SBJ/April 10-16, 2017/Opinion

On campus at Happy Valley and Amherst

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The students stared at me but didn’t say anything. It was a rainy Tuesday morning in State College, Pa., and over a breakfast buffet at the Nittany Lion Inn, I was meeting with a handful of sports journalism students from Penn State’s College of Communications. I had asked how the university is perceived and progressing athletically six years after the Jerry Sandusky scandal. The timing fit, as my first visit to campus came right after officials connected to the scandal had pleaded guilty to various charges. The independent student paper, The Daily Collegian, had the story on its front page both days I was there, one day featuring the headline “Six Years Later: Guilty Verdict.” But the students pushed back, displaying a school pride consistent with my conversations on campus: In their mind, Penn State is back and college sports fans better get used to it. “I still hear the jokes about Penn State when I go home to California,” one student told me. “But they are far fewer now. And after the Rose Bowl, the jokes really stopped.” Penn State’s surprising performance at the Rose Bowl, an exciting, emotional 52-49 loss to USC on Jan. 2, is seen as the turning point for the athletic program — and the entire university — and the beginning of a promising new era.

The current students have little connection to the Joe Paterno-era or Sandusky scandal. One freshman told me over breakfast he didn’t even remember the case and it didn’t factor into his decision to attend Penn State. But during my two-day visit to the picturesque campus and setting of Happy Valley, I clearly sensed that the 6-year-old cloud hovers, but is slowly lifting. Over dinner with faculty at Spats on College Avenue, there were questions about national reputation and relevance, as well as simmering frustration over the news coverage through the years. In terms of national respect, I said the university still has work to do but that the energy in the athletic department, after the football team’s huge come-from-behind win over Ohio State on Oct. 22, its Big Ten Championship and its Rose Bowl performance, clearly helped. This comes while those on campus insist the university operates under far greater scrutiny than their Big Ten counterparts.

Athletic Director Sandy Barbour and her team have some wind at their back, and the enthusiasm on campus is palpable. Campus reaction to football coach James Franklin was largely positive. My visit came a day after the men’s hockey team was eliminated in the Frozen Four, an impressive achievement after just five years in Division I and certainly aided by the impressive Pegula Ice Arena, which opened in 2013. There is growth with football and hockey, and men’s soccer continues to do well.

Penn State is back on the radar in a good way, in academics and athletics..
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES


Driving in along Park Avenue from the airport, you immediately come upon the massive sports facilities and witness how athletics runs through the veins of campus. But the facilities need upgrades, from football to swimming and tennis, and the goal of a recently announced $120 million master development plan is to remake Beaver Stadium into a modern facility capable of hosting major concerts and even outdoor hockey. But efforts to generate revenue come amid an interesting mindset that I picked up on and one Barbour must juggle. Penn State power brokers reject anything resembling elitism around the athletic experience. The entire campus has a very down-to-earth feel and mindset. Athletic department officials said they have dismissed revenue-generating ideas because they were seen as too risky and outside the Penn State tradition. That mindset could prevent progressive thought, and it’s an issue Barbour and her colleagues are going to have to manage. The challenge becomes how to keep up with the athletic gold standards with state-of-the-art facilities and increasing staff size all while getting the Penn State “family” to get comfortable financially competing in this new era.

I left Penn State with a lot of thoughts — but the overriding one was the sense that Penn State was back on the radar in a good way — for its growing sports journalism, management and law programs as well as its athletic endeavors and goals. It’s not clear to me — or anyone I asked — what happens to this newfound optimism if Franklin’s football team goes 6-6 next year. But a renewed and revitalized Penn State is good for the Big Ten and good for college sports.

The treasures of Mark McCormack

If you ever get to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, set aside some time and get to the 25th floor of the school’s library. This is where its Special Collections and Archives are situated, and on a recent Monday morning, I reviewed some of the papers of the late Mark McCormack. The McCormack papers were gifted to the school in 2010 and the growing collection of 2,500 boxes of records represent the personal life of the late IMG founder, as well as the corporate records of the company. The files span roughly 50 years — from 1957 to his death in 2003, and the collection is a fascinating amalgam of letters, memos, drafts, reports, contracts, research, marketing materials and memorabilia.

Sport Innovation Archivist Kirstin Kay offered me a tour, walked me through the history of the collection and situated me at a table next to a dolly full of boxes, neatly organized, along a window bank offering a tremendous view north straight up into Vermont.

It was a fascinating glimpse through history, as I read through McCormack’s relentless pursuit of soccer great Pelé in the early 1970s, which provides a rare look at the frustrating dealings between a U.S.-based agency and various Brazilians all claiming to represent the soccer star. McCormack saved everything, and the level of detail and depth of the correspondences are captivating. They outlined prohibitions on Pelé supporting alcohol, coffee and political and religious groups; there were details — and concerns — regarding previously agreed upon contracts with Puma and Pepsi; there were notes from IMG’s Barry Frank to McCormack about then ABC Sports executive Jim Spence wanting a Pelé segment for “Wide World of Sports” as well as a note requesting Pele’s autograph for McCormack’s young son, Breck, who had just injured his leg playing soccer.

I dug through boxes to review a deal between the All England Club and Rolex around Wimbledon from 1979-1984 that started at 10,000 pounds per year with installation of Rolex time pieces on the ground; there was a note from racing client Jackie Stewart to McCormack requesting better phone service in IMG’s London offices and a letter from McCormack to Nike expressing trademark concern over the company’s new “Wimbledon” sneaker line. An interesting 1995 memo from IMG’s Sean McManus told McCormack about how NBC and HBO had increased their rights fee to keep Wimbledon as the All England Club ended up taking less money than what was offered by Fox.

I couldn’t get enough and, while I unfortunately only had two hours, I found it all so riveting that my hope is to return over the summer. For followers of sports business, I strongly suggest a visit to Amherst to delve into the vast history of Mark McCormack and IMG.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com

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