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Bastardi: 'Big Cat' Spanier, a Rec Hall Regular, 'Doesn't Sit Around'

on September 20, 2011 6:17 AM

I decided to mosey on up to one of Russ Rose's practices last week to see what was going on. I have talked about Russ here a couple of times, referring to him as "The Great Uncut." In other words, Russ has the look of guys I love to train -- wide cheekbones and big calves low to the ground -- so I am always trying to get under his skin about his getting in shape, to see what he really looks like.

It's done half in jest. Russ, the Penn State women's volleyball coach, is comfortable in his own skin, but knows it gets under my skin when he starts hammering me about my Tweety Bird calves. If I had Russ' calves, I never would have lost a competition; then again, I probably wouldn't train as hard, either, to make up for it.

Anyway, I went up there because I see the women's volleyball team in the weight room all the time and they work hard. So with all the wrestling hierarchy out of town at the world championship, I decided to go bother Russ.

While I was standing next to him, a voice from behind was directed at me: "Giving advice about volleyball now, too?"

Given my usual combative posture, I was wondering: OK -- who is the wise guy who is interrupting my important mission of bothering Russ Rose?

It was Dr. Graham Spanier.

Dr. Spanier had just come in from an NCAA meeting in Indianapolis and came over to watch practice and probably get in a racquetball match with Dr. Dave Yukelson (aka "Yuke"), who helps pump the kids up with sports psychology.

Obviously, I did not give the kind of response I would give if it had been a regular wise guy, but I didn't tell him, either, that the topic of conversation was Russ' lending me his calves for some bodybuilding shows. He is president of Penn State, after all, and could get the wrong impression.

But later it hit me: I see Dr. Spanier a lot. I had never seen a university president before he got here. But I see him around Rec Hall plenty. I have seen him at wrestling practice.

He comes into the office every now and then. He might even wonder why the heck he sees me so much over at wrestling, given my name isn't exactly etched into PSU wrestling lore. But as I added all this up, I came to a conclusion.

This guy sees and cares about athletics as a part of the university and the educational process. He also just doesn't sit around; he does go over and play racquetball, a sport I never could master. (When I was on the team, Andy Matter could kill everyone on the mat and on the court, so I would just go over and turn the game into one where we would make baseball catches against the wall.)

But this university president is totally different from anything I ever knew about them. (Sorry if I am guilty of profiling university presidents.) After all, I have been hanging around Rec Hall since 1973, and never saw a university president until Graham Spanier showed up; that says that this is a huge deviation from the accepted norm. And I think that is a good thing.

Now, I hope I am not getting him in trouble -- because if he is not showing up in other places, with the way the world works today, people can get the wrong impression, like "How come he isn't paying attention to us?"

He probably shows up to play "Yuke" at racquetball, and since "Yuke" calls him "Big Cat," I imagine the president must win plenty of times. But it's still refreshing to see that, perhaps because of the novelty of the whole thing, or perhaps because I had never seen a university president wandering around an athletic team's practice in Rec Hall in all the years I've been here.

But one of these mornings, when Casey Cunningham and I are lifting, if I see Russ and Dr. Spanier show up in the weight room ready to pump iron, then that is going to really flip me out.

For now, though, seeing the university president roaming Rec Hall with no major sporting event, no big crowd, etc. -- well, that says he does care about the role of athletics in education.

And for those of us who believe athletics is a way to teach to reach to a higher level, then that has to say something to us.

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