Penn State Football: Fran Ganter Is Always a Winner
From 1968 to 2008, only one person in the Nittany Nation was there in person for all 370 of Joe Paterno’s victories over that 41-season period.
And his name is Fran Ganter.
Paterno missed one in 1977, after his son David was injured in a trampoline accident. The Nittany Lions won that game, on the road against Syracuse, 31-24.
Paterno missed another in 2006, after he broke his leg on the road against Wisconsin. Following surgery, Paterno rested at home and watched on television as his team beat visiting Temple, 47-0.
That Ganter was there even when Paterno couldn’t be speaks volumes about his contributions to Penn State football and his unflagging devotion to his alma mater -- and Joe Paterno.
For 44 years – and counting – Ganter has been as an integral part of Paterno’s 400-victory achievement as much as anyone, save for Paterno.
Not that Ganter would say so himself.
“It wouldn’t have mattered if I was there or not,” Ganter said last week, sitting in his Lasch Building office, which is located across the hall from Paterno’s. “He would have still won those games.
“Ninety-nine percent of the credit for 400 wins should go to him. Everyone else here is 1 percent. When you think how far back it started, and all the hours and all the time and all the organization and the recruiting and the years he spent on the road… I think how hard he worked. It’s just been nice to be a part of it.”
An important part of it, to be sure.
GANTER’S COACHING RESUME
Under Paterno, Ganter has just about done it all.
He was a freshman football player (1967) before first-year players were eligible. He was a varsity player (1968-70), graduate assistant (1972), head freshman coach (1973-76) and head junior varsity coach (1977). He was promoted to the running backs and kickers coach (1978-83) and for two seasons (1982-83) he was also the recruiting coordinator.
In 1984, Ganter added offensive coordinator to his duties, and he held that title until 1999. In 2000, Ganter was promoted by Paterno to assistant head coach and he maintained his coordinator duties. It was the only time in Paterno’s 45 years that he had someone in that role.
Despite the assistant head coach title, things stayed mostly the same way they had always been. Joe was the boss.
“I don’t think my relationship with him changed no matter what title I had,” Ganter said. “My relationship with Joe changed drastically from player to coach, but as a coach it never changed. He was always my boss. I was always wary of him and doing the right things, pleasing him and looking for him to say, ‘Good job.’ ”
Even as offensive coordinator for so many years, Ganter still ran everything by the head coach.
“Joe always had input,” Ganter said. “I didn’t call one play that he didn’t OK during the week. I never called a trick play, a fake punt, a fake field goal without running it by him first. Maybe that’s because he was my head coach, too.
“Joe always had his hand on everything that went on. No one ever outworked him, no one ever out-prepared him.”
THE BEST PART
Ganter’s favorite part about coaching was working with the players. The next-best thing about coaching for Paterno was the one-on-one time Ganter would have with the coach when the two were on the road recruiting. Ganter’s territory was primarily New Jersey.
“For example, I would be waiting at Teterboro Airport, waiting to pick up Joe at 8 o’clock in the morning,” Ganter recalled. “Joe would fly in on a private plane. I’d spend the entire day with him.
“We’d go see three or four (high school) prospects, then check into a hotel late in the afternoon. We might go downstairs to the bar, grab a drink, then get freshened up to go make a home visit that night. The next morning I’d take him to the airport and he’d fly out to meet another one of our coaches, and they’d do the same thing.
“Those times in the car,” Ganter continued, “when it was just him and I with no outside distractions for a two-hour drive to the next high school, were when I felt more like a friend or almost equal as colleagues in what we were doing,”
“And he always went to great lengths to ask about your family. Other than that, I don’t know when you were ever alone with him. I always looked forward to that time with Joe. If I had something on my mind or a suggestion or something was bothering me, that was the time to do it, because he would listen and there were no distractions. So many people were pulling at his coattails all the time.”
A CAREER CHANGE
In February 2004, after 37 years as a Penn State football player and coach, Ganter left the sidelines. He was named associate athletic director for football administration. As such, he is responsible for scheduling, the letterman’s club, a high school football coaches’ clinic and Penn State’s summer football camp.
He’s been at it for seven years, and enjoys making a contribution. But he still misses putting on the coaching cleats – most of the time.
At age 61, Ganter easily looks a decade younger. He works out daily, despite four knee operations. It’s easy to imagine him still out on the practice field.
“I really miss being on the field with the players, going to meetings with the players, being in the locker before and after the game, game day, practice,” he said. “I go out and I watch practice. When I’m there I’d give anything to be on the field.”
But then an assistant coach will wander down the hall and start talking with Ganter, and the feeling fades.
“Tommy (Bradley) or Ron (Vanderlinden) or Jay (Paterno) will come in here and sit down,” Ganter says. “They may have just finished their four-and-a-half-hour meeting with Joe on game planning or X’s and O’s or they just broke down four Iowa tapes and they’re exhausted and worn out -- I don’t miss that. I really don’t.”
Ganter made the move to administration 20 months after his wife Karen passed away. They had four sons and one was still in high school at the time he switched jobs. The new position made juggling his multiple priorities a bit easier.
Football, and Penn State, have always been a Ganter family affair. Sons Chris and Jason played football for the Nittany Lions. Jonathan played at Princeton. And Ben finished his senior season playing quarterback at Cornell in 2009.
His dad made a number of Ben’s games last season and as a result, Fran missed being there for five of Paterno’s wins. The only other Paterno victories where Ganter was not present were in 1966, when he was a high school senior (five wins), and in 1967, when as a freshman player at Penn State, he didn’t travel to away or bowl games. That’s four more.
386 OF 400
So, overall, Ganter has been there in person for 386 of Paterno’s 400 wins – 33 as a player, 297 as a coach and 56 as a football administrator.
(Also in the same neighborhood is Penn State’s longtime ticket manager and all-around great guy Bud Meredith. He’s been there in person for about 380 of Paterno’s 400 victories, he guesses.)
Ganter’s 330 victories while on the sidelines are almost equaled by longtime assistant Tom Bradley, with 315. Bradley was there as a player for 38 of Paterno’s victories from 1975-78, and for 277 as a coach.
Back in 2000, when he was named assistant head coach, it wasn’t folly to expect that Penn State’s head coach on Nov. 6, 2010, would be one Francis Ganter. He had already turned down a chance to be head coach at Michigan State in the 1990s, and there had been other opportunities, too – none of which he sought out.
Instead, it was Ganter in the stands and the 83-year-old Paterno on the sidelines last Saturday night against Northwestern.
Ganter said he is OK with that, with never having “head coach” on another otherwise stellar resume – whether it was at MSU, PSU or anywhere else.
HAPPY IN HAPPY VALLEY
“I had never wished I left,” Ganter said. “I had thought about it. I had chances to leave and I did not go. But I don’t daydream about it, ‘What would’ve happened?’
“This situation is so unique here. We’re in a different world as far as coaches staying for a long time. I feel really lucky. A lot of it is for my family’s sake -- my kids got to grow up in the same town, never having to switch schools. In my profession, that’s unheard of.
“I firmly believe if I had gone, I would have been fired,” Ganter said. “Every head coach gets fired eventually.”
Every head coach, that is, but Joe Paterno.