Franklin's belief in process at Penn State never wavered
Penn State coach James Franklin is a contrast in styles. His emotions, particularly those relating to joy, often are in full display during a game. He might celebrate great moments on the field by high-fiving everyone or sprinting down the sideline or even playfully punching the nearest coach or player regardless of his role in the triumphant play.
Penn State coach James Franklin is a contrast in styles.
His emotions, particularly those relating to joy, often are in full display during a game. He might celebrate great moments on the field by high-fiving everyone or sprinting down the sideline or even playfully punching the nearest coach or player regardless of his role in the triumphant play.
Sometimes, however, he keeps his feelings hidden. After a first month of the season in which critics questioned whether he was the right guy to lead the Nittany Lions after a 2-2 start, he'd say he would stick with the process that he instituted when he first arrived in Happy Valley. That was in January 2014 while Penn State still felt the effects of NCAA sanctions, including a roster with 65 scholarships, 20 fewer than the NCAA maximum.
Then, after athletic director Sandy Barbour gave him a vote of confidence after the crushing Sept. 24 loss at Michigan, and as he led the Lions on an incredible winning streak that now stands at nine games, he kept any true feelings of accomplishment or personal satisfaction buried inside.
That is until the Lions roared back from a 21-point second-quarter deficit and defeated Wisconsin, 38-31, to win the Big Ten championship in Indianapolis last weekend. Franklin, who would shrug off talking about his sense of personal achievement during the season by repeating the name of Penn State's next opponent 10 to 15 times, became introspective at his postgame news conference.
"It's hard for me to think about it as just this season," he said. "It's been a challenging three years. I've learned a lot about myself, learned a lot about my family. I've learned a lot about this community and the men in that locker room, the coaches, the doctors, the trainers, everybody.
"So for me, it's not just the season. It's all the hard work and all the positive steps we've been taking for three years. It didn't always seem that way maybe to others, but we felt that way. It wasn't easy. Those steps weren't downhill. Those steps were up Mount Nittany. And that's kind of how I look at it.
"I look at it as everything. I look at it as the lettermen rallying behind us. I look at the fans supporting us. I look at [Penn State] president [Eric] Barron and [wife] Molly being awesome. I look at what Sandy did earlier in the year for us. I look at different players stepping up at different times. There's so many things that factor into it. It's hard for me to say just this season. It's been a journey . . . and we've still got a long way to go."
Regardless, no Penn State fan will forget what the Lions achieved this season under Franklin, 44, a native of Langhorne and a Neshaminy High School graduate who is in his 22nd year of coaching and sixth season as a head coach.
After a pair of 7-6 marks in his first two seasons, Franklin led the Lions to an 11-2 mark and a Rose Bowl date against Southern California, beyond the expectations of even the most optimistic members of Nittany Nation. He went from someone who may have been on shaky ground to the national coach of the year in the eyes of many.
"I think it's one of the best coaching jobs in college football this year," said former Penn State player Matt Millen, now a commentator with the Big Ten Network.
Millen said the turning point came the week after the 49-10 Michigan loss, when Penn State came from behind three times and defeated Minnesota on a 25-yard touchdown run by Saquon Barkley in overtime. That game, he said, made believers of the players and coaches.
"The hardest thing for a coach to get done is for a team to start to have confidence," he said. "When a team is confident, it can do whatever it wants to do. It sounds easy, but it's really hard to do. I don't know how you do it. I don't know what the recipe is, and I don't think anybody really does. It's a feel thing. But whatever it was, he got it, so my hat's off to him."
One of the major keys to the season, according to Millen, was the hiring of former Fordham head coach Joe Moorhead last December as the Nittany Lions' offensive coordinator. The Lions, who averaged just 23.2 points the previous year, averaged 36.7 in 2016, 25th in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
"He told Joe, 'OK, put your offense in,' " Millen said. "Franklin's a former quarterback, he's a former play-caller. He's a control freak - all head coaches have that. To be successful, you have to have some element of that. He came in and said, 'Here you go, Joe, run the offense.' That's not easy to do."
Franklin also elevated Brent Pry, a member of his staff since his days as Vanderbilt head coach, to defensive coordinator after the departure of Bob Shoop at the end of 2015. Penn State finished 22nd in total defense at 352 yards per game, and 35th in scoring defense at 23.4 points.
Another important factor was Barbour's comments a few days after the Michigan game about the coach's job status. She told the Altoona Mirror: "He's not on the hot seat, and he's not going to be on the hot seat in December. James is going to be our football coach. I believe in where this football program is going under James Franklin, and I think he's going to be our football coach, period."
"Sandy Barbour stood up for us and for me at a point when we needed her to," Franklin said after the Wisconsin win. "I can't thank her enough, her leadership, her belief in us, and specifically her belief in me."
Linebacker Jason Cabinda was delighted to see Barbour publicly support his head coach.
"Being able to see that vote of confidence from our athletic director was awesome, because we believe in Coach Franklin and his vision for us, his message," Cabinda said. "You've seen it. We've really bought in. We're really all pulling the rope in the same direction right now."
Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo, a former collegiate head coach, said Barbour's words lifted the coaching staff.
"I think that's one of the great decisions of the season," he said, "because being in those types of situations, the staff works better if they believe the administration believes in them. And it's better for the team. If you're a member of the team and you're on the fence, you get the message: 'I'd better be on board,' if the athletic director says he's our coach.
"I talked to her in the summer," DiNardo added, "and she felt the same way. It was only his third year. My goodness, it wasn't like they hadn't won. He took over the program when it was in bad shape. Bill O'Brien had a better roster when he got there than James did."
Franklin, considered a tireless recruiter, gradually rebuilt the Nittany Lions through three recruiting cycles, bringing in players such as Barkley, quarterback Trace McSorley, cornerbacks John Reid and Grant Haley, wide receiver Saeed Blacknall, and offensive lineman Ryan Bates. He reconstructed a depleted offensive line to where it now has 17 scholarship players. Back to the maximum of 85 scholarships, there is competition at every position.
The Lions have made a national reputation out of comebacks. They have won four games after trailing by at least 10 points. They rallied from 21 down a week ago against Wisconsin. Through 13 games, they have outscored the opposition by 304-108 after halftime.
With only five senior starters on this year's team, the future looks bright for the Nittany Lions.
Barbour's comments seem like ages ago. So do Franklin's comments that same week when he said, "I want everybody to take a deep breath. . . . I believe in my 22 years of experience that we're heading in the right direction and good things are going to happen if people let the process play out."
Nine consecutive wins and a spot in the Rose Bowl later, the process apparently worked.