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Q&A: NSN Chats With ‘Success With Honor’ CEO Mark Toniatti About Micah Shrewsberry’s Departure, the Penn State Football Program and the Wild World of NIL

Penn State Nittany Lion Shrine
Penn State Nittany Lion Shrine

Since basketball coach Micah Shrewsberry left for Notre Dame last month, Penn State fans have discussed name, image and likeness. Nittany Sports Now spoke with Mark Toniatti, CEO of Penn State’s all-sports NIL collective, Success With Honor, which started in March 2022, about Shrewsberry’s departure, the football program and many other topics regarding the wild world of NIL.

Nittany Sports Now: There are Penn State fans out there who blame a lack of progress in NIL for Micah Shrewsberry no longer being the basketball coach. What is your response to that, and do you feel that Success With Honor and Penn State in general, from a NIL standpoint, did everything it could to keep Micah Shrewsberry as the head men’s basketball coach?

Mark Toniatti: There’s a lot of media and comments being made by individuals who are not close to the operation. Given that I’m obviously very close to the operation, we were able to secure what was requested of us for basketball. So, what was needed, we had in place. So, in that respect, I have no idea what the individual reasons were for coach to leave, although I hear a lot that he wanted to get back to Indiana, back to family, and I understand that completely. But I can put to bed the idea that NIL was not the issue.

NSN: In December, Micah had an interview with Nate Bauer of Blue-White Illustrated. NIL was a topic in that interview. One of the quotes from that interview is Shrewsberry was asked where he would rank Penn State’s basketball NIL efforts among the 14 Big Ten schools. He said 14th, maybe 13th. Would you agree with that?

MT: I would say that December was a catalyst to get the interest by the donors to respond to the need for NIL with basketball. So, from the December time to February, significant work was done by Success With Honor, by our executive director, Kerry Small, by the hoops club with Paul Tomczyk, and other donors interested.  

NSN: When would you say you got to that point where you needed to be?

MT: End of February… beginning of March. Things don’t turn around overnight. You have to make sure you contact the appropriate individuals, get their interest. You don’t call them one time and say, “Hey, I need x, and they go, ‘Oh, ok, fine.’ It’s like, let’s talk about it, let’s see, and then we’ll go through it, and it develops with a relationship over time, and we had it in time before the decision was being made by Coach Shrewsberry.

NSN: Is there anything you, as the CEO, would have done differently looking back on it?

MT: I don’t know. We’re working to raise funds constantly. What people give to, and I think you have to recall, people give to their passion. If they’re passionate about basketball, they give to basketball. If they’re passionate about field hockey, they give to field hockey. If they’re passionate about football, they’ll give to football. I will say, straight up, that football and basketball are high, top priorities of Success With Honor. With that, I think that we’ll be able to facilitate the contracts with all 31 sports. And we are proud that we’ve had at least one athlete in all 31 sports under contract in our first year.

NSN: What are the challenges that come with a. doing the work that’s required to represent all 31 sports and also, just simply put, keeping everybody happy in the athletic department?

MT: It’s not necessarily “keeping everyone happy in the athletic department.” I would say facilitating the 31 sports because of the staff that we have, and again I’m very proud of the staff that we have with Sara Jackson and Kerry Small and our accountant Leslie Beyer, we are able to manage this and keep it organized, create opportunities for them under contract to fulfill that contract. It is required, and we are very, very strict on the idea that it’s not “pay for play.” That you need to actually do something to earn the results from the contract that you’ve signed.

NSN: Football is the most popular sport at Penn State, and all the (recent) talk as far as NIL goes has been about the basketball program. But talking about football, where are things at right now?

MT: We continue to work every day with the football program. We have a number of players under contract, and we continue to work with them. Again, that’s a top, top priority for us. There are three sources of revenue for Success With Honor. One is subscriptions, by just going on and logging into the website and becoming a subscriber. You could subscribe at various dollar amounts per month. It’s a monthly subscription, and you’ll receive a number of benefits by being a subscriber. The other is finding individual donors, those who can make substantial donations to the organization, and the third is through companies and corporations that would want to work with us as well.

NSN: What are your general thoughts on just NIL as a whole? It’s something that everybody knows about, but it’s tough to understand, and I would say most people probably would have a hard time explaining what NIL is if they were asked about it, even though it’s been so dominant.

MT: Having that change is so, obviously, is even above my pay grade on that. With that said, I go back. ’73 (Penn State) grad, I actually started in ’68, so I go back a long time with Penn State, and being a traditionalist, I like the idea for NIL where the athletes have a means by which they can actually do things that give them respect that they’re able to go out and take their girlfriend, boyfriend out to dinner, go to a movie, do things that they need to do. So I’m all for that kind of activity… having them able to earn money on their name, image and likeness I think is great. With that said, I think there is a point where it gets a little bit out of hand when you read about those areas where they’re making hundreds of thousands and millions of dollars in NIL, and then when you link the NIL with the transfer portal, you create the potential of just chaos. As a fan, you don’t know if the players that you’re really rooting for are going to be here next season or whatever it may be. It’s not just a graduation; it’s what’s happening? So you give your heart and interest into a program, and you hope that it’s going to continue to grow, it makes it very, very difficult. And I’m sure how difficult it is for the programs themselves to manage the operations. But for the players themselves to earn money on their name, image and likeness, I think that’s great. It gives them an opportunity, and some of them to put a little bit (of money) away, so when they do graduate, they’re not going out totally broke like they have been. Because not everyone is going to end up being a pro. 

NSN: The name Success With Honor, when people think of that, they think first of Joe Paterno, but then, you know, John Cappelletti, Jack Ham, Charlie Pittman, Todd Blackledge, Shane Conlan, I could go on and on, and those are all part of Penn State tradition. There was no NIL back when all those guys were playing. So, I think a concern among the Penn State fanbase is that the University is kind of too stuck in that tradition, and because of that, they won’t be able to kind of get with the times as far as NIL goes. What are the challenges that come with it? It’s important to respect Penn State’s tradition and honor it, but also embrace the 2020s and NIL because that has nothing to do with what happened all those years 

MT: That’s a very good point. Again, very quickly, I’ll go back to when I was here. My backfield was Franco Harris and Lydell Mitchell. Come on. How bad could it be? Jack Ham was there. (Dennis) Onkotz, Steve Smear, just fantastic players going back there. But our biggest challenge in our first year, and it continues on, is education. It’s educating people on, first, it’s not pay for play, two it’s not outrageous amounts of money that the players are receiving, and the fans themselves are today no longer just fans. They are also stakeholders. They are stakeholders in the success of Penn State athletics. So they should, in some respects, feel part of Penn State athletics because they’re supporting Penn State athletics. You support Penn State athletics in two ways, and both are very important to the athlete. One is through the University itself, through the Nittany Lion Club, for facilities, and we have some of the best facilities in college athletics. Some have to be improved. The soccer field, they’re working on that, and that comes from the University itself. The other is the NIL. Either way, the athlete benefits. The athlete benefits from the University through better facilities and top facilities, and the athlete benefits from NIL for them from a personal standpoint. So, either way, where your donation goes, and right now, NIL is very important because of everything that’s going on in college athletics, the athlete will benefit. And that’s the bottom line.

NSN: Using a sports analogy, when you’re coaching a football team, you look at what other teams are doing. So to relate that to what you’re doing, do you often look at what other schools are doing with their NIL and get ideas?

MT: Oh yeah, for sure. We’re looking at websites, and if there’s an idea, if we can find a best practice, we will adopt it. I will say this, though. There’s a lot of talk of what’s going to happen to NIL, and I have absolutely no idea. I have a lot of hope for the new commissioner for the NCAA (Charlie Baker).  I understand he spends a lot of time at an office in Washington because he’s been a politician to try to get some arms around NIL. But I’ve said this to people for the entire year: Somebody, somewhere, somehow, is going to try to get their arms around NIL. I hope when they do that, they look at Success With Honor as a model. Because we are following the goals, the objectives by the NCAA to do what is supposed to be done for student-athletes, does it tie our hands sometimes? Yes, probably. I don’t know exactly what the other NILs are doing. All I know is that we’re working very hard to follow what was the intent of NIL when it first came out.”

NSN: You mentioned wanting to be looked at as a model. How close do you think Success With Honor and Penn State as a whole is to being looked at that way, and right now, what schools do you think are generally thought of as the models of how to win the game of NIL?

MT: Again, I don’t know that there are many programs out there that cover all of their sports. We prioritize football, it’s obvious, and we prioritize basketball, which is obvious, understandable. But with that said, that’s what I look at is that we’re making sure the athletes do what they need to do to earn the contract. We do it for as many athletes as we can. As you may or may not know, we have over 850 student-athletes. Only about 320, 350, or so are on full scholarships. All the rest are on a partial scholarship. Their families, themselves, they’re paying for their books, their tuition, their spending money and so on. We’re here to try to help as many student-athletes as we possibly can. Again, prioritizing what we need to prioritize, but not ignoring those other sports as well.

NSN: What was your reaction to the Jay Paterno- Michael Mauti Twitter dispute?

MT: There’s no advantage by people arguing with each other. Let’s do what we need to do to make what we’re doing successful and for the student-athlete. Period. That’s all I focus on. I don’t have a lot of time for a lot of other things that go on because, again, I have this going on, and I have other personal things that are going on. I don’t spend a lot of time reading that stuff.

NSN: How much of the Penn State fan base would you stay understands what Success With Honor is doing, what the goals are, and how do you think you’ve been doing in raising that awareness?

MT: That’s a good question. There are a couple parts to that. One is, I think the fan, not the average alumn, but the average fan knows NIL is out there. You cannot be around and watch a game without hearing NIL. Do they understand what it is? I think a much smaller percentage understands that. Understands where Success With Honor fits in with that. A smaller percentage than that. We continue to try to educate our alumni, and we’re doing that. Kerry and Sara, they’re working their tails off trying to get the word out there. It’s not the easiest thing in the world, but we need more and more opportunities to get in front of our alumni, to email our alumni, to communicate through social media.

I don’t get on social media, but again, you think about that, I might be the typical senior individual who doesn’t get on social media. If I wasn’t involved with NIL, I’m not sure I would know much about it myself. To find out, we have to get to (people like) me chuckles, and that’s a challenge that we have, and we need to get all the support from whatever source muster to get that information out to us. Another way of looking at it from the people who are 20, 30 years old, yourself; you’re all over social media. I’m not saying they’re not, but they may not be the ones that have the opportunity to make the largest donations to the NIL. You see it, you talk about it, but do you support it? Or do you have the means to support it? We have to get to those people who can. And the companies, the organizations, the corporations, can. That’s our challenge. 

NSN: We’re early into 2023. There’s still a lot to get done. What has to happen for you to, say, New Year’s Eve, you’re doing whatever. Celebrating, not celebrating, I don’t know what you do on New Year’s Eve. But you’re.

MT: I’m at the semifinals of the national championship, watching Penn State play. My hotel room is already booked. I booked hotel rooms in both cities that the national semifinals are held. I have my hotel booked at the national championship game in Houston. So, yes, that’s where I’m going to be.”

NSN: Fair enough. So say you’re watching Penn State play in the semifinals, and every New Year’s Eve, people reflect on what happened in the past year. What goals were met, what goals weren’t met, if it was a good year, if it was a bad year. What has to happen between now and New Year’s Eve for you to say, hey, we had a hell of a 2023?

MT: That’s fair. It’s looking at “What are your goals and objectives for the upcoming year?” Our goal’s to meet the needs of our coaches and be able to provide the opportunities for our athletes. If at the end of the year, the coaches say, “You did a hell of a job,” and the athletes say, “It was a good experience. I learned a lot.” Because we don’t only just say, “Go do this appearance,” or “Sign these autographs, sign this football,” or whatever it may be, we want to stay with them throughout the year and help them understand, they are learning about contracts. They are learning about managing finances. They’re learning about their taxes. Let’s stay with them and make sure. We cannot force somebody to file the tax, but we can make sure that they know that the income that they receive from us has been reported to the IRS, and they need to file their taxes. So it’s an educational opportunity for the athletes throughout the entire year, and that’s the things that we focus on. It’s not a one-shot; get it done, move on to the next. These are our athletes, and these are our students, and part of being a student is to learn while you’re going through it. I think our students are better for it from the beginning of the year to the end of the year. And that’s the way we measure ourselves.

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