Column: Same old, same old

Nate Bauer, Senior Editor
Blue White Illustrated

The question, posed to Penn State head coach James Franklin at his weekly radio show Thursday evening, was straightforward in its essence.

With all of the hype, the distractions and craziness that typically accompanies the spotlight for one of the top football teams in the country, Franklin was asked, how have Penn State's players responded? Does it put any more pressure on them through the course of the week heading into each game?

"I think that's why we keep our approach the way it is," Franklin said. "I try to insulate the players from it as much as we possibly can."

At once, a notion crystallized.

This Penn State team is ranked No. 4 in the country, has the leading Heisman contender according to many, and, to this observer, is not an iota different in its collective demeanor from the program of last year, the year before, or before even that.

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"We had one conversation before the season started, kind of talking about what our goals and objectives are for the season, and we haven't talked about it again," Franklin continued. "We don't talk about rankings. We don't talk about Big Ten Championships. We don't talk about playoffs. We don't talk about those things. We don't talk about articles that are being written."

In many ways, the impact of Franklin's methodology extends his players, coaches and team personnel. For as even-keeled as Franklin is determined to be, the end product is a group of student-athletes that truly do not let on any hint of inflating egos or bravado.

None of which is to say that a winning team isn't more exuberant than a group slogging through an up-and-down season. Certainly, fun has a way of returning to football when an offense is posting 40.5 points per game, a defense suffocates an opponent on the road for an entire first half, or special teams units rip off a long return or block a kick.

But, Franklin's point may have been best exemplified by his praise for Saquon Barkley's recent radio interview with former star NFL running back Tiki Barber and his co-host Brandon Tierney.

Noting that he talked to Barkley about the Heisman Trophy before the season, but has not since, Franklin admitted his pride at hearing the phenomenon's priorities this season verbalized. Taking the national radio call from just outside his next class rather than at the Lasch Building or on-campus housing, Barkley offered what Franklin described as an honest, humble and direct answer.

"How important is it for me to win the Heisman?" Barkley repeated aloud. "I think if you asked my running back coach, Coach Huff, when I first came to this school I set goals for myself as a player. The Heisman was one of those on my list. I wanted to try to break every rushing record at Penn State and just leave a legacy here.

"Obviously those goals are still in tact, but as I grew older, and I got more wisdom, playing more games and understanding football more, it’s more about the team. The Heisman Trophy is a special trophy. It’s a prestigious award and if I was fortunate enough to win that award obviously I would be so thankful. But I’m not really too focused on that award. I’d rather just win a national championship and a Big Ten Championship again than have the Heisman award."

Of course, as the best player on a team that is currently one of the nation's best, Barkley's proposition likely won't be an either/or scenario.

Leading the country in all-purpose yards with 253.3 per game, as well as owning a spot among the top rushers and receivers, and scorers, in the Big Ten, Barkley has climbed from a fringe preseason contender into the national favorite. Yet, he continued, the potential recognition and honors on the horizon pale against his primary goal:

Winning football games.

"I’m not trying to say that to be humble. That’s just how I truly feel. I’m a competitor. But I don’t go on SportsCenter to see what (Baker) Mayfield is doing or what other running backs or Sam Darnold and those guys are doing," said Barkley. "I just try to stay focused and live in the moment and enjoy the moment because you only get this opportunity once."

The example isn't just limited to Barkley, though.

During a week in which the complicated issues of race and politics converged with sports, Penn State's approach signaled the ease with which this program is conditioned to handle it.

Led by Franklin's unequivocal support for Lamont Wade's public expression of his thoughts, offering a message encouraging the embrace of differences as an avenue toward strengthening a community, he did it while still managing to stay out of the weeds that have created such an embittered national discourse. His players, in turn, followed suit in handling challenging questions with class and dignity, voicing support and respect for their teammates regardless of where they individually might land on the issues.

For a team that has risen to the level of national prominence following its remarkable run of success in 2016, even after a walk-off win at Iowa, even after a fully charged and tenuous weekend in sports, culture and politics, the end result is a sense of normalcy at Penn State.

While far from guaranteeing results on the field, the drama-free atmosphere away from it ensures the Nittany Lions' best opportunity at keeping that trajectory of results in tact.

"I want our guys focused on the things that we can control, which is our preparation and our attitude and our work ethic and things like that because if we do those things, the other things will take care of themselves. And I think for the most part, our guys are pretty good at it," said Franklin. "Now, I'm not saying it's like we've stuck our heads in the sand and we don't know these things are going on, but we don't make them a big deal."

Caught off-guard myself by the very suggestion that Penn State's players would feel additional pressure, thanks largely to the insulated environment Franklin has worked so hard to foster, his has undoubtedly been an effective approach.

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