Consistency is important to college football success. It also is important in coaching college football, especially at a nationally renowned program like Penn State where a good percentage of the fan base tends to cross over to the wrong side of passionate at times.
After leading the Nittany Lions to a 42-11 record with a Big Ten championship and three New Year’s Six bowl games over the previous four years, James Franklin has seen them falter to one of the worst seasons in the 134-year history of the program.
He knows fans get angry when the Lions lose. Franklin saw it and heard it in each of the 11 losses that his team suffered from 2016 through 2019. And he knows how angry they grew as the mistakes and turnovers and defeats stacked up in this pandemic-shortened season, from Indiana’s controversial game-winning two-point conversion in the season opener, to the dominant performance of Iowa’s offensive and defensive lines in Week 5.
However, Franklin, who is in the final month of his seventh season in Happy Valley, has tried to remain even-keeled. There has been audible disappointment after the losses, and a slightly more excited tenor to his voice after Saturday’s initial win over Michigan, but his tone has been steady.
“I know you guys sometimes wish I showed it more,” Franklin told reporters Tuesday, “but as a leader consistency is really important, that you never get too high and you never get too low. That doesn’t mean I don’t show emotion with the team, and that doesn’t mean I don’t show emotion with the staff.
“The wins are what you work so hard for. You work so hard for the players to have success, for the staff to have success, for the fans, for the lettermen, for everybody to be able to take three hours away from their reality and turn on the game and be proud of what they see. For the most part, we’ve done a really good job of that.
“The older I get and the longer I’ve been in the profession, the wins are awesome and I love them, but the losses just are really painful. It’s the responsibility, the reaction and how quickly it changes. In this profession and this game, it can change quick.
“You can win for four seasons at a level as high as anybody in the country and then during a season that’s been challenging on our world, and a year that’s been challenging on our world, it can change quickly. That’s hard.”
Still, fans get angry. Franklin first heard about their fervor shortly after being hired at Penn State in January 2014 when he met with kicker Sam Ficken, who missed four field-goal attempts, including the potential game-winner, and an extra point as a sophomore in a 17-16 loss at Virginia in 2012.
“I remember getting the job and sitting down with Sam Ficken and talking to Sam Ficken about how he got death threats,” he said. “I get it. I get college football is really important to people and I get that people are passionate about it, and I get that you don’t fill up a 107,000-seat stadium without passion.”
Franklin said other people mostly handle social media for him. His administrative assistant forwards him only the cards and emails he receives that are positive, and there are many positive ones, so many that “you’d be amazed,” he said.
The coach said it’s important to him to “represent Penn State the right way and do it in a positive way and do it with class,” regardless of the situation.
“It’s obviously easy to do it after wins, but your character is really shown during times of challenge,” he said. “I learn a lot about myself. I learn a lot about the staff. I learn a lot about the players. I learn a lot about the fan base. I learn a lot about everything through the good and the bad.
“We have to own this season, but this is not the totality of who we are. The (2019) Cotton Bowl champs, we’re that, too. The (2017) Fiesta Bowl champs, we’re that, too, the (2016) Big Ten champions. … I just try to keep the big picture in mind as much as I possibly can.”