Scott Van Pelt
Charge to the Graduates, Winter 2007 Commencement
Chancellor Wiley, faculty, staff, honored guests, deans, family, friends…and most importantly my Badger graduates, thank you for asking me. I cannot thank you enough.
I read with great interest the headlines in the student newspapers here in Madison on Friday, Dec. 7 – there was a small blurb that said “ESPN host to address graduates.” The headline, of course, read “Chancellor Wiley to Step Down.” Now I am not a wise nor a learned man, but I’m pretty sure I can connect the dots on this one. The man spends seven years of his life building this university up and hears that I have been asked to come give the charge to the graduates and figures he wants to get it on the record that he’s getting out before I get to town — something about the accreditation of the university being null and void after I got here.
I read a lot about this Wisconsin Idea. Whatever it is, it certainly didn’t include me being asked to be here. And I know you have a limited budget – of nothing – but the fact that I was the best you could do is embarrassing, I mean honestly.
I was fairly certain that this request had to come from my core demographic. You probably know him? A little drunk, belligerent, 22’ish, hat on backwards, out in the bar – - comes up and says, “I just wanta get one picture with you. You rock, Trey Wingo!” When I was told that it was actually four young ladies that asked, I thought as Jemaine might say for you Flight of the Conchords fans, “Well, I’m not surprised.” Actually I was completely shocked and amazed and humbled and honored beyond words that you would ask me to come.
I know that you typically have one of your own do this, and to those who might be offended that an outsider was asked, please know that I have enormous respect for your university and your town. I meant what I said that day on the radio back in the summer, if you happened to hear that. What I said on the radio though – that was in July, all right? Madison tends to look a little different when you come back in December. But I stand by what I said. I’ve been very fortunate to travel around the country and see many universities.
There is only one (University of) Wisconsin-Madison. It is not good — it is exceptional — and sometimes an outsider’s point of view can simply serve to reinforce what you already know, and that’s how great you’ve got it. But I still wrestled with this because my initial thought was I’m not doing this, because you all deserve someone who has contributed to society in a far more meaningful way than referencing Flight of the Conchords and the Aqua Teen Hunger Force over highlights of the Milwaukee Bucks and the Atlanta Hawks.
But you asked. And as I thought about it, I thought, you know – I’m probably closer to the mindset, to all of you, than anyone else on the list of people you might ask, which speaks a whole lot more to me than the rest of the people on that list. I figure that the other folks you might have asked – they have never been in a dark bar called Monday’s and served a shot that you could drown a squirrel in. What’s with that place? No one wants to drink paint thinner. They’ve never been to flip night at State Street Brats or enjoyed the free bacon at Wando’s. – certainly not all three of those in one night, as I did in July.
They might know what the Fifth Quarter is, but could they tell you the difference between a Butch and a Stiemsma? And I guarantee that the folks on that list never had to watch their alma mater lose a basketball game in this building and then be forced to don a Grateful Red tee shirt that was about two sizes too small and pose for pictures with half the student section.
And that is when I had a moment of clarity. The heck with the rest of those people on that list. I will do it, and that is when the terror sets in.
The charge to the graduates? It sounds formidable, if not impossible. But then the clincher for me – it’s December. People took a little longer to get here, didn’t ya? Some Super Seniors – any Super Seniors? An extra semester or three? My people.
This hourglass will serve several purposes here. First of all, it’s my reminder to be brief. I might have left a voice mail message for a young lady that made it’s way on to the Internet. If you’re familiar, you know it’s proof that I do get a little long-winded. And as a side note to the fellas, when in doubt, maybe a text message is nice…I’m just saying.
The more important purpose of this is that it is symbolic. When I was where you now are, I gave no thought to the passage of time, no thought to the sand in my hourglass, so to speak. But as I stand here today, I am painfully aware of how much sand is in the bottom and how quickly it piles up there. And if you believe nothing else that I tell you today, believe me that a year will become five, will become 10 and you wake up one morning and you don’t recognize the bald-headed guy looking back at you in the mirror. For the ladies that analogy doesn’t work quite so well, unless you marry a bald-headed guy, and you’ll probably find him quite charming, because really we have no other option.
As Badgers, you all have repeatedly shown the world your great passion and it will take all of it as you step into the world to try to put your stamp on it. Understand that no amount of fame or fortune, no gem, no mineral, no currency known to man will buy you more of the most important asset that all of you have – an asset that, at least in theory, you have more of me – and that is time. So I encourage you to treat it like the treasure that is it. Invest it wisely, give of it willingly to the things that matter to you. Don’t waste it. Don’t take it for granted, because when it is gone, it is gone.
The line in the film “The Departed,” (Jack) Nicholson’s character tells the guy at the bar, “We’re all on our way out — act accordingly.” And with that thought in mind, I’ll share with you a story of a dog tag that I wear. It has three names on it: Sam, Gene and Lorenzo.
Sam was my father, Gene was my stepfather, Lorenzo was my grandfather. Not one of them lived long enough to see me begin my professional career. Any success I’ve had in my field, along with every penny, nickel, dime, quarter and dollar that I have accumulated – I would trade all of that if I could have just a little bit more time with those fellas. Sit down around a table, shake their hand, look them in the eye and let them know it worked out all right, but I can’t do that, because we ran out of time.
So today, please, please, please take some time with these people who are sitting in this building who have walked with you to this point, who have stood behind you and beside you and helped you get here, and tell them thank you. Tell them that you love them and the next time you get the chance to do that, tell them again, and never ever stop telling them until you run out of time.
Now I don’t want to give you the idea that because I believe time is of the essence that you need to be in some big fat hurry. In fact, quite the contrary. If anything I would tell all of you to take a deep breath and relax. You all have grown up in this era of instant gratification – the children of Google so to speak. You want to know the answer to any question, you Google it. You want to download the musical catalogue of your favorite artist, done!
The Internet has made all our lives easier, provided basically anything we want immediately, and created this true world community, but there is a negative in that it has made us an incredibly impatient society, and we’re all guilty because nobody wants to wait for anything ever. The difference for me is that I didn’t grow up with it. I know this is going to make me sound like the crazy old guy wandering around at the bus stop or something, all right? But when I went to the University of Maryland, we didn’t have no Internet! Do you have any idea how hard it was for us to gamble and find porn? I mean, you had to really work at being a degenerate, and we did!
The challenge for you may come now when you’re confronted with this harsh reality that you can’t Google your life. There is no high speed connection for your hopes and dreams. You can’t just type doctor, lawyer, CEO and the space bar and hit “enter” and have that become your reality. And I know that you know that, but knowing it and dealing with it with any degree of grace is an entirely different animal altogether. It requires something in short supply at the moment, and that is patience. No shortcuts, ok? But oddly enough I think that’s the good news here, and I would encourage you to embrace the notion that the process of realizing the dream, the process of getting from where you are now sitting to where you hope someday to stand is the good part. It’s every bit as important as the dream realized – the old adage, “the journey, not the destination.” Because I think life is not about finish lines.
Goals are important, but they have a very funny way of changing. Be invested in the ride. Be open to the idea that you will grow and you will learn and you will likely find that the destination you end up seeking might look entirely different from the one you have right now. And if you’re sitting there right now with no earthly idea of what you’re going to do next, that’s o.k., because your calling has a way of finding you, and I am a perfect example of that.
When I was working at the Golf Channel I signed a Post-It note and said “I will never work at ESPN,” and it is now framed on my desk at home. ESPN never represented to me my Mt. Everest. It was never my destination – my finish line. The truth is I don’t come here today with a finish line, and maybe that’s the wrong message. Maybe I should come here today with some sort of plan for world media domination or something, but I’ll leave that to the Ryan Seacrests of the world. I am simply aware of and thankful for as unlikely a trip as anyone in my business has ever taken, and I am proof that you are only bound by what you are willing to believe is possible.
Consider all of the unlikely things that had to happen – all the dominoes that had to fall – in order for me to be standing here today, as your commencement speaker. When I left Washington, DC, for the Golf Channel I broke as a joke. I was 30 cents away from having a quarter. I had never even been on television.
The first event I covered as a reporter for the Golf Channel I meet a kid with a big busted high top Afro and big thick glasses named Tiger Woods, and I thought “I’m gonna follow that dude.” And I did. And that was smart, because in the year 2000 he was having the greatest year in the history of golf.
The guy who was covering the sport for ESPN leaves to go to NBC. Well, ESPN needs a guy that has an in with Woods – hello! My destination changed. I end up going there to the worldwide leader of sports. First event I cover I go down there to Australia and I get a chance to work with a proud son of Madison by the name of Andy North, who’s here today. Give him a hand – the man who won the U.S. Open twice, for God’s sake. Andy and his wife Susan have become like family to me, so they had me up here this summer and I play in Andy’s charity golf event, go out on the town and have a good time — all that stuff about Monday’s and Wando’s we talked about earlier. I got back to ESPN, I spend an afternoon on the radio rambling about this fantastic place called Madison, Wisconsin. Evidently you heard about that and now here I stand today.
You can’t make that up. You can’t even invent a story that absurd, and yet that has been my life and my journey. And the places that your journey will take you and the people that you meet along the way are the settings and the characters that fill up the pages in the story of your life. I figured out a long time ago that my book would probably be short on accomplishment and it was going to be long on people and places. and I’m honored that Madison, Wisconsin, and all of you are now part of my book.
The idea of me giving you some sort of to-do list seemed incredibly presumptuous, but for some reason a list of don’ts felt entirely appropriate, so I will leave you with some don’ts if I might.
Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid to dive into the deep end. Take a chance. You all are smarter than we were, you’re more compassionate than we were, you’re going to do it better than we did it, and we are counting on you to do so.
Don’t be afraid to fail, to fall down and look like a fool in the process. Understand that every single of us that has walked this road before you has failed. I certainly have the scars to prove it. Those that have succeeded are the ones who have gotten up and kept on going.
Don’t spend too much time looking in the rear view mirror. The past is gone, failures and successes alike. The world is changing very rapidly and the present, your tomorrow, is right out in front of you, so keep your eyes looking out the windshield.
Don’t compromise your integrity – not who you are or what you believe in — for a dollar, because it’s worth more than that. Now if they offer five, maybe you think it over. Ten – you probably take that. And twenty – well, you absolutely do that, but you just hope nobody finds out about it, and if they do, you chalk it up to being a mistake later and you don’t do it again.
Don’t assume you know everything, at least not yet, because you don’t.
And the most important thing – don’t let your sand slip through your fingers. Use it in the pursuit of your passion. Roll around in it, play in it, leave footprints in it. Build something that matters to you with it. Make absolutely certain that when your time is up and your story is told that you’ve written a story worth telling. It’s your time and you all are ready for it.
Scott Van Pelt is an ESPN SportsCenter anchor who has declared Madison to be America’s best college sports town.