The path from football to Wall Street is well-worn. Now the championship-winning 1986 team at Penn State University is retracing its steps.
Playing for Joe Paterno, the 84-year-old Brooklynite who’s in his 46th season as head football coach, is tougher than Wall Street, said John Shaffer, head of junk-bond sales at Goldman Sachs Group Inc., who will join Paterno and other former teammates-turned-bankers this weekend to mark the 25th anniversary of the school’s most recent national football title.
“That pressure, that competition I tried to replicate on Wall Street, but I just couldn’t,” said Shaffer, 47, the team’s starting quarterback.
Others planning to attend a ceremony at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pennsylvania, on Oct. 8 at halftime of the University of Iowa game are Matthew Johnson, 46, head of global equity syndicate at Barclays Plc (BARC) and a former nose tackle at Penn State, and Lance Lonergan, 44, co-chief executive officer at Weeden & Co., a backup quarterback in 1986.
Paterno, whose 405 wins are the most among major-college football coaches, taught more than the game, the former players said. They have applied the traits and principles they learned at Penn State, such as teamwork, coping with failure and leaving the game on the field, they said.
‘Take a Risk’
“Not being afraid to fail means that you’re not afraid to take risk,” said Johnson, who keeps a life-size cardboard cutout of Paterno in his office near Times Square. “Having the courage to stand up and state your opinion and then, on behalf of the firm take a risk, is all about your level of conviction that begins in the preparation. For me, that’s the key to being successful on Wall Street.”
Football has long been a fertile recruiting ground for finance. Henry Paulson, who ran Goldman Sachs before becoming U.S. Treasury secretary, played for Dartmouth College in the 1960s. Steve Young, who played for Brigham Young University and is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, is a managing director at private-equity firm Huntsman Gay Global Capital LLC. Pete Dawkins, the 1958 Heisman Trophy winner from the U.S. Military Academy, was vice chairman of Citigroup Private Bank.
“They work extremely well in trading environments because, one, it’s almost like playing a game,” said Ron Mitchell, CEO of CareerCore Inc. and founder of the AlumniAthlete Network, which places student athletes into internships and careers. “There’s a winner and a loser, and you have to be able to recover from losses, step up and win.”
Recovering From Defeat
Penn State’s 1986 national championship team had to recover from defeat. The year before, they entered the Orange Bowl undefeated and lost 25-10 to the University of Oklahoma. Shaffer lost his job as starting quarterback, and fought to win it back the following season. Against Miami, a team with Heisman Trophy winner Vinny Testaverde at quarterback and Michael Irvin, now a Hall of Famer, at receiver, Penn State won, 14-10.
Paterno has shown how he earned his reputation for perseverance. In August, he injured his right arm and hip when a player ran into him during practice. He led a morning coaches meeting via speaker phone from the hospital. In 2006, he broke his leg in a sideline collision, forcing him to have surgery. In 2008, he had hip-replacement surgery from an injury suffered while demonstrating an onside kick during practice.
“The thing that Joe really stressed with everybody was having an unbelievably high level of intensity and tenacity, and pushing yourself to perform at a high level every play, every practice, every game, day in and day out,” said Tim Freeman, 44, an offensive tackle on the championship team and now a principal at private-equity firm Elevation Partners LP, based in Menlo Park, California.
Players’ names don’t appear on the backs of Penn State’s football jerseys, a tradition that emphasizes the team over the individual and one the former teammates say they try to emulate in their careers.
“I don’t think our uniforms look that bad,” Paterno said for a profile about him on the university’s website. “They say something to kids about team-oriented play and an austere approach to life.”
Trey Bauer, a former linebacker who works in State College running a real-estate hedge fund, said Paterno drew a blue line across the entrance to the practice field, indicating to players that football should be kept separate from their personal lives. That applies to Bauer’s career, he said.
“We’re all busy doing our work and doing our stuff, but once that is over, then you have to concentrate on your family,” said Bauer, 46.
‘You Need to Fail’
Shaffer, Johnson, Lonergan, Freeman and Bauer said they still keep in touch, sometimes running into one another at their kids’ football games in New Jersey. The men take a “a great deal of pride” in their accomplishment and support one another as their careers and lives change, said Shaffer, who headed U.S. credit sales at Merrill Lynch & Co. until 2006, when he left amid a management shakeup by then-CEO Stanley O’Neal.
“This business is one in which you need to fail in front of a lot of people, to get booed by a lot of people, but somehow figure out a way to come back from those failures,” Shaffer said. “This business humbles everyone that’s been in it, as do the trials and tribulations you have on the athletic field.”