UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When James Franklin took over the Penn State program in 2014, he spoke of conference championships, national championships and a return to being a national power. Now in his fifth year, two out of three of those promises have come to fruition.
It’s been a meteoric rise for the Nittany Lions over the course of the last five years. The program was in the midst of sanctions when Franklin took over and had fewer than the allotted scholarships — not ideal for any coach, let alone one inheriting a program.
Franklin stepped off the plane, hit the ground running and hasn’t looked back, as he and his braintrust of coaches have returned Penn State to national prominence and into the national championship picture the past two years.
“I didn’t make this decision on my own, I made this decision with my family and also with my extended family, the coaches,” Franklin recalled after Wednesday’s practice. “We had talked about coming to Penn State as a staff. Penn State was sending a plane, I said send another one, and 16 people and their families, not immediately, but afterwards got on that plane and never went back.”
When Franklin and his core group of guys, Ricky Rahne, Brent Pry, Sean Spencer and Dwight Galt IV came to Happy Valley, they had a vision and plan in place and have set out to reach their goals since their arrival. It’s paying off handsomely at the moment.
“I think we all came here with a vision, and the coaches that are still a part of that, that core group of guys that have been with us the whole time, I think we all share that vision together,” Franklin said. “The core vision hasn’t changed, but there’s been tweaks along the way, adjustments along the way, growth along the way,”
His original coaching staff has nearly all come and gone, but as the staff and team have evolved, Franklin has remained constant in making decisions solely based on what’s best for everybody and involving the entire program.
“My head coaching style is I don’t really do anything on my own. We make decisions as a group. I want input from the players. I want input from the staff, and, ultimately, I’ve got to make the best decision for everybody,” Franklin said.
And through the staff turnover, Franklin has remained diligent in finding coaches who not only share his passion, vision and love for the game of football, but also coaches who he knows can handle the adversity that come with the territory.
“You truly don’t know how strong that relationship is until adversity hits. How are those guys going to act on the sidelines when times get tough? How are those guys going to act in the office when times get tough or at practice?” Franklin asked. “That’s where I think adversity is really important in building and growing relationships.”
That’s why it’s imperative to find coaches such as tight ends coach Tyler Bowen or safeties coach Tim Banks, who previously coached with Franklin or someone on his staff.
“I would say most of the assistants we hire, very few of them we hire without previous relationships,” Franklin said. “I try not to go outside of that circle a whole lot, because I think you’re taking on undue risk when you do that, because, once again, you never truly know how that person’s going to act when times get tough. I’m going to try and hire people that I’ve already had those experiences with.”
The vision has remained the same since Franklin was at Vanderbilt — to win conference championships and compete for national titles. And for quarterback Trace McSorley, who initially was committed to Franklin at Vanderbilt, that vision is what endeared him to Franklin.
“His mantra and his vision that he wanted to make his program the best in the country and push and compete for conference championships and national championships, that’s kinda one of the reasons why I really liked him and wanted him to be my coach when I was in high school,” McSorley said. “That was how I envisioned what I wanted to do, and I wanted to be playing for a coach who had those same visions.
A win Saturday would push Penn State right into the College Football Playoff hunt and give them a leg up on making the Big Ten Championship in December. They’re right where they want to be with Ohio State coming to their stadium, now it’s up to the Nittany Lions to continue their upward trend.
“We’re headed in the right direction. I feel like we still have a lot to do, really a lot of different areas,” Franklin said. “I think we’re probably, in some areas, a little further ahead than we thought, and I think, in other areas, we’re probably lagging. But overall, I think the average football fan or the local die-hard or local beat writer, I think most people would probably say we’re ahead of schedule.”
More from Franklin:
• On thinking ahead: “As soon as we compete a task, I’m on to the next task, which rubs people the wrong way sometimes. I just don’t know if we have time to be celebrating the victories. I’m kinda built to move on to the next thing. I’ve gotta be reminded sometimes of that, to say thank you, let everybody know we appreciate it, but also, we gotta get going. I’m constantly thinking about the teams we’re competing with. They’re not waiting for us, they’re still progressing forward.”
• On the staff and players being themselves: “I do think the team takes on a little bit of the identity of the head coach. I do think that happens, but I don’t ever want our players or our staff to try to be me, just like I can’t try to be Billy or Joe or whoever else. We all gotta stay true to ourselves, and we gotta lead that way. I think if you’re not intentional with how you do things, if you’re not really true to who you are, people will see through that, so I just want Sean Spencer to be the best Sean Spencer, I want Trace McSorley to be the best Trace McSorley.”
• On Nittanyville: “It’s really been cool, something I never really experienced before coming here. I think we’re going over, I think Fumi (his wife) and the girls are going over tomorrow to deliver cupcakes; I think I’m going over after the radio show. We try to go over each night to let these guys know how much we appreciate them.”
• On football at Penn State and the community: “Football’s important here. I think we understand our place at the university. It’s about the university, it’s about academics, it’s about education, it’s about the law school. We understand we’re pretty far down on that pecking order, but I do think football is important here. I think it’s important because it’s one of those things that brings a community together. That’s the high school level, the college level — I’m biased as a football coach, I think football brings communities together like nothing else. I see it when I go out to high school football games. There’s no Catholic or Jewish on Friday or Saturday nights. There’s no black or white, there’s that team, those teams’ colors, that community. That’s special. I think that’s something that’s very unique to our country.”
• On Trace McSorley and big games: “Trace is a guy that’s been great in big games. One of the things I put up in the team meeting today is I think there’s tremendous value in this that team’s been tested and had to deal with adversity. You think about how many games, all the way back to Central Florida, how many games this team’s won in the fourth quarter or won in overtime. You could name game after game — Minnesota, Iowa — you could go on and on and on. There’s value in that. There’s tremendous value in having to overcome adversity. You grow from that exponentially. Obviously, when you’ve got a guy like Trace McSorley, that’s been kinda the leader in a lot of those games, a lot of those wins, it helps. It’s a lot of confidence when that guy goes on the field leading your unit. And not just for our offense, he impacts our team offense, defense and special teams.”
• On the arrest of Rasheed Walker: “We’re obviously very, very disappointed and it will be handled. It will be handled like we’ve handled every discipline issue in our program since we’ve been here. We won’t have any more comments on it. Obviously, we take the reputation of the university, the reputation of our program very seriously. We’ll deal with this in the same manor.”
More from McSorley:
• On the magnitude of this game: “Understanding this magnitude is a little bit different with the atmosphere and everything around it, but being able to lock in and play the game like you always have. That’s the key.”
• On the young guys playing in the White Out: “The biggest thing is to realize it’s still the same game. The field size doesn’t change, the measurables don’t change, it’s just that the atmosphere is different. For us, we’re able to play to that a little more because you feed off that energy in our own stadium. Understand that all those people are supporting you, so just go out and feed off that energy and don’t do anything out of the ordinary that you wouldn’t usually do.”
• On managing energy: “That’s definitely something you gotta make sure you’re not hitting that peak too soon, you’re not getting too amped up in warm-ups, that when kickoff comes you’re already drained. Gotta get that right sort of flow, get into that right feel. Get the juices going just before you get to the locker room, right before the game starts. When you run out of the tunnel, that’s when you take the 10 seconds to let the emotions get to you.”
• On the 2016 Ohio State game: “As a team, what that game meant to us two years ago was it kind of skyrocketed us on the track we’ve been on the last couple years. I think that was the moment, as a program, we grew up and started realizing we could compete at the top level in college football.”
More from Juwan Johnson:
• On the environment at Beaver Stadium: “It’s pretty hectic to play in there [Beaver Stadium]. We build off their energy.”
• On Ohio State: “We all know that when we see Ohio State on the schedule, we have to mark it on the calendar, but as we said before, we always gotta take each game as the same.”
• On overcoming adversity: “We’ve been really resilient. We had a couple games that’ve been close — App State, Illinois going into the half. We’ve always been resilient. Resiliency is definitely one of the things that have solidified this team this year.”