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Remembering Jim Tarman, a Giant of Penn State Athletics

by on January 11, 2018 5:00 AM

As the New Year started, Penn State lost one of the people who would be carved into a Mount Rushmore of Penn State Athletics. Former Athletic Director Jim Tarman passed away after a long life of leadership.

In life, if we are lucky, we are blessed to have our path intersect with people of character, vision and commitment to excellence. Jim Tarman was such a man. With his passing, another light in the founding of modern-day Penn State athletics has gone out. Jim was part of an era when Penn State grew into a consistent national power from the late 1950s through the early 1990s.

At Jim's funeral, his son recounted early days of Jim and Joe Paterno traveling around the Northeast with suitcases of alcohol to meet and socialize with writers to sell something special at Penn State. As more and more of the media traveled to State College to cover the team, Jim and his colleague John Morris could be counted on to thank them personally to build lasting relationships.

Part of Jim's success was a focus on the power of television during a time of seismic transition in college football. Jim, Fran Fisher and Joe Paterno starred in a WPSX television show called "TV Quarterbacks" that brought Penn State football into homes across the state.

In the early 1980s, after a United States Supreme Court decision deregulated college football television, Jim and Nelson Goldberg helped assemble a national network of stations for live broadcasts of Penn State games in dozens of major markets. It was trailblazing. From that sprung a separate Penn State highlight show raising the profile of the school with fans and recruits in football-rich states.

Jim also created a beautiful partnership with the Fiesta Bowl. Penn State helped elevate that game from a Christmas Day bowl in 1977 to a New Year's Day bowl after the 1981 season and to hosting the national championship game between Penn State and Miami on Jan. 2, 1987. That game remains the highest-rated college football game in history. The evidence of that lasting friendship was evident as former Fiesta Bowl director Bruce Skinner flew in from the west coast to pay his respects at Jim's funeral last week.

In 1989, Penn State's profile earned the school a Big Ten Conference membership that transformed the university athletically, academically and as a research institution. Years later, it is hard to imagine Penn State without Big Ten membership.

Penn State's 1989 move, at a time when conference membership had long been static, changed college football forever. At the December press conference announcing the new conference affiliation, Penn State had people of vision and leadership in President Bryce Jordan, Athletic Director Jim Tarman and Communications Director Budd Thalman.

As the Big Ten era began, Penn State continued to pursue academic and athletic excellence ethically in a fiscally responsible manner under Jim's steady hand. The athletic department understood it was here to serve the academic mission of Penn State and not the other way around.

Jim, his wife, Louise, and their family understood service, giving their time and passion to Penn State. Often on Saturday nights after home football games Jim and Louise would bring bowl game reps wearing colorful blazers by our house to crash the post-game dinners. Joe Paterno would always playfully protest to Jim that there were a lot of football games to play and bowl reps were a distraction. But they made sure that none of the bowl reps were left without a drink in their hand or left the house hungry.

Possessed of a quick wit, sharp mind, a gift for storytelling and a track record of success, Jim was a natural in his job. But unlike many with similar gifts who become fortunate in life, he was humble, served others and never made anyone feel small.  At my parents' house after games, if too many people crowded around the television to watch the late game he never expected anyone to get out of a seat for him. He would stand or sit on the floor allowing friends or donors to have the seats on the couch.

Despite all his success he never viewed his position as entitling him to savor some set of perks that were supposed to come with his job. That ethos comes through in a letter from a donor sent to Jim Tarman in 1976 when he was an assistant athletic director.

Dear Jim,

My wife and I thoroughly enjoyed attending the Blue-White Game and the party at Stone Valley.

This event and the way it is handled has to be unusual for a big university, and I doubt that any other institution has members of the Department of Athletics cook steaks and serve the kind of dinner that you and your associates did. It was great.

No caterers, just Jim Tarman and members of the Athletic Department cooking steaks and dinner with the personal touch. It was the simple humility of rolling up his sleeves in service to others that made Penn State feel like home for generations of alums. Years later when Jim retired he'd established a family atmosphere and a humble pursuit of success that was carried on by his successor Tim Curley for nearly two decades.

But the sands of time never stop falling and with each grain the moments of the past grow further from us. What must remain is an appreciation for the selfless efforts made by people like Jim Tarman. The rolled up sleeves of hard work and sacrifice are what built the foundations of Penn State's city on the hill.

For that, Jim Tarman will forever remain an enduring member of the Pantheon of giants in Penn State Athletics.



State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JayPaterno
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