Penn State played 81 seasons of football from 1930-2011 with only four head coaches. When James Franklin was officially hired to lead the Nittany Lions on Jan. 11., that meant (including Tom Bradley’s four-game stint as interim coach from Nov. 2011 to Jan. 2012) he would be Penn State’s fourth head coach since Nov. 8, 2011 – the day Joe Paterno was fired.
Franklin, who refers to he and his staff as a “relationship-based staff,” needed to break down a wall and connect with a group of players who have been loyal to one another, many of whom opted to stay with the university through the Jerry Sandusky scandal. With the sanctions, including scholarship reductions and a bowl ban, handed down by the NCAA, these guys had the chance to transfer without restriction, but they stayed, and were now meeting their third head coach in four seasons.
“At first it was hard. You got to remember, for the seniors, I’m the third head football coach they’ve had. That’s unheard of at Penn State,” Franklin told Yahoo Sports. “They’ve obviously had some real challenging times and some issues, so you come in and you’ve got to work through that.”
Breaking down that wall took time. Franklin, who replaced Bill O'Brien, admitted that it took most of spring practice for the team and coaching staff to come together, but there wasn’t one moment where it all clicked.
Instead, it was consistency.
“It’s the consistency in our actions and the consistency in the things we say and do on a daily basis that I think ultimately earns people’s trust,” Franklin said. “Sometimes there might be one moment that kind of signifies it all, but that hasn’t been the case here. It’s who we are every day. That’s more important than one specific moment.
“At first, it was first kind of the players and then the coaches. But now there’s a sense of trust and a sense of commitment to one another and I think we’re starting to build really good chemistry right now. That’s something that we work really hard on and I think the wall is gone now. The players know how much we care about them and how passionate and how prideful we are to be at Penn State just like they are. I feel great now. I feel so much better. Before spring I couldn’t say that.”
Spring practice can be a time for players to distinguish themselves on the depth chart – a time to catch a coach’s eye. For Penn State, the 15 sessions between the first practice on March 17 and the Blue-White Game at Beaver Stadium on April 12 were all about the players getting acclimated with what Franklin expects on a daily basis.
“That was our goal – to lay a foundation with the schemes so we could come back this summer and really play fast and play violent and aggressive. We’re trying to get them to play fast and to play confident. I think we made great strides this spring,” Franklin said.
The team returns most of its starters on defense and has offensive playmakers at tight end and running back for sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg to deliver the ball to, but depth at positions like wide receiver (PSU returns just 35 catches and 398 yards from three receivers) and offensive line are an issue.
Take away injured fifth-year senior guard Miles Dieffenbach and the indefinitely suspended Anthony Alosi, and Penn State had a grand total of eight scholarship linemen practicing this spring. Two of those linemen, projected starters at guard Brian Gaia and Derek Dowrey, were moved over from the defensive line prior to spring.
The lack of depth is a double-edged sword for Franklin. In the short-term, Hackenberg doesn’t have many targets at receiver to find when he isn’t running for his life behind an inexperienced offensive line, but early playing time is a major selling point for Franklin on the recruiting trail.
Franklin closed out the 2014 class with nine commitments in less than a month, many of whom have a chance to earn early playing time. That momentum quickly carried over to the 2015 class. Franklin’s pitch involves more than just early playing time, but Franklin doesn’t beat around the bush, early playing time is a big deal.
“It’s an opportunity for a young man and his family to come to Penn State and get a world class education -- which is what it’s all about,” Franklin said. “You’re talking about the opportunity to live in a town that is unbelievably supportive of the football program and you’re talking about the opportunity for early playing time which we can offer right now as good as anyone with the lack of scholarships.”
An estimated crowd of 72,000 showed up at the spring game, Franklin’s first game day experience at Beaver Stadium. That crowd reinforced something that Franklin, a native of Langhorne, Pa. in suburban Philadelphia, admits he did not understand about Penn State when he was first hired.
“All the things you hear about Penn State, you don’t really understand it until you experience it yourself. Coming here and seeing the pride that people have in this school and this state is unreal,” Franklin said. “That’s probably the thing that has surprised me the most, just the sense of pride that people have in this university.”
Franklin says that university-wide pride carries back over to recruiting.
“These kids get on this campus and they see how beautiful the campus is and they sense the pride that the student body and the community have in being a member of this university. The history, the tradition, and the present and then the future – where we’re going. In a lot of ways it sells itself.”
The feeling that Franklin has been too good to be true took a bit of a hit last week. During Franklin’s time at Vanderbilt, four of his players were charged with raping an unconscious 21-year-old woman and a recent report from The Tennessean said that Franklin made contact with the alleged victim four days after the rape was said to have occurred.
Franklin released a statement through Penn State saying that he has fully cooperated with authorities and that he did nothing wrong. Tom Thurman, the Nashville district attorney who is prosecuting the four players told the Philadelphia Inquirer that Franklin and his wife called the woman, who reportedly worked with Vanderbilt football part-time, to show support.
When the Vanderbilt case was brought up last Wednesday at the first of 17 stops on the Penn State Coaches Caravan, an event where Franklin meets with fans and PSU alumni to discuss his vision for the program, Franklin said that he brought up the case during a team meeting and is trying to be “as open and transparent” as he can.
Whether or not the case will become another cloud lingering over the Penn State program remains to be seen, but Franklin’s focus is elsewhere as the spring semester of classes comes to a close.
Franklin, who pushes two couches together and continues to sleep in his office (“It’s amazing what nice sheets will do,” he says.) until his family makes the move from Nashville into their new home in State College in July, has been holding meetings with every player on the team to give them a sense where they stand heading into summer workouts and the 2014 season.
The Nittany Lions will head across the Atlantic to Dublin, Ireland for Franklin’s regular season debut against Fiesta Bowl champion Central Florida on Aug. 30 in the Croke Park Classic.
And while Franklin says a trip like this is a good cultural experience, the players are more excited about the start of the season in general, more so than that specific game.
“We want to get back. We’re excited about playing Central Florida but there really hasn’t been a whole lot of talk about the venue and things like that. These guys just want to play. They just want to play the game whether it’s in Beaver Stadium, whether it’s in Dublin, Ireland, or whether it’s at downtown State College High School. They just want to play the game. They want to compete.”
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