Welcome to the Penn State Family, Phil Knight
Through all of the speeches delivered yesterday from former players and alumni, there was one that stood out above the rest, and it came from an unlikely source.
Phil Knight never went to Penn State. It’s unclear if he had ever been to State College before. But aside from Jay Paterno’s capstone address, it was Kinght’s ten minute eulogy during which Joe Paterno’s spirit reached the heart of every Penn Stater lucky enough to watch the “Memorial for Joe” event Thursday afternoon at the Bryce Jordan Center.
Knight is the chairman of Nike, and met Paterno twelve years ago at a Nike coaching retreat. He started off simply enough, discussing a funny anecdote about Paterno’s less-than-spectacular singing abilities.
But Knight admitted that he is “a man who has always needed heroes.” In 1999, following the death of his former world-class track coach, Knight recalled pondering about who his new hero should be. “Two months later on the Nike trip, the answer showed itself across the table wearing a thick set of eyeglasses,” Knight said.
Then things got interesting. Transcribed below are the words that everyone at Penn State will remember for a long time.
“In the twelve years since, through four losing seasons, big bowl wins, twelve win seasons, through All-Americans, through players with criminal charges, with four-point students and players dismissed from the team for discipline, never once did he let me down. Not one time.
Conventional wisdom dictates that I would phrase it a different way. It would say in eleven of those twelve years, he never let me down and those years outweighed this last year. […] In the year in question he gave full disclosure to his superiors up the chain to head of campus police and president of the school. The matter was in the hands of a world class University and by a president with an outstanding national reputation. Whatever the details of the investigation are, this much is clear to me. There was a villain in this tragedy; it lies in that investigation, not in Joe Paterno’s response to it.
And yet, for his actions, he was excoriated by the media and fired over the telephone by his University. Yet, in all his subsequent appearances in the press, on TV, interacting with students, conversing with hospital personnel, giving interviews, he never complained, he never lashed out. Every word, every bit of body language conveyed a single message. We are Penn State.
So I do not follow conventional wisdom. Joe was my hero. Every day for twelve of the last twelve years. but it does lead me to this question: Who is the real trustee at Penn State University?”
Through those words, a prominent non-Penn Stater articulated what most of us inside Happy Valley have been thinking for nearly three months. Many times in the recent days, Penn Staters have felt alone in the fight to protect Joe Paterno’s legacy and in their disdain for the actions of the Board of Trustees. Everyone looking in from the outside villainized Paterno. Phil Knight proved yesterday that not everyone takes their marching orders from ESPN.
Knight concluded, “Through the tears, I asked, ‘Who is going to be my hero now?’ It’s a question everyone in this arena should ask, and I do not have an answer for you. But I can tell you this much, that old hero set a standard that will live forever.”
Cynics like David Jones will criticize Knight, and call him a hypocrite. And maybe he is. But even if only for ten minutes, the world got a look into the heart of Phil Knight, and Penn Staters everywhere had to love what they saw.
Shortly after the memorial, Nike issued a statement. “Phil Knight’s speech was a powerful tribute to his longtime friend Joe Paterno. We remain deeply disturbed by the serious allegations at Penn St.”
So do we, Nike. And so does Phil Knight. But we know who to blame.