a little tyke. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
Fisher: It was in 1932.
Prato: You were how old?
Fisher: I was nine.
Prato: Nine years old.
Fisher: Nine years old. My sister, who I mentioned having been a cheerleader at Dormont, was a cheerleader at Waynesburg College, and she was engaged or about to be engaged with the captain of the Waynesburg team. My father was a devout sports fan and we saw every Waynesburg game that year, home and away. One of the away games was at Beaver field against Penn State and the family went to the game. And Waynesburg won the game 7-6. I remember who kicked the extra point for Waynesburg but I can’t remember who didn’t kick the extra point (for Penn State).
Prato: Who did kick the extra point?
Fisher: Adam Donnelley is the guy’s name; kicked the extra point. My future brother-in-law was captain of the team, Ace Wiley, whose brother John eventually became involved with the University of Pittsburgh football and the Steelers and so on. So that was my first indoctrination to Penn State and I couldn’t get over how green the grass was. Amazing.
Prato: And that’s what you remember, how green the grass was?
Fisher: That’s exactly right and watching the team come from the water tunnel. Those are the two things, plus the fact that I was rooting for Waynesburg, that I remember. I do not recall anything more specific about Penn State.
Prato: So now you moved to Greensburg?
Prato: And you are now considered over the years as a native of Greensburg.
Fisher: Yeah, that’s about right Lou.
Prato: And so tell us a little bit about the early, you know Greensburg and how you got interested in sports broadcasting.
Fisher: Well, I was never quite sure what my career was going to be and I kind of got into that by accident. But I wound up eventually having come back from World War II and my stint in the Navy.
Prato: Let me interrupt you.
Prato: What year did you graduate from high school?
Fisher: I graduated from high school in 1941.
Prato: From Greensburg High school?
Fisher: Yes, Greensburg High School in the fall of 1941. I enrolled at Bethany College in West Virginia, which is down in the panhandle. It’s almost in Ohio and almost in Pennsylvania. And I just as an aside I distinctly remember Pearl Harbor day because I had come home for the weekend and my father was taking me back to Bethany College that Sunday evening when we were listening to the radio and the news broke that an attack had been made on Pearl Harbor. I can remember it like it was yesterday, sitting in the car hearing that. When I got to Bethany, one of my roommates had come from a military academy to go to Bethany. And he was already packed. I said, where are you going? He said there’s a war, I’m leaving and I never saw the guy again.
Prato: Do you know if he lived or died [during the war]?
Fisher: I don’t know whether he lived or died.
Prato: So what happened? How did you then wind up at Penn State?
Fisher: Well, we decided that the trip to Bethany was kind of an ordeal; it was not on the beaten path. There’s only one way to get there. You had to hitch hike or somebody had to take you. So we talked about transferring to Penn State because I had an affection for Penn State. I don’t know why. I think I guess it has to do with that green grass way, way back. So I transferred to Penn State but what happened was I wanted to get into the naval aviation program and my parents would not sign the papers. But they finally relented and I joined the Navy now. That was a mistake. I should have stayed in school, gotten my degree and so on, but you know I was an ambitious young guy.
Prato: So this was 1942?
Fisher: This was 1942, the fall of ’42, yes sir.
Prato: And you told me you played in the band.
Fisher: I played in the Blue Band for Hummel Fishburn, an interesting experience. I can understand with these young people, how they proceed now because of the number of applicants for the Blue Band. Even then you had to try out, have an audition. It was an interesting experience.
Prato: What was your instrument?
Fisher: I played alto sax.
Prato: And you started to play the sax back in Dormont or Greensburg?
Fisher: Greensburg, right, I played in a lot of bands in Greensburg: combos and big bands and played in a big band here on campus. There were two excellent big bands. I mean big bands, 16 to 17 pieces. Campus Owls was one and the Penn State Aristocrats was the other. I played with the Penn State Aristocrats, and at that time they had big dances at Rec Hall and we played a couple of jobs at Rec Hall. But I spent a lot of time in my early days, even in my early married days, playing in combos and in bands.
Prato: What was your major here?
Fisher: My major, would you believe, was mechanical engineering. How the heck I wound up in that I don’t know. I haven’t the foggiest; I just thought it looked good. But my goal was to get to the Navy. I was just stopping over here. Now my parents didn’t know that, and finally they relented. I don’t know. You know, you get that feeling you want to join the Navy, and become a hero, and get a uniform, and get all the ladies.
Prato: So when did you leave Penn State and go into the Navy?
Fisher: I left I left and joined the V-5 program, it was called. It was the Navy aviation program. And at the time they had a backlog of applicants, so by the time I enlisted in the Navy and got sworn in it was six months before I was actually called into the service. That proceeded with all kinds of pre-educational experiences at the University of Pennsylvania. I learned to fly at Lock Haven’s Piper Field and then went to the preflight training program at Chapel Hill. And went to naval primary flight training in Peru, Indiana, and then was along with 15,000 other cadets, released from the aviation program because they had an abundance of pilots.
Prato: What year was this?
Fisher: That would be 1943, 1944, I beg your pardon. And went then into a gunnery program and became a member of a flight crew, based of all places in Floyd Bennett [Field] in New York—tough duty—then eventually to San Juan and Nepal. Then I got married on leave. Back then the discharge program was based on points. And you got points for being married and I finally got enough points while we were based in San Juan to take a discharge and I did. And that would be that would be in December of 1944.
Prato: So did you see any combat?
Fisher: No, our duty our duty was anti-submarine. In the ‘40s there was concern about submarine penetration on the east coast so that’s the reason we were at Floyd Bennett. And we flew out and just patrolled, that’s all. I fell asleep most of the time.
Prato: Have you ever flown since? Have you flown in years?
Fisher: I have not flown in years. Whenever they busted us, if you pardon the expression, I got so discouraged that I didn’t care if I ever got behind the yoke or the stick of an airplane again. It just completely soured me because we worked very hard. There were guys that were within days, weeks I should say, of a commission that got busted. I wasn’t that close; I was three months away from becoming a commissioned aviator. But that’s neither here nor there. It’s just that I lost interest in flying. That was my goal, my dream, and then all of a sudden who cares.
Prato: So what was your dream after that?
Fisher: Well, I didn’t know what my dream was. I floundered to be perfectly honest with you. And I did little things and finally wound up working for an organization that sold a handwriting program to the public schools. And I was a writing supervisor. I traveled around and met with teachers and told them how they should teach handwriting in the various school districts. I taught demonstration lessons. I’d go in and teach the first grade class, the second grade class, and so on. I did that for five years, and all that while I was going to Pitt in the evenings and took one year off to go to Pitt. Then there was a friend of mine in the radio business in Greensburg that I got to know pretty well. I used to tease him about the inarticulate sports announcers he had. And one night he called me and said, “Hey, I just fired the inarticulate sports announcer you’ve been complaining about.” I said well he wasn’t that bad. He said well he’s gone and you are going to have to help me. I said how am I going to do that. He said you are going to broadcast the game. I said you better get that guy back because you got the wrong guy. But that’s how it started.
Prato: Well, we’ll come back to that. I want to go back now to your family. Your wife Charlotte passed away a year or so again and was as much of a Penn Stater as you were. You were always together.
Fisher: That’s true.
Prato: So how did you meet Charlotte and how did your two boys come along as part of the family?
Fisher: High school sweethearts is the best way to describe that. She was a year behind me in high school. She was a very accomplished vocalist and did a lot of the choir stuff at Greensburg High School in the musicals. I was sitting in the orchestra pit ogling her, and we finally got together and became sweethearts, if you will. And, interestingly, when I first joined the Navy in the Naval Aviation Program you were not permitted to be married. That was part of the deal. I don’t know what the reasoning for that was, whether they didn’t want widows and figured there would be a lot of guys killed. I don’t know what their thinking was. So then when I got busted out of there, I was eligible to get married and so I did.
Prato: What was the date of the marriage?
Fisher: August 20, 1944.
Prato: So you came back to Greensburg.
Fisher: Came back to Greensburg after the war, after my discharge from the Navy and worked there. [Our] two boys were both born in Greensburg.
Prato: When were they born?
Fisher: 1952. We were married eight years before we had Jeff, and then four years later in 1956 Jerry was born. They spent their elementary days, school days in Greensburg. Jerry wasn’t even in school when we moved to Lewistown and his elementary years were spent in Lewistown. Jeff graduated from Lewistown High School.
Prato: Before we go back to how you got into broadcasting, Jeff and Jerry both have children. How many grandchildren do you have?
Fisher: Well, I have six grandchildren [and] one great grandchild. Jeff has three, two sons and a daughter and a grandson, Jerry has a stepdaughter, a daughter and a son. And so that’s about it.
Prato: Okay, now let’s go back to the broadcasting. When your friend called and asked you to do this game, what was the game? What was it all about? What year was it?
Fisher: Well I knew you were going to ask me that. It had to be in the ‘50s, had to be in the early ‘50s as a matter of fact. And what happened was, I was a real avid sports fan, Greensburg High School sports fan. Went to all the games: football, basketball, wrestling, you name it. I was there and I had gotten to know the manager of this radio station because we were both members of a service club and we were good friends. And I was always teasing him about his talent that he used. And as it happened Greensburg won their basketball section and thereby qualified for the WPIAA playoffs. The playoffs at that time were all held at the Pitt Fieldhouse, the old Pitt field house up on the hill. Greensburg was scheduled to play Ford City. That was the game that the station manager had sold and got set up to broadcast and then canned his announcer. Now actually he asked my brother-in-law [to broadcast the game]. My brother-in-law was a wrestling coach and he was also a friend of the station manger and.
Prato: What’s your brother-in-law’s name?
Fisher: My brother-in-law’s name was Ace Wiley.
Prato: Ace Willey from Greensburg.
Fisher: Greensburg, that is correct. The captain of that football team we talked about and ultimately the wrestling coach at Greensburg High School. And Ace said, “Well I am not interested in doing that but I bet you my brother-in-law would. You mean Frances Fisher?” I wasn’t known as Fran then. And he said, “Well yeah, it’s funny you would say that Ace because he’s been a little critical. I am going to give him a call.” Well that’s how it happened. So we went there, did the game. I had one condition, I said to George Podine. “I want to bring a guy along as my helper. I want to name that guy and I want to bring the football coach of Greensburg, who was also savvy in basketball to cover my mistakes.” He said, “That’s no big deal.” So we did the game, and lo and behold Greensburg won. We had to do another one.
Prato: So what was the football coach’s name?
Fisher: Earl Ewing. He came to Greensburg from Rochester, Pennsylvania, and he and I did that game, then we did the next game. Then the manager of the radio station got very excited because he said we’re going to do football in the fall. Well, Greensburg High School football was never done. They didn’t believe in live broadcasting. I said, well you don’t have permission to do that. He said do you know anybody on the school board. As it so happened, the business I was working for in this handwriting business, the owner of that business was president of school board.
Prato: His name?
Fisher: Bill Peterson. So he said would you meet with the school board for us? I said sure so I went to the school board, made a presentation [and] said this guy wants to do the games. He’s got a sponsor that wants to do football. And it would be too bad if they did Jeanette and not Greensburg. We’ll pay you $50 a game. And they said okay. So now we’re doing high school football. Well, pretty soon, as you might suspect, the tail started wagging the dog and I wind up in the radio business.
Prato: And what was the station?
Fisher: WHJB Greensburg, 620, at that time the only nighttime station in Westmoreland County. And there we go—away we go.
Prato: So you quit the writing business?
Fisher: I quit the writing business
Prato: What did you do at the station at the time?
Fisher: What happened was unbelievable. Between the time we finished basketball [and] got permission to do football, the radio station manager died very suddenly. And we were about to get into doing football when I went to the station, talked to the program director, who was then running the station and didn’t know whether a football was blown up or stuffed, and I said, Okay it’s time to do the football broadcast, how do we do that? He said, well we’re just not going to be able to do it unless we have sponsors. I said what do you mean we’re not going to be able to do it. I went to the school board, blah, blah. Well he said, we don’t have the time sold, and if we can’t sell it we’re just not going to do it. I said how do you do that? And he gives me a rate card. Now this is a true story: I went home and there was a guy putting a furnace in my cellar and it just so happened that this guy’s son was the fullback on the Greensburg High School team. I went downstairs in the basement while they were hammering away. I looked at the card and said, “Hey, what you ought to do is sponsor the very first broadcast of high school football.” He said, “Okay.”
Prato: What was his name? What was the company?
Fisher: John Paletta Advanced Heating in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. John Paletta was the guy’s name. Well I sold him a chunk and then I went to see the guy who was my dry-cleaning guy. whose son also was on the team. Westmoreland Dry Cleaning. Sold him a chunk. Now I get this thought. I am looking at this rate card. Oh, by the way, I said to the guy how do I make money on this? Well he said you got to add on whatever you think you should make on top of the time charge. So I said well $10 a game isn’t bad so I added $10 a game. And I am thinking all these other places they do pregame shows, and I see the charge for 15 minutes and I went and I sold a pregame show and added another $10 bucks. In fact I added $40 bucks for the play-by-play: ten bucks for me, ten bucks for the color guy, ten bucks for the statistician, ten bucks or the engineer. That was the fee and it just started mushrooming like that. Now, I had saved a few bucks and I got in the record business in Greensburg.
Prato: While you were still in radio?
Fisher: While I was still in radio, because the radio wasn’t exactly life sustaining. You don’t make any money in small-market radio. Now, of course, I dreamed up a lot of shows. I had a Saturday morning high school coaches show, and every time I sold that 15-minute slot or half hour slug, I added $10. Then I started doing a weekly, or a daily evening show at 5 o’clock, a regular evening sports show. And once again I sold it and added 10 bucks for the old guy (Fisher). And that’s the way this thing got stated. When I was in the record business, that’s where I lost my first fortune.
Prato: What got you into the record business?
Fisher: Well, I was always interested in things musical, and at that time the advent of stereophonic sound was capturing the imagination of people. I thought now is the time to get into the record business, and when I got in the record business I bought every stereo LP that was out and there was only about 20. Of course, in another three months there were 200 and in another six months there were 6,000 and so that was my theory. I sold equipment, too, high fidelity equipment.
Prato: So you had a store.
Fisher: I had a store in Greensburg.
Prato: What was the store called?
Fisher: Fran Fisher’s Audio Room. Boy, it was a biggie.
Prato: Where was it located?
Fisher: It was located on Otterman Street in downtown State College, right across from the theater.
Prato: Downtown Greensburg?
Fisher: Downtown Greensburg, I beg your pardon.
Prato: That was your sideline business?
Fisher: I don’t know which was sideline to be perfectly honest with you. Except that Kelly and Cohn came to town and National Record Marts and put me out of business. I sold 45 rpm records for 75 cents and it cost me 60. Kelly and Cohn came to town and sold them for 69 cents. The record distributors took care of those people, they didn’t take care of old Fran. Long story. But while I was in the record business I had a good customer from Jeanette. His name was Robert Wilson, Bob Wilson, whom I had met on several occasions. But he used to come to town because he was married to a girl from Greensburg, and come in my record store and spend an hour going through my LPs. He bought a lot of stuff and he used to say to me, Hey Fran, why don’t you come and work for a good radio station?
Prato: Where was his radio station?
Fisher: Lewistown, Pennsylvania. His station was in Lewistown.
Prato: What was it called?
Fisher: WKVA in Lewistown.
Prato: I said, “Bob, you can’t afford me.” And he’d laughed and that would be the end of that. He’d wink and then he’d come again. He’d buy more records. He programmed his station himself with music that he wanted and he bought it to play. And once again, [he said], “Hey, why don’t you leave this deadbeat station.” [I said] “No, you can’t afford me.” One day he came in and he never asked me that. And I am going broke and I am ready to close. He doesn’t know that. And finally I couldn’t wait any longer, I said, “Hey Bob, you know you can afford me now.” So off I come to Lewistown.
Prato: What year was this?
Fisher: That would be 1960, ‘ 61.
Prato: So how long was your record store in business?
Fisher: Two years, I lasted two years. I was on a shoestring; I had no cash flow.
Prato: What did the radio station think when you left them? Did they try to keep you or anything like that?
Fisher: No, no my relationship with that radio station was not very good. It was owned by the Brennan family in Pittsburgh, the family that put KQV and WJAS on the air, and WHUB was managed by remote. You know the manager was one of the sons and he commuted and didn’t care much about the station. It was a wreck, an absolute wreck. It had tremendous potential as a radio station but there was no feeling for the community. If it weren’t for sports there would be no relationship at all in the community. So I was disenchanted with them anyway. Even though I called my own shots, they didn’t manage me.
Prato: How old were you then at this time?
Fisher: Well I would be, let’s see, I’d be 37, 36.
Prato: Had couple young kids?
Fisher: Still a couple of young kids
Prato: Did Charlotte work?
Fisher: Charlotte worked at the same place I did with the handwriting outfit and still did, even though I left there. And so we packed it up and came to Lewiston. Now Bob Wilson incidentally worked for Bill Uhlrich and put WMAJ on the air, hired Mickey Bergstein, and for a year did Penn State football with Bob Prince. At the time he hired me, it was a daytime only station. So he didn’t do any sports and he was a sports nut.
Prato: Bob Wilson was a Penn State guy, too.
Fisher: A Penn State guy.
Prato: A graduate, sports editor of the Daily Collegian.
Fisher: Absolutely. He was sports-oriented guy and what happened was he got some money. He got some angel to help him get the frequency for a radio station in Lewistown. So that’s where he went and put the station on the air. He was going full time and he wanted somebody to be sales manager and sports announcer, which is the ideal combination for a small-market station because you can’t make any money without the other. And that’s what happened. So up I came to Lewistown. Finally, he made me manager of the station and I ran the station. We were a network station, the Penn State football network station and Bob was gung ho. We did a lot of promotion, always came over on “Picture Day.” Did a lot of interviews, lot of pictures. I even came over and did some basketball games because there were no basketball network games. Did a couple of wrestling matches because there was an interest beyond football.
Prato: And nobody had done this?
Fisher: Nobody had done this.
Prato: What about the State College radio station?
Fisher: Oh yes, WMAJ was an excellent outlet but WMAJ didn’t have a signal. WKVA was at 920 on the dial and came booming into State College back then, as a matter of fact. So I got associated with Penn State and got to know Jim Tarman, who was the sports information director. And I worked through him. He was delighted that we would come over and do game, anything to help promote the sport, even then basketball was difficult to promote. So that’s how I got involved. One day that led into my ultimate association with the Penn State football network.
Prato: So for several years you were just a regular sportscaster in coming over here? You had your own job; you were running the station.
Fisher: That’s correct.
Prato: But you were coming over here and got deeply involved with Penn State’s sports.
Fisher: That’s correct.
Prato: And when did you become the involved with the radio network? We have to understand it was a very small network back then.
Fisher: Yes, it was.
Prato: Was it when Rip Engle was still coaching or was Joe Paterno the coach?
Fisher: Well when I got involved is when Joe became the coach. And what happened was I used to talk quite a bit with Jim Tarman, getting news, getting information, setting up interviews. And one day he called me and said, hey Fran, the producer of the Penn State football radio network is going to add a voice to the network broadcast, why don’t you send him an audition tape. Well, of course, anybody in the radio business knows an audition tape is the ultimate. You don’t send any screwed up mistakes, you send them your best thing. It was 1966 and it went into early August. I heard nothing from Castleman-Chesley who was the guy who owned the rights to Penn State football radio. And finally in early August or maybe late July, but at the eleventh hour, he called me and said, “We’re going to hire you.” I couldn’t understand because Cas had no larynx and he belched his words. The only thing I knew was that he was going to hire me. He told me what he was going to pay but I couldn’t hear, I didn’t care.
Prato: So during the time you covered, before Joe Paterno became the coach, during Rip’s [era] you’d go to the press party.
Fisher: Oh, absolutely, absolutely.
Prato: You became a very familiar figure. How many people were involved with Penn State football media at that time before Joe Paterno?
Fisher: Well, it wasn’t bad. It wasn’t bad. There was still the area interest in Penn State football: the Clearfields, maybe not the Readings and the Harrisburgs. Yes, Harrisburg always sent a photographer and Ronnie Crist and I forgot the guy who preceded Ronnie. There was area interest no question about it.
Prato: Rusty Cohen.
Fisher: Rusty Cohen, that’s the guy; you hit it right on the nose. And there was Pittsburgh interest. The old Pittsburg writers from the Press and the Post-Gazette would cover the games. So it wasn’t like there was a tremendous influx of interest when Joe became coach.
Prato: Philadelphia papers?
Fisher: Oh yeah, Bill Conlin and Bill Lyons. I can’t think of the guy’s name from the [Philadelphia] Bulletin.
Prato: Frank Yetter?
Fisher: Frank Yetter.
Prato: And occasionally the New York papers would come in.
Fisher: Yeah, Gordon White would show up—not every game—but there was interest in Penn State. Now there was much more interest when Joe became coach and proved that he was on his way to making Penn State a national football power instead of an eastern [power]. You see Penn State even in Rip Engle’s tenure was an eastern power, quote, unquote, and so New York is in the east and Philadelphia is in the east and they don’t have anybody to cover but the Ivy League, so [they covered] Penn State and along with Syracuse and Pitt.
Prato: And Army and Navy?
Fisher: Yeah, they were they were reputable as an eastern “power.” The Lambert Trophy was a big deal.
Prato: So you came to Penn State you join the broadcast team. You are there for Joe Paterno’s first game?
Fisher: Uh, huh.
Prato: At Beaver Field.
Prato: Beaver Stadium.
Prato: Who was on the broadcast team and who did it before you were involved?
Fisher: Okay, the broadcast team prior to my joining was strictly Tom Bender [doing] play-by-play and Mickey Bergstein [doing] color. Now the reason why Cas wanted to add another voice was because he wanted somebody to fill the commercial breaks. At the time, the commercial content of the games were the responsibility of the individual stations. There was no network sponsor so to speak. So every time there was a commercial break every individual station broke away and plugged in their own commercial for their own client. He had a station in Philadelphia, WCAU-FM, who didn’t want to fill those spots. They didn’t want a guy on the board filling those spots. So my main responsibility on the broadcast was whenever Bender would say, “We’ll be right back after this message,” if it was a 30-second [spot], I filled that 30 seconds.
Prato: What would you fill it with?
Fisher: Whatever came to mind. I had Tarman’s release in front of me and I’d make observations about the game. Now that wasn’t a very good idea for this reason. Let’s say a station in Lewistown was doing a commercial while I was “BS-ing” to WCAU, and if their commercial came up short they get me in the end of my “BS” to or if they went long they missed. Oh, it was a disaster.
Prato: This is that first year, 1966?
Prato: So Tom Bender was the play by play [announcer] and you and Mickey did color.
Fisher: That's correct. That’s the way to put it.
Prato: Was there any problem in that booth? I mean three men in a booth?
Fisher: It doesn’t work. I told Jim and I told Tom: “Look, I am not going to get in a microphone struggle with Mickey. He’s been around a long time and I am the new guy on the block. If you cue me Tom, that’s fine, but you know Mickey had been the color guy and what the color guy does is make an observation after every play.” So he was accustomed to doing that. Now I wasn’t going to grab the microphone away from him. So it was very awkward to be perfectly honest with you.
Prato: Now, I am going to throw something in here they may take out, but did you have a spotter?
Fisher: You rascal, you. Tom Bender had the best spotter in the world.
Prato: What was his name?
Fisher: I can’t remember. It starts with a P and it ends with a vowel, so I know it was Italian.
Prato: That’s where we met, Fran.
Fisher: That is exactly right.
Prato: In the booth in Beaver Stadium.
Fisher: Tom Bender was quite a guy. He was very busy. He was the sports director of KDKA in Pittsburgh and did the pregame show for the Pirates. (Bob) Prince used to get ticked off because he didn’t do the pregame show, Bender did. Bender was so busy in the Pittsburgh market, you didn’t see much of Tom. Occasionally he’d come up Friday before the game but rarely. Most of the time he came in the day of the game.
Prato: But because he had this connection he actually broke the story that Joe was going to succeed Rip [as head coach].
Fisher: That’s correct, that’s correct. He had the connection.
Prato: So before we get back to talk about your impression of Joe’s first season and the next few seasons, what happened then in the broadcast booth in ’67 when you eventually became the play-by- play man. How did that occur?
Fisher: Well, the change had to come in 1970.
Prato: So it was not until 1970?
Fisher: That’s right. It was at the end of the 1969 season that Bender and KDKA got in a contract dispute, and Bender changed to WCAE in Pittsburgh. Now that meant that if KDKA was to be continue to be a member of the Penn State football radio network, that Bender would have to be replaced because Bill Hartman, the manger of KDKA, made it known right on that if you want us on the network, you ain’t going to have Bender. We’re not going to have Bender’s competing voice on our radio, he said. You are going to have to do something. And we wanted—Penn State wanted—KDKA’s 50,000 watts in Pittsburgh’s back yard.
Prato: Particularly competing against Pitt.
Fisher: Particularly competing against Pitt. And the story about how Pitt lost KDKA is an interesting one but we’ll not get into that. So Mickey Bergstein and I agreed that the three men in the booth was certainly not necessary. The only way a third man would be appropriate would be [on the] sideline and that wasn’t going to happen with Joe. No sideline reporter. So I said to Mickey, “Why don’t you and I do it or think about doing it. I’ll do play-by play, you do color.” He said, “That’s good.” So I went to Scanell.
Prato: Scanell is?
Fisher: Bob Scannell was the dean of the College of Health, Physical Education and Recreation, really the boss. [Edward] Czekaj was the AD but Bob Scannell called the shots. I guess Mickey knew this because I wasn’t working at Penn State at the time.
Prato: Mickey was a professor.
Fisher: That’s right and had a long time association, and suggested that we do the Blue-White game on tape. And we did. We did the Blue-White game, did it on tape, and presented the tape to the committee. I don’t know who it was, probably Scannell, Czekaj, Tarman and maybe Joe [Paterno], I don’t know. And they decided we’re going to give it a shot. And that’s how I became play by play [announcer] in 1970. Now the interesting part of this, Lou, well, maybe it’s interesting, I don’t know. But when we went to see KDKA after the 1970 season, by that time I was working at the university. I said to Jim on the way to Pittsburgh, I said, “Now Jim, KDKA is going to want their own guy to do this Penn State football if they stay on the network. And I want you to know it’s not going to come as a shock to me if Bill Hartman says we want whoever our sports director is now, to be the voice of Penn State football if you expect us to carry your games. I said, I am prepared for that. So don’t worry about it.” Well, we went to Pittsburgh. We’re wined and dined by Bill Hartman, went to the Pirates game, sat in the booth, and so forth. Next morning when it comes time to talk about football 1971, Jim finally asked the question, Well, how did things go in 1970? Are you satisfied with the way things are? Hartman says there has got to be a talent change. I said, “Well, here it comes.” The talent change he said had to be made was Bergstein not Fisher.
Prato: That’s what he told you.
Fisher: That’s what he told us, and Hartman moved on to say, “Jim you’re the guy who ought to work with Fran on these radio broadcasts because you guys are together on that TV show. You are a close friend of Paterno. It has a lot of credibility and you’d be the perfect partner.” And that shocked the devil out of Jim, and me too, as a matter of fact. So to make a long story short, that’s what transpired. And it killed Jim to tell Mickey.
Prato: That would have to be one of the hardest things that Jim ever did.
Fisher: One of the hardest decisions because they were very close, always very close. And after long discussions within the department, of which I was not a part, that decision was made. I was working in the Wagner Building at WPSX. So he called me and told me that he had broken the news to Mickey. I got in the car and went right downtown to the building where WMAJ’s office was, walked right into Mickey, and said, “Mickey, I want you to know that I had nothing to do with this. I don’t want you to think that I undercut you.” But I said, “I also want you to know I didn’t defend you either. I stayed out of it entirely, now my conscience is clear.” I am not sure that Mickey didn’t think that I had something to do with it.
Prato: So Mickey was out. He was the station manager at the time.
Fisher: That is correct, WMAJ.
Prato: And doing his part-time teaching.
Prato: And that probably had to be a very serious blow to Mickey. Mickey is as well known as you are in this area.
Fisher: He was a pioneer; he was a pioneer in broadcasting, not just sports. An outstanding radio executive, manger, and his sports thing was a gig for him, just as it was for me, until it became all encompassing. My radio experience had as much to do with the management aspect of radio as it did the sports broadcasting aspect of radio. And it was a terrible blow to Mickey, hurt his feelings thinking that KDKA could call the shots. Now you must understand that Jim could have made the decision: hey you are not as important as Bergstein is to us. That’s a tough, tough thing to do when Joe was constantly harping, “I want coverage, we need coverage, we need coverage, we need coverage.” And as a result of that with Castleman-Chesley’s business with Notre Dame having to do with the delayed television broadcast.
Prato: Very famous delayed television broadcast.
Prato: Same company.
Fisher: And he was so busy with that that he did not do anything to nurture extensive coverage. Jim said to me, “What are we going to do about coverage? I said, “Well, do it yourself.” Because Joe’s philosophy was this: He did not look at radio as a revenue producer. He said, I don’t care how much money we make; I want coverage. Well, that’s a delight because you can make deals nice deals for radio stations and the stations loved it. Again it was all local sales. So the stations paid X number of dollars a game, rights fee, minimal. They had the ability to really recover that cost.
Prato: They could go out and sell their own [advertising].
Fisher: Absolutely, they could sell it and had a small nut to crack, so the radio stations loved it. So as a result the network grew. It became a good size network within the Commonwealth. It was always a tough sell outside of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Fisher: Well, there was always something else more important, like in West Virginia. I did get to a West Virginia station when I started doing it myself. No, I didn’t even do it. Tarman was in charge of it, but I used to get a broadcast annual and make phone calls to solicit because people recognized who I was. I got a West Virginia station, managed by, would you believe, Roger Corey.
Prato: Who is now involved with today’s broadcasts.
Fisher: And where was it? Moundsville? I forget where it was. The next year I called him to renew. He said, are you kidding me? I almost got railroaded out of town carrying Penn State football in the state of West Virginia.
Prato: So did the network ever make money?
Prato: And did Chesley have the rights throughout this time and when did Penn State take over the rights themselves?
Fisher: It had to be ’67 or ‘ 68 that Penn State took over the rights. The contract with Chesley was not renewed. I don’t remember when that expiration was, whether it was ‘ 67 or ’68. But that’s when Tarman’s office, as he had become sports information director, and it was his responsibility to contract with the stations as Chesley had done. So each station contracted with Penn State athletics and agreed to carry the games under certain conditions and so on and so forth. And of course that, coupled with Joe’s success, made it a seller’s market no question about it.
Prato: So KDKA was really the key to a lot of this happening.
Prato: Because of its signal and power and alumni in the Pittsburgh area?
Fisher: Because of the signal, that’s exactly right. KDKA was a 50,000-watt clear channel. If it was a night game you could hear it in all over the country.
Prato: And at the time—we’re talking about the late ‘ 60s, early ‘70s—television was very restricted. That may be one of the reasons why Penn State radio was important to Joe.
Fisher: That’s exactly right, precisely correct. The combination of that and the television exposure he got with the TV quarterback show was significant to him. Joe knows what he’s talking about, as has been proven on so many occasions. But he was interested in getting the word out, the good word out. He knew that the more stations that were on that dial as people were driving around, you couldn’t help but find every station as you travel around. And so with the restriction of the NCAA—I think at the time school was not allowed to have more than three telecasts in a given season. And there might have been two with a third exception or something I am not I can’t just remember the specifics of the NCAA regulation. So as a result radio was a very significant thing.
Prato: So in essence, the Penn State football program was helped in its growth probably more in those days by radio than even television.
Fisher: That’s probably an accurate statement.
Prato: Now you talked about ““TV Quarterbacks.” Why don’t you tell us how you came to work for Penn State and how this “TV Quarterbacks” developed. Because even though “TV Quarterbacks” is no longer around, they are doing replays. You are as well known for “TV Quarterbacks” because it was statewide, too.
Fisher: Well, I was offered the job by a guy named Marlowe Froke, who offered me a job in the Division of Broadcasting.
Prato: And Marlowe’s position was?
Fisher: Marlowe Froke was the director of broadcasting for Penn State, which included WPSX, which is the licensed public station to the university. And I had known Marlowe as being a devoted sports fan. He and I were friends and there became an opening in the division of broadcasting to do things other than sports. There were no sports on WPSX when I first started work there. I did a lot of things for WPSX. I did school board meetings, I did the Farm Show, I did a lot of things. And he offered me a job to begin January 1, 1970, which would so happen to be the first year that I was to be the Penn State football broadcaster, coincidentally. And after having worked there for a very short space of time, Marlowe came to me one day say isn’t there some kind of sports other than “TV Quarterbacks”, which we’re doing? Well, I am getting ahead of myself. The reason I got to know Marlowe Froke is because Joe wanted to know if I would help on “TV Quarterbacks” in 1967.
Prato: So going back before you came to work here you were still the color man.
Fisher: That’s right.
Prato: And Joe needed help on a new show.
Fisher: Now it wasn’t a new show, Lou. “TV Quarterbacks” was done with Rip [Engle] and Joe took over that show. I was with him at a banquet, in of all places Greensburg, where I was there to attract the ladies and Joe was there to attract the jocks. And while we were eating, he said, are you familiar with “TV Quarterbacks”? I was, I had watched the show. Well, he said, well my coaches narrate the game films and they hate doing that. Would you be interested? Well, I thought this is just the beginning. I‘ll be at ABC in another two years, because now they can see me in addition to hearing me. Well, anyway Marlowe Froke called me because Joe called him. He said would you be interested? I said sure. I went over and met Marlowe. We talked about how we are going to do it, here’s what you have to do, here’s what we’re going to pay you. I think it was $30 bucks a show. And I dashed back and forth from Lewistown to State College to narrate those films live and that got me involved with WPSX and that’s when Marlowe offered me the job. Then he asked me, “Isn’t there some sports we can do other than ‘TV Quarterbacks’—things that the commercial guys aren’t interested in.” I said absolutely. He said like what. I said like the PIAA wrestling that’s coming up here in January or whenever it was. He said, is there a lot of interest? I said is there a lot of interest. So he says we got to get permission to do it. I got the permission to do it. And we did the PIAA wrestling. And the stations around the state loved it, too, because there were kids from all over the state. Then we did some Penn State basketball, we did some Penn State wrestling. We did gymnastics, we did a couple of [Coach Jerry] Wettstone’s international meets. We got a sports image. And we carried things basically that the commercial guys showed no interest in. And that was the function presumably of public broadcasting, so that’s how that got started. Then when I came to work at PSX, or the Division of Broadcast, my responsibility was, in addition to these other little ancillary things that I did, producing those sports programs including “TV Quarterbacks”. So that’s how that got started. And finally I was doing so many sports things, that I was transferred at Jim’s observation, to the Athletic Department. But I still had the responsibility of those programs.
Prato: And when did this occur?
Fisher: I knew you were going to ask me that.
Prato: 1971 or ’72?
Fisher: More like ’73 or ’74.
Prato: That’s when you were full time with the athletic department.
Fisher: That’s exactly right. I moved over there full time because we had a number of things. Then my total responsibility was the radio. Jim [Tarman] had no responsibility from that point on, except to supervise me. But it was my responsibility to put the network together. I spent summers visiting, stations, stroking stations that were already members, looking at the potential of getting a new station, and also the development of a highlight film, which was an important thing prior to the exclusive television thing.
Prato: Until television broke open?
Fisher: Because people we used to distribute that film through audio visual services and it was amazing how many entities within the Commonwealth would want that film for a program: Kiwanis Clubs, Rotary Clubs, Lions Clubs, alumni groups.
Prato: So we’re talking about the annual video.
Fisher: Then it was 16mm film.
Prato: And the reason was because most people had not been able to see these games.
Fisher: That’s exactly right.
Prato: So when did when did you get involved and who did you get involved with to produce this annual video?
Fisher: Well, Telra Productions in Wayne, Pennsylvania, had been the producer of the highlight film since 1966, so it was my responsibility to work with Bill Ohr at Telra the development of a highlight film. And what he would do was rough cut it. We’d look at it, then we’d make some changes. And he understood Coach Paterno’s mentality with regard to that film. He knew what Joe wanted. So it was not a difficult task. Joe wanted every senior highlighted in the film, which is hard to do if he’s a center, but that was an important thing to him. You can’t have the underclassmen on until all the seniors are on, including walk-ons. So that was part of my responsibility and the production of these television shows which developed into not only “TV Quarterbacks,” but a show with the basketball coach when Harter came to town. And a show with the women’s basketball coach when Renee [Portland] came to town. And all those things were within my realm of responsibility.
Prato: So the Telra productions, the radio production, all helped to get the image boost the image.
Fisher: Uh, huh.
Prato: Go back to “TV Quarterbacks” again because you said something. You said Joe actually was the producer because he determined the style of the show.
Fisher: Yes, the only thing he had any real input on was the selection of the players to be interviewed on the show. And I would ask him or I would suggest. We’d finish a show on a Wednesday and I’d say, Hey Joe, how about [Greg] Buttle, and so and so for next week. And he’d say yeah that was okay, or he’d say, don’t forget so and so. Then on Monday I’d go in the locker room after practice and these guys would be hiding their heads or there would be guys like Buttle who would be waving their hand.
Prato: Gregg Buttle, the linebacker.
Fisher: Yeah and I would suggest to these guys, I would like them to be on the show and explained they had to be there at 6:45 at WPSX. You know where it is, and be sure and wear a coat, and tie, blah, blah, blah, and it’s an ad lib thing. No preparation. We just sit down and talk. And that’s the way it worked.
Prato: So how long did “TV Quarterbacks” go and when was it aired?
Fisher: Okay, “TV Quarterbacks.” Well, let’s see, it started, as I suggested, before Paterno, and then Paterno became the star of the show, if you please.
Prato: He replaced all his assistant coaches that were going on.
Fisher: That’s correct.
Prato: You did, too.
Fisher: I did the narrative. That’s all I did to begin with, all I did was narrate the game film live, looking at a monitor reading the play-by-play sheet. Joe used to complain about the lights because you had to have a lot of lights in black and white television. Boy, it was hot and Joe would get disgruntled: Can’t we turn these lights out, can’t we turn these lights out. So it was a full show. We showed the whole game, every play. The show was an hour and a half long.
Prato: And when did it air?
Fisher: Aired at seven o’clock on Wednesdays.
Prato: Was it aired live?
Fisher: Live, never taped.
Fisher: Never taped. Now the network stations, the so-called network stations in Pittsburgh, Erie, Hershey, Philadelphia, Lehigh Valley, and Wilkes-Barre / Scranton, sometimes taped the show and aired at a different time. It was their option. And then it was cut to an hour and what we showed were the coaches films, which means that all 22 guys are in the frame and people used to complain that they couldn’t see the players or the numbers. And Jim [Tarman] would read letters. Jim would read letters to Joe and Joe used to get so ticked off, because Nick Thiel and Ray Conger were his photographers and they were doing a great job for his purpose, but he hated to see people complaining about that all the time. And one night it tipped him over and as soon as the show was over, he called Dave Betts, the director, and said, Hey, you are not getting our films anymore, figure out how you are going to show the game. Well, the next morning—I wasn’t working over here yet—but I get a call from Marlowe Froke. Hey Fran, We’re having a little change in our film. We are going to send our own film camera crew. I said, really. How did that happen? He said, you don’t want to ask. So Joe called somebody—I would bet Floyd Fisher, the director of the VP for continuing ed—who called Marlowe Froke, who called Dave Betts and then called Tarman. And by the time it got back to me, low man on the totem pole, that was the thing. So from that point on then we had the we had the ability to edit the show, the game content.
Prato: Really could do highlights.
Fisher: That's correct. So at the end of the radio broadcast each week I would get the play-by-play sheet and I would bracket groups of plays that I thought should be on the show, give it to the cinematographer, get the film overnight developed in Altoona, so that he could get it back Sunday to edit for me to narrate a voice track on Monday or Tuesday to air on Wednesday.
Prato: Air on Wednesday.
Fisher: And that’s the way that worked.
Prato: So when did the Quarterback show end and then become a highlight show? You were still involved deeply with the program at the time?
Fisher: Oh yeah, I was always involved with the program, but what happened was this. Joe was so enthralled with the Notre Dame package of delayed television on Sunday that he felt it essential that Penn State had to have the same kind of presentation. And he got an outfit to do it for one year. TPC (Total Production Company) and they did a highlight show that was re-broadcast on Sunday. Now keep in mind this was back at the time when it was regulated how many live telecasts you should have so the Sunday replay was significant. And they did it live on tape. In other words they did as though there were it was right on the air right then. And then it was edited and Ray Scott used to say, “Now on to further action.” Everybody knows that line. And that show then enabled people to see on Sunday the highlights of yesterday’s game. Now that put really “TV Quarterbacks” and this production, which ultimately wound up with TCS and Nelson Goldberg, in competition with each other and the network public stations understood that, and so there was reluctance to carry “TV Quarterbacks” outside of the WPSX area. In fact, I guess it was ’80 or ’81 I don’t remember, maybe ’79. Pittsburgh said we’re not carrying “TV Quarterbacks” anymore. Philadelphia said we’re not carrying “TV Quarterbacks” anymore. Erie said we’re not carrying “TV Quarterbacks.” Now all of a sudden “TV Quarterbacks”’ impact was absolutely insignificant. Because all of those markets, including outside the state that Nelson had put together, were getting the exposure that Joe kept talking about. So I had a meeting with Joe and Nelson Goldberg, and I said we’re working at cross-purposes here. Why don’t you put Joe into your format and then we’ve got the best of both worlds. They both agreed to that. And it never happened. Joe never got involved with the delayed show, never got involved. But that’s the only thing “TV Quarterbacks” had that the delayed Sunday show didn’t have. We had Paterno and I thought if that could be incorporated in the other show, plus the fact that there was reluctance on WPSX to spend those kind of production dollars on a show that was not having the interest, and so “TV Quarterbacks” went by the boards.
Prato: And what replaced it? Did anything?
Fisher: Only the delayed television show, that’s the only thing.
Prato: That was on for a number of years.
Fisher: Oh, yes. It was on for a number of years and succeeded even after the Georgia thing that won the lawsuit against the NCAA, which enabled teams to put their own games on. But as that became more prolific then of course the use or the value of a delayed show was not significant at all. So that went by the boards.
Prato: By this time though, that’s when the team was really successful. We’re going to get back to that, but the one other element in all this was the call-in show on radio.
Fisher: That’s correct.
Prato: How did that develop?
Fisher: Well, whenever there was a development of getting back to selling the rights, there was an interest in having radio a money producer, in addition to the so-called coverage, because the coverage was now being taken care of by live TV. So that coverage aspect that Joe was so insistent upon wasn’t as significant as it was. So now how are we going to get radio to make some money?
Prato: Coverage really wasn’t thought about at that point.
Fisher: Not at the time, not at the time. And the problem was that the cost of transmission of the radio network had become had become so significant, it was all done with phone lines. That was before satellites. And the cost had to be borne by the member stations. Now their rights fee kept increasing and increasing and increasing to the point where they had a tough time cracking the nut. So how are we going to make it easier for the stations to become members of the network? The easiest way is to claim some of the commercial inventory and sell it to a national sponsor or a network sponsor. So the station didn’t pay as much and get almost the same number of spots because they filled the doggone format up with commercials. And that’s when it became a network production kind of thing.
Prato: But Penn State sold their rights to let somebody else do the work.
Fisher: That's correct.
Prato: They made enough money to make it worthwhile.
Fisher: That’s correct. And one of the things they wanted to do was add that Thursday night call-in show so they had something else to sell.
Prato: So it was the rights holder at the time.
Fisher: That’s correct. The rights holder at the time wanted that show to be part of the big package, and once again, they would sell that show to the network stations and claim commercial announcements, so that the local station had X number of spots to sell themselves and the potential of making a buck existed for the local stations. Well, I was the play-by play-guy, so it was only natural I guess that I should do the call-in show on Thursday night. Even after I retired from the university in ’88 I kept doing that show because there was nobody else. Bill Zimpher was the play-by-play guy and he was in Philadelphia, so he couldn’t do the Thursday night shows. So I just kept doing it, even after I stopped doing the play-by-play. That was the “Nittany Lion Hotline.”
Prato: I want to get through your career here because you then started doing basketball play-by- play at Penn State all the time. And eventually you got out of the athletic department and became part of the Nittany Lion Club and were then called back from your retirement to do play-by-play again. You want to go into this?
Fisher: Well, part of my responsibility when I was moved over to the athletic department, so to speak, was to find enough for me to do in the athletic department. And one of them was to put together a basketball radio network because their basketball coverage was excellent. WMAJ had done the local thing for years and years and years.
Prato: It was only local?
Fisher: It was strictly local and this is no reflection on WMAJ, but their nighttime signal was not very strong, so essentially it was a local broadcast in the strictest sense of the word. So I said, Jim [Tarman] we ought to try to put a network together basketball network. He said that’s fine. How are we going to do that? I said, well we’ve got to bribe the football stations is what we’ve got to do. We gave football stations a break if they would carry the Eastern Athletic League games. We got about nine stations, I think, that first year, to carry Penn State basketball. And that’s how that got started.
Prato: What year was the basketball [broadcast]?
Fisher: Oh, okay this would be 1970.
Prato: That’s when you started doing that?
Fisher: Yeah, 1970, I think it was 1970, and I did it all by myself. And the first game was against the University of Massachusetts. I screwed it up royally probably because it’s like rubbing your belly and patting your head. You’ve got to figure remember to start the stopwatch on commercial beaks. You got to remember to start them right on time, but I finally got the hang of it and did it all by myself that year. Of course, now that I think about it Jerry [Fisher] does it himself now, but he’s younger than I am. Next year I said to Jim, I said I could sure use help on basketball. He said, well why don’t you hire somebody. I don’t know why I didn’t say that to him the first year. So I hired John Grant, who actually took my job at WPSX when I moved over to athletics. And we did that. And finally I got involved in more things, including the Nittany Lion Club. I just had to stop doing basketball and, ultimately, I stopped doing football too. But it was an interesting trying to sell basketball. It must be difficult now. I don’t imagine what these guys are doing to sell basketball. They’ve got to carry it, I guess.
Prato: So you said you retired in 1988?
Fisher: From the university.
Prato: When did you when did you stop doing the play-by-play of football?
Fisher: Okay, I stopped doing the play-by-play on football after the first national championship game in the Sugar Bowl because added to my responsibilities was the Nittany Lion Club business. And I just thought that especially on football weekends, there are things I should be doing relative to the Nittany Lion Club rather than sitting in a broadcast booth.
Prato: So 1982 season was your last?
Fisher: That is correct, well ’81 season.
Prato: The ’81 season
Fisher: The ’82 Sugar Bowl game.
Prato: The ’83 Sugar Bowl season.
Fisher: Oh, I’m sorry, I’m a year behind. I beg your pardon.
Prato: And did you already have duties with the Nittany Lion Club in ’81 and in ’82?
Fisher: That is correct.
Prato: Just a couple years.
Fisher: That’s correct, until such time as Jim wanted me to devote my entire time to the Nittany Lion Club and not get involved with highlight films and the rest of that stuff because some of the radio network stuff had been taken care of by the rights holder and “TV Quarterbacks” were no longer there. So my time was directed to the Nittany Lion Club for the last four years that I was on staff.
Prato: In addition you still did the Thursday night call-in show?
Fisher: I did the Thursday night call-in show, that’s correct.
Prato: And you were the MC, you were still sort of the front of the program in many ways. They asked you to come back after they went through three or four different announcers and you worked with George Paterno.
Fisher: That is correct.
Prato: What brought that about?
Fisher: Well, Bill Zimpher ultimately settled into the play-by-play guy after I retired. They had Gil Santos from WBZ in Boston who is a good broadcaster but he got involved with the [Boston] Celtics. They went to John Sanders. They went I think to Lanny for a couple of games, Lanny Forteri. And they went to Bill Camel, old “Soupy” Camel, the Philadelphia guy, and finally got the Bill Zimpher. He worked with George and it was an excellent broadcaster. Bill got the Miami Dolphins job at the end of 1993, radio job, and there was thought that he could do both. At the eleventh hour Miami blew the whistle: You ain’t going to do Penn State. You are our guy and you are going to do it here. And they were without a broadcaster, so they come to the “rest home” [laughing]. And Budd Thalman called me and we’re going to have lunch. In the meantime George had gotten wind of this, and George called me and said, “Fran, you got to come back and do the broadcast because Zimpher is leaving.” I said, “Where is he going?” Well he told me, and I said, “You’ve got to be crazy George. Do you realize how long it’s been since I called a ball game.” He said, “Hey it’s like riding a bicycle.” Yeah, okay George. Well, I did get a call from Thalman and we went to lunch and he makes this presentation and I am thinking, boy you are really hard up. So I said, “I’ve got to talk to my wife, I don’t know about this.” So I said something to Charlotte and she said—this is just like her—she said, “You should be proud that they’d want you back. She said, “I know I am.” Well, of course, then my ego took over and here I am back in the damn booth. George was a tremendous help to me the first couple games. It was awkward, I’ll tell you. Twelve years had gone by and it just didn’t feel comfortable. It only took a couple games when I screwed up as usual, but not nearly as much as I did in the early days. So it was a good ride.
Prato: And in ’94 you just caught the right time, one of the great Penn State teams.
Prato: And then you did [play-by-play] until the end of the ’99 season.
Fisher: That is correct.
Prato: Which was almost a great team.
Fisher: The Outback Bowl [team].
Prato: And since that time, what have you been doing since that time? Are you still connected with Penn State?
Fisher: Well, over the years [I’ve done] some moonlighting, although the university was very difficult on employees of the university doing commercial things outside the university’s realm because they construed it as implied endorsement. I couldn’t do moonlighted radio commercials, for example. Now that’s changed apparently since it’s happening a lot. But then after I retired I started some more things. I got a couple people who wanted me to help them with radio and television and so on and so forth. I started thinking if I am going to do this maybe I ought to offer more like a full-service kind of thing. So I started my own little business that my sons and I are involved with. We have some clients and it keeps me busy. Jeff [Fisher] is the leg-man. I am the sit-at-home and complain guy.
Prato: Is there anything that you look back as a watershed event that occurred at Penn State that really changed the county, the town, and the college forever. Is there an event or something that really changed in town from the time you first saw it back in the early ‘ 60s?
Fisher: I can’t quite put my finger on it what happened to make the explosion of this community, economically and commercially, except that it happened in concert with the explosion of the size of the university. I can’t put my finger on anything except that as each year as Penn State got bigger, the town got bigger. The student enrollment got bigger, the town got bigger. Then, of course, the success of the football team and the constant suggestion that it was the third-largest city in the Commonwealth during a football game and the appeal that the program had to people as an event, not just a football game. Then some [people], deciding they wanted a place to live here, so that they would be able to stay without having to pay for the hotel room. They bought townhouses and so all of that was connected to Penn State football. But I think more than football or the athletic structure, it was the university itself. And the addition of people on the faculty, then of course the highway system just added icing on the cake in our damn-near metropolis.
Prato: Did Joe Paterno have a big effect on this? I mean, we know his commitment to academics and education has always been there. After the ’82 championship he challenged the Board of Trustees to make it a world-class university or something like that?
Fisher: In my opinion there will never be a person with a bigger influence on the combination of the educational experience at Penn State and the growth of the Centre Region. He is more responsible for having made that possible, not necessarily specifically because of the success of his football team, but because of his demeanor, his insistence that this university be nothing but the best in all areas. His image is probably responsible for the influx of students. So it‘s all tied into Joe Paterno. Now that’s probably somewhat of an overstatement, but I can’t think of anybody, football is part of the equation. But his pride started when he was the banner waver for eastern football and he felt strongly about that kind of thing and University Park and State College, Pennsylvania, is part of his whole pride, pump-your-chest kind of thing. It’s an amazing story.
Prato: Do you think that if he would have left for that New England Patriot job in the early ‘70s, that that there still would have been a major change here that you just talked about, that somebody else at the university or the administration of the university, the president, the leadership, would have the town somehow would have still expanded to the place it is today.
Fisher: Oh, I think expansion was certainly ultimately going to happen, to what extent it’s hard to suggest. There isn’t anybody that has quite the dynamic effect on people as Joe does. He’s a little different than somebody just making a speech about how important it is for this university to be. I mean that would go in one ear and out the other. But Joe is like E. F. Hutton: When he talks, people listen, and he is so believable. When he delivers his sermon on the mount, buddy, you’ve got to believe him because it’s delivered with a passion. And he walks the walk, if you pardon the cliché. He talks the talk and he walks the walk, and people listen to what he has to say—and his ability to attract families to his program. You know, if the wives didn’t want to come to football games, I am not sure the husbands would be coming here every Saturday. But if the wives couldn’t get involved in the tailgating and deciding what the menu should be and so on and so forth, and the women think a great deal of Coach Paterno. That’s a motherly thing. They know that he takes care of his players. It’s hard for me to fathom that anybody could have had the influence. Now I know I am just giving you the party line here, but I don’t have to do that anymore.
Prato: Who else beside Joe Paterno have you seen here in the time you’ve been involved with at Penn State that really had major influence on how this town and community changed?
Fisher: I think Eric Walker probably was a prophetic guy.
Prato: [Former] president of the university.
Fisher: I think Bryce Jordan had a vision. And I think that the administration of the university has been well handled. I think Graham Spanier has had a positive influence on what is happening. He’s bold. His whole approach has been very positive, not just in the area of athletics. I think Mayor [Bill] Welch had a tremendous impact on the relationship between town and gown, if you will. And that’s a relationship that I think has been healthy. Tom King, the chief of police, is a guy I really respect. That has to be the toughest job in this town, but he handles it well. It’s tough. It’s been strained at times, of course. Neighborhoods get upset because of the rowdiness, but I think the good relationship between this community and the university has had a significant part and somebody’s worked hard at that, like I suggested Mayor Welch or borough council. I am not in the political aspect of it. But it could be a lot worse. It could be bad as a matter of fact. And if you’ve got 45,000 Rotarians you got some bad apples among those guys, and if you have 45,000 teenagers you got a lot of action. But I don’t know where we’d be without them.
Prato: What is the personal influence that you think you may have had on Penn State and Centre County and State College?
Fisher: Absolutely none. I happen to be a voice, if you will, and if you do something long enough, there is an association that’s made. So I still have guys saying, you’ll always be the voice of Penn State football. These guys are 90 years old, of course. When you broadcast a successful program as I’ve had the good fortune to do, I mean you are remembered as part of that success, even though you had nothing to do with it. But that’s what people associate with me now. I said to Steve Jones, when he went about three years with bad teams, I said Steve you better straighten up or I am going to come back out of retirement once again. But I felt so sorry for him trying to sell a losing program. Fortunately it’s been turned around and now Steve is recognized for his association with the Penn State football. They didn’t care a darn about Steve when he would broadcast losers. And so from that standpoint I was fortunate in being involved with the development of a very successful football program nationally.
Prato: Is there anything you would do over again if given the choice?
Fisher: I wouldn’t join the Navy.
Prato: Involving Penn State?
Fisher: Nothing that I can think of, absolutely nothing. I am the perfect example of being the right guy in the right place at the right time, very fortunate. There’s not a lot of schools that take a hack from a very small radio station and put him in the position they put me in. Most universities have an affiliation with the talent that is also associated with a major broadcast facility. Take the University of Pittsburgh: Bill Hillgrove is a WCAE guy. And that happens a lot around the country. The fact that we’re in a rural setting here made it a little easier for me to be in a rural broadcasting station. But to credit the university they would say, let’s give old Fran a chance. An apt response would be to say: Hey, the guy’s never been anywhere; he’s doing Lewistown High School football. But they didn’t do that. They said, “Let’s give him a shot.” And I am indeed eternally grateful to guys like Tarman and Bob Scannell and Joe for that.
[End of tape]