BOWLING GREEN - When Moe Ankney was hired to coach the Bowling Green State University football team late in 1985, he sat with his family in the lobby outside the offices at Perry Stadium, and his daughter asked her dad just where his support staff was.
"That's me," Jean Panning said as she worked the athletic department switchboard behind the reception desk.
Twenty-plus years later, the support staff for Falcon football still starts with Jean Panning. Though she has officially been the football secretary during the tenure of five different Bowling Green head coaches, that hardly covers Panning's job description.
"She's been surrounded by football players, football coaches, and nothing but football, all the time," current Bowling Green assistant coach and former Falcon player Greg Studrawa said.
"But she still has this soft side and this grace about her. She's always had a knack for knowing just when a player or a coach needed some words of encouragement, a pat on the back, or just that smile of hers. Jean really holds this place together, in her own unique, motherly kind of way."
Hired in 1982 during the era of Denny Stolz, Panning has also worked for Ankney, Gary Blackney, Urban Meyer and now Gregg Brandon. Her desk and tiny cubicle sit just outside the door of the head coaches' office, and she is the conduit through which everything and everyone must pass.
"Jean always represented the BG football program with style and class," Ankney, now an assistant coach at Minnesota, said. " She has always done the work it takes three or four people to do in other football offices. I was always amazed at her efficiency on the job. Jean was a pleasure to work with and is a tremendous ambassador for Bowling Green football."
"She is the mom of the football office, and one of the nicest ladies I've ever met," Falcon senior running back P.J. Pope said. "Any time you need Jean for something, she's always there and she's always got a smile on her face. Everybody respects and loves Jean so much, for her positive attitude and everything she does for us."
Panning has been down on the field to experience the excitement and euphoria of championships and bowl game victories, and been part of the somber inner sanctum at Perry Stadium for the darkest of days, like in September of 2000 when Blackney resigned under fire in the midst of a sixth straight losing season.
"Coach Blackney called me in and told me he was going to resign," Panning said. "I remember getting up out of my chair, and going over and giving him a hug and just saying I was sorry. Maybe some people think that's inappropriate, but that's all you can do at times like that. I guess that's the mother in me."
When Panning started with the Falcons, she knew little about the game, and less about the real business of college football.
"I was one of those people who thought football coaches were busy during the season, and then didn't do much the rest of the year," she said. "I had no idea what all was involved. I've learned something from every person I had contact with - coaches, players, recruits and parents. This is a people-driven operation."
Panning has seen two coaches essentially ushered out the door for failure, and two leave due to their outstanding success. But those changes at the top were not nearly as tough on her as the almost clean sweep of the staff that accompanied the head coach departures.
"The worst shock I got was never having been in a position before where - win, lose or draw - if the gentleman in this office suddenly left, no one else had a job either," Panning said. "This is the only business I've seen where you can lose your job just by being too successful.
"I had a real problem when the first staff left. This was a family, then coach Stolz got another job, and everyone left. I really struggled with that."
Since then Panning has been part of the foundation of Falcon football - the rock with that soothing smile, the engaging delivery, and always the calm voice inside the storm of activity.
"There is constant pressure all around me, because if you are winning there is always the worry about the next game, and if things are not going well, then everyone is down," she said. "But I feel like I need to be that one person who can offer a smile, or a pat on the back when times are tough, or be a sounding board for the kids."
"She'll do anything for anybody around here," BG senior captain Rob Warren said. "If you have any problems, any questions, you can go to Jean and she'll point you in the right direction."
"I've always looked at this like my extended family," Panning said. "When the players from 1985 come back, they are grown men now, but they're still my boys. And when people, former coaches or players, call, I am the one stationary element here. I've been here a long time, and I tell them now I'm as old as the furniture."
Besides her secretarial duties, Panning helps with recruiting and fund-raisers, and she even used to type the stats in the press box.
"As an administrator, she basically handles everything," Studrawa said. "A lot of problems end up on her desk, because Jean can always take care of them, and do it the right way."
The players come to her with school struggles, girlfriend issues and homesickness. When a parent has not heard from a son in a while, one call to Panning gets the message across, and that maternal instinct takes over.
"As a young player who's away from home for the first time, she's the mom you don't have around any more," Studrawa said. "And if you're walking down the hall after you just got your butt chewed out by your coach, she was right there with a smile and a hug. She always seemed to know the best thing to say."
Panning said the players have usually wanted to share their successes with her, and are also aware that if they find trouble, she is someone who gets hurt by that, too. Her door is always open, so "we celebrate together and we suffer together."
"One of the best things in my life is senior day, when I get to stand out on the sideline and greet the parents and players," Panning said. "I get tears in my eyes - I've been through just as much with these kids as their parents have - all the injuries, the setbacks - and I am just as proud of them as the parents standing there are."
Panning, who said when she started working with the Falcons that football for her "was just a bunch of guys beating their heads in over a little brown ball" said she now understands the nuances of the game, and how so much of it is scripted and choreographed. She has also seen how the right mix of people is often the key to making it all work.
"Right after he got here, coach Meyer called me in to his office, and asked me what I thought about him bringing Greg Studrawa back here to coach," Panning said. "I told Urban 'you don't know me very well, but I promise you that you will never regret it'. I had such a big smile on my face, I think he understood me right away."
And in her more than a quarter of a century inside Falcon football, Panning has dealt with dozens and dozens of coaches - many of whom spend more time than they'd like to admit out on the turf, screaming and cursing and spewing emotion. She has known hundreds and hundreds of players - oversized young men with talent and egos and not always the best balance between the two.
"And for a woman working in this environment, I have never had anyone - a coach or a player - be disrespectful to me in any manner - not once," Panning said. "They take their hats off when they come in here."
And it will likely be that way until Jean Panning decides Falcon football can get along without her.
Contact Matt Markey at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6510.