STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — It was around midnight on a football Saturday in Happy Valley, but James Franklin was in no mood to party.
For the second straight year, Penn State had lost by one point to Ohio State and failed to make important plays down the stretch when needed, including a fourth down that the Buckeyes stuffed. Franklin entered the interview room at Beaver Stadium, reviewed the game, and then gave his thoughts — forcefully — on the state of the program while recruits watched in an upstairs lounge.
“We are not an elite football team yet,” the Nittany Lions coach said. “The work that it’s going to take to get to be an elite program, it’s going to be just as hard as the ground and distance that we have already traveled.
“We are a great program. We lost to an elite program, and we are that close. We have gotten comfortable being great. We will no longer be comfortable being great. We are going to learn from this and grow from this, and we are going to find a way to take that next step as a program. I give you my word.”
More than eight months later, sitting at the conference table in his office at the Lasch Football Building, Franklin discussed that night before digressing for a couple of seconds.
“That’s also probably a part of me that shouldn’t go into a press conference after a game emotional,” he said in an interview with The Inquirer.
There is little doubt that Penn State has made improvements since Franklin took over as head coach in 2014. After a pair of 7-6 seasons during which the effects of 2012 NCAA sanctions were still being felt, the Lions were 31-9 in the last three seasons, including a Big Ten championship in 2016.
They are one of six teams to finish in the top 15 of the College Football Playoff rankings each of those three years, but they are the only squad in that group not to make it to the four-team tournament. Penn State was No. 5 after winning the Big Ten but finished ninth in 2017 and 12th last season, which ended at 9-4 after a Citrus Bowl loss to Kentucky.
Franklin, who grew up in Langhorne and graduated from Neshaminy High School, said that the program continues to take steps and that the gap between great and elite is closing, but …
“I guess it’s no different than anything else,” he said. “Early on in your progression, you can take significant jumps, jumps, jumps, and then when you get to a certain level, you are fighting and scratching and clawing for every little fraction or margin of error you can get to close the gap. That’s where, for us, it’s everything.
“We need to compete in every area. It’s the culture. It’s our locker room. It’s coaching. It’s schemes. It’s player development. It’s facilities. It’s housing. It’s recruiting. The level that we’re at and the people that we’re competing with, they are willing to do almost anything to win.
"What’s great is we’re at a place, Penn State, that is not a win-at-all-costs place, which I’m good with. I align with that, which I think is great. But my point is, we need to be willing to compete 365 days a year and in every area, and that’s the next step for us.”
Franklin said his program can get to where it wants to go if it can get 1 percent better in “all of it,” areas that include nutrition, strength and conditioning, coaching, and player development.
“The issue is, as we’re trying to close the gap, those [elite programs] are still trying to get better and extend it," he said. "In my conversations with the administration, with lettermen, with boosters, with our own coaches, with our players, what are we doing to differentiate ourselves over that competition? Because those programs we’re talking about, those programs we’re competing with, they’re working hard, too. So what are we doing to close the gap? What are we doing to compete in every area?”
Franklin said that he saw improvements during the spring in vocal leadership, and that players were “willing to challenge each other and hold each other accountable, because the best teams are player-driven.”
Franklin said he seeks feedback from different areas, from the administration to the players, to make the best decisions he can for the program. He said the players’ Leadership Council is getting more open with him with its questions and concerns, which he likes. Another step, he said, is the willingness for everyone involved in the program “to force themselves out of their comfort zone."
“If you expect a different response but you’re doing the same things, it’s like the definition of insanity,” he said. “So what are we doing differently to get better, all of us? That’s people understanding, ‘OK, this is what I did last year and last year we were successful, but not up to our standards. The year before, we were successful but still not up to our standards. So what are we going to do to break through?’”
Franklin keeps his thoughts on making the 2019 playoff to himself. He said the Nittany Lions would be talented but young “with more question marks than we’ve had the last few years.” One of the biggest is at quarterback, where three-year starter Trace McSorley has moved on to the NFL.
The Lions’ younger players showed enough last season at certain positions to overtake upperclassmen on the depth chart, leading to a flood of transfers in the offseason. Thirteen players who were on the final roster moved on, eight as graduate transfers.
Some of the more notable names were quarterback Tommy Stevens (Mississippi State), who was expected to challenge for the starter’s role despite foot surgery that limited him this spring, and wide receiver Juwan Johnson (Oregon), who slipped from 54 receptions in 2017 to 25 last season.
“We had a number of young players that started, and that can create some challenges within your locker room when you’ve got a bunch of young players coming in and earning starting jobs,” he said. “So it kind of was a perfect storm of a new rule going in place, and a bunch of young players starting.”
The NCAA Division I Council established a national transfer database, also called a transfer portal, that went into effect last October. Players inform their current schools of their intent to transfer, and the schools enter the players’ names in the database, allowing coaches of other programs to contact them.
Franklin said he sees the transfer issue from both sides, but he is concerned that players who are facing adversity in a program will take “that path of least resistance” and transfer rather than stick it out.
“It’s about development and I actually think for the majority of college coaches, that’s what it’s about, that’s why they’re doing it,” he said. “My greatest stories in this profession are the kid who comes in and he’s just not ready. He’s not ready in school. He’s not ready emotionally from a maturity standpoint. He’s not ready football-wise, and that first year and a half is a battle.
“For years, you’ve heard a lot of stories of a guy that maybe was in the doghouse and worked his way out of it and overcame adversity and then the light went on and he had success, and that kid went on and did wonderful things. I worry, are there going to be those stories anymore?
“I get it from both perspectives. But one of the things that I worry about a little bit is I do think college athletics, and specifically football, have a very important role in our society of teaching how to overcome adversity, mental toughness, physical toughness. Most of these guys have been bigger, stronger, faster, smarter than everybody, and for the first time in their life, they’re challenged with that. They’re around a bunch of guys that are like that. And they learn to buckle down and find a way to overcome the adversity.”
Penn State players spoke during the spring about paying more attention to detail. Franklin said he and his staff need to stress the importance of situational football going into the new season and developing leaders — and having the Nittany Lions give a little extra.
“You’ve been doing something for years that’s been successful, but is it successful enough?” he said. “And that’s the hard part. Championship habits have allowed a player to come to Penn State, to do well in school, to start.