I can't even count how many times this topic has come up: What is it about college football - and Penn State - that has you hooked? Why do you go to all those games?
There are four aspects of the game that are attractive to me: the customer experience of being physically present at a game, the chance to watch young players evolve over 4-5 years, the game itself with its complex strategic elements, and the post-game banter at the workplace after a game.
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Marketers talk a lot about the customer experience. We try to figure out what is it that makes customers want to come back and partake of our products or services again. Penn State has built one of the best customer experiences in the nation. That experience includes the tailgating, the interaction with other fans, the pre-game and halftime shows, the crowd, the crazy student section, the post-game tailgates waiting for the parking lots to clear out.
For away games it is visiting a new campus, experiencing their unique traditions and atmosphere, and good-natured bantering with opposing team fans – often being invited to one of their tailgates on an impromptu basis. None of this experience can be obtained by watching a game on TV. For a football novice like myself when I started attending games, it was this customer experience that was the first “hook” – I knew nothing really about the game at first.
The second aspect that hooked me was the chance to see players evolve over time. Over a stretch of 4-5 years, you watch each of these young men develop their skills from their first appearance in a spring Blue-White scrimmage game to their final appearance on Senior Day, their last home football game. You watch them play every down during their career. You watch their freshman mistakes and the ups and downs. You feel the grief when they get injured. You feel the joy when they turn into difference-makers between winning and losing a game. You are thrilled when they graduate, but also sad because they definitely will be missed.
Most of the college football players you come to know and love over 4-5 years will graduate and become successful in other fields besides sports. Only a handful will enter the NFL, and very few of those will survive more than a few years. A school like Penn State ensures success not only on the field, but also off the field, through carefully monitoring their academic progress and ensuring that they are prepared for life beyond football. I can vouch for that personally. Nobody in athletics has ever pressured me over a student-athlete's grades. Even when I gave an "F" on a mid-term to a critically important football player who was a difference-maker in every game!
Over time, I’ve learned how the game is played. It’s easy to learn the basics, but harder to learn all the offensive and defensive schemes. I’m still not totally confident in all the X’s and O’s, but I can now recognize certain plays as they develop on the field, have fun second-guessing what plays might come next, or what plays might have worked better than the failure that just occurred. I now follow the entire line-up of players and not just the ball. I pay more attention to things like good blocks and tackles that allow plays to be successful. I have appreciation for the competitive strategy involved. It’s a game that appeals to the intellect as well as the more base emotions when plays go right or go wrong. It’s simply engaging once you know enough to follow what’s happening.
And there are constant surprises. Just ask Joe Paterno. Even with all his experience with the most wins in college football, he can be out-coached. That's what makes it so fascinating.
Finally, there’s the post-game banter. When I started my life with Terry, I worked in marketing at a company in New Jersey. I didn't have an appreciation for the role that sports plays in the workplace. But once I became a devotee of Penn State football, there would be a string of visitors in my office on Monday morning – Penn State fans or Big Ten fans or even some who despised Penn State – who came by just to comment on the game, to get my take on “what really happened” because they knew I was there and all they saw was what was shown on TV. Being an avid Penn State fan enhanced my reputation in the workplace and carried over to work-related teamwork.
I also can’t count how many men would come to my office and ask me how to get their wives involved in the game. They were secretly jealous of my husband Terry that I was so committed to going to the games with him. I never quite had an answer for them. I had been converted from a non-sports fan but I really couldn't articulate how to do it for others.
That post-game banter continues at Penn State with the students and colleagues, but it's somewhat different now that I'm teaching at Penn State, because everyone is a PSU fan. I often start my classes with a few photos from each Saturday’s game. The students love the photos when we win. They don’t want to be reminded though of a loss. They begged me not to show the Iowa pictures last year! I did anyway to their chagrin, because the customer experience of being at Iowa – a great tailgating environment with very friendly fans, a wonderful atmosphere in the stadium – is worth knowing about. I wasn’t so excited about showing my students the Rose Bowl pictures. I stuck mostly to the Rose Parade. There wasn’t much to say about the game.
So now...a new season! The opening game is always fun, and the speculation about how the season will turn out will be intense! Time to get ready... it's less than 48 hours away!