An unsung hero, Ganter lived PSU’s highest and lowest moments
Fran Ganter agreed to an interview Friday morning and then changed his mind, saying he’d prefer to let the flattering press release Penn State issued earlier in the week stand.
So here I am writing a Fran Ganter column without Fran Ganter.
It’s a little tougher, and in most cases, when a subject is unavailable or not interested or, as is the situation with Ganter, would just like to leave well enough alone and fade off into the sunset, the column would be scrapped.
Though I wish he was willing to answer some questions on his retirement after 46 years as a central figure in the Nittany Lion football program, knowing there would be some he passed on, Ganter’s position is understandable.
Between the Penn State community still being fractured – either resenting the NCAA, the administration, the Board of Trustees, Louie Freeh, the media or all of the above and others looking for any slight post-scandal perception that could trigger a social-media blaze – Ganter doesn’t want to make anything worse for anybody.
But I still think Ganter’s Penn State journey needs a last chapter, even if he’s not helping to write it.
We’re talking about one of PSU’s true unsung heroes – maybe its most unsung hero – of the last 50 years.
People used to joke that Ganter’s parents dropped him off in 1967 and never picked him up.
He was a fullback, an overshadowed position to start with, let alone in a star-studded backfield era that included Charlie Pittman, Lydell Mitchell and Franco Harris.
One of his first coaching assignments was presiding over the freshman team; most of us didn’t know they once had one.
He recruited and worked with the running backs and kickers – many All-Americans – before becoming offensive coordinator in 1983, and he often performed the unenviable task of coaching “with one hand tied behind beyond your back,” as Joe Paterno would say when the Lions were relying on their defense and kicking game.
The payback came in 1994 when Ganter was in charge of one of the greatest offenses in college football history and earned national assistant coach of the year honors.
Shortly thereafter, he turned down the possibility of becoming Michigan State’s head coach. Had he taken the Spartans’ job, his departure would have disrupted the PSU staff significantly.
Instead, out of family and professional loyalty, he stayed, saying there were no assurances that he’d succeed Paterno, though no doubt harboring those dreams.
Paterno was 68 at the time, but he outlasted Ganter, who after losing his wife Karen suddenly in 2002, finally surrendered and took an administrative job in 2004.
In announcing the decision, Paterno said it was bittersweet and admitted, “I’m a little selfish,” perhaps because one of his top comrades was leaving the sidelines. (In last week’s press release, Ganter heaped praise on Paterno and said other than his father, who died young, Paterno was the greatest influence in his life.)
While many have suggested during the horrendous ordeal of the last 15 months that Jerry Sandusky was an heir apparent, nothing could be further from the truth.
Ganter was a much different story. He could recruit, develop players, scheme and communicate. He bled blue, and as a husband and father of four boys, he was a family man who represented the program with ultimate class.
More than anyone else, when an in-house succession was conceivable and would have been welcome in the mid-to-late ’90s, Ganter paid the price for Paterno’s desire to coach as long as he could breathe.
Ganter was then placed in the unfortunate position of being the person designated to deliver Paterno the note to call John Surma.
Ever the soldier, whether directed all those years by Paterno to be careful with the football or by a board with its back to the wall, he did what he was told.
No one in Penn State history has lived more highs and lows, on and off the field, than Ganter, who stayed an extra year to aid Bill O’Brien’s transition.
I hoped to cover those topics – or at least the feelings he was willing to share – on Friday, the first day of the rest of Fran Ganter’s life.
But being the ultimate company man, he quietly declined.
And, knowing all he’s been through, I respect him for it.