Sitting down for his weekly press conference Tuesday as an 0-3 head coach for the first time in his seven seasons at Penn State, James Franklin knew there would be tough questions, especially reactions to players speaking out about a lack of accountability and buy-in after Saturday’s embarrassing 35-19 upset loss to Maryland.
And he knew some would ask about the culture of his program, something that’s been a big part of his success, particularly the last four years when the Nittany Lions have compiled a 42-11 record with a Big Ten championship and three New Year’s 6 bowl appearances.
“I can’t come in and talk about how the culture has led to all of our success over the last six years, and over the last four years the most success in the Big Ten era of Penn State football,” Franklin said, “and then when we have challenges, not say that’s part of it. It is. We’ve got to take a hard look at all of it. Our approach and my approach have not changed.”
The Lions, who play Saturday at Nebraska (0-2), have not been competitive in their last two games. The problems have been all-encompassing: a lack of physical play on the offensive line, an ineffective pass rush by the defensive line, an anemic running game, big plays allowed by the secondary, inconsistent play at quarterback.
Wide receiver Jahan Dotson, who has five touchdown catches in the three games, strongly voiced his opinion after the Maryland game saying, “We’re not a good football team. We have to just work. We have to have everyone 100% bought in.”
Franklin said the defeats magnify the problems, which he did not specify individually.
“I think it’s all of it. It’s not one thing,” he said. "I think that the fine line for me as the head coach is I never want to be a guy that comes here and feels like I’m making excuses. Ultimately we’re responsible for what we put out there on the field and everything that comes with that, and I’m responsible.
“If it was one thing and I could put my finger on it, then it would be an easy solution. It’s complicated, and it’s layered. I’m going to lead with love. You have to be very careful in times like that, because [reporters] ask fair, tough questions. But how I respond to those questions, I want to make sure aren’t divisive for our team and for our coaching staff. I’m just going to continue to lead how I’ve always led, and that’s with love.”
Of the players on the Nittany Lions' current two-deep depth chart, they have 17 players in their first or second year in the program but only nine seniors.
Franklin’s wife and two children are not with him in Happy Valley but are staying in Florida to protect his younger daughter, 12-year-old Addison, who has sickle cell, from exposure to the coronavirus. The coach candidly admitted Tuesday, “I have not done a great job of managing my family being gone.”
“They’re my fuel,” he said. "I go home, and they’re able to pour into me. I’ve not done a great job, and at the end of the day I have to manage those things. I’ve got to come to work. I’ve got to do a great job.
“They probably will be there until we come up with some type of vaccine or, you know, I’m working in a way that I’m not interacting with so many people every day. But I don’t know when that would change.”
Franklin said he won’t be afraid to “make a few subtle changes or a few subtle tweaks" at different positions to improve the team.
“When you’re going through times like this, it’s going to create some tough conversations and some tough decisions,” he said. “Some people aren’t going to like some of those decisions. We’re going to have direct and honest conversations with people. At the end of the day, we have to get it done.”
Franklin said he is learning a lot more about himself and his team during adversity. But the ultimate goal at the moment is getting the Nittany Lions ready for Nebraska without throwing anyone under the bus.
“We’re going to go out and have a great practice [Tuesday], and I’m going to lead with love,” he said. “I’m going to answer your guys' questions as direct and as truthful as I possibly can, but I’m not going to point blame. I’m not going to be divisive, and I’m going to continue to love this staff and love Penn State and love these players, and that’s how we’re going to get it fixed because that’s how we built it in the first place.”