Penn State com­pletes an un­likely ‘turn around’

Foot­ball pro­gram, pun­ished by the NCAA, con­tin­ued to win games through the up­heaval

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY DANA O’NEIL

university park, pa. — Cruis­ing along in his 2005 Chevro­let Im­pala, Anthony Zet­tel was about an hour out­side State Col­lege, Pa., when his cell­phone rang.

Just a few days ear­lier, on July 23, 2012, the NCAA had all but shut­tered the Penn State foot­ball pro­gram, pe­nal­iz­ing the team with a sever­ity not seen since SMU’s so-called death penalty in 1987. No bowl games for four years, schol­ar­ships slashed by 20, a $60 mil­lion university fine, all out­growths of the hor­rific Jerry San­dusky child mo­lesta­tion scan­dal.

The NCAA also waived its oth­er­wise strin­gent trans­fer rules, al­low­ing play­ers to switch schools and play im­me­di­ately.

Given such carte blanche, Zet­tel, a fresh­man de­fen­sive line­man for the Nit­tany Li­ons who grew up in Tawas City, Mich., de­cided to take a road trip. Along with tight end Jesse James, he packed up his car and headed due west on In­ter­state 80. The two in­tended to visit Michi­gan and Michi­gan State. Then the phone rang. “Turn the car around,” the voice on the other end said to Zet­tel.

The caller was Michael Mauti, then a ris­ing se­nior line­backer who had be­come the Nit­tany Li­ons’ out­spo­ken leader.

“Yeah, there were some ex­ple­tives thrown in there,” Mauti said. “But that was the mes­sage. ‘Turn around. This is where you need to be.’ ”

Zet­tel con­tin­ued to drive west while Mauti talked, urg­ing the de­fen­sive line­man to re­con­sider. Once the call was com­plete,

Zet­tel turned to James and re­layed Mauti’s mes­sage. The two talked for a few more miles. James wanted to go back. Zet­tel hemmed and hawed. Even­tu­ally James won out and Zet­tel eased the car off an exit.

Just five years later Penn State is back in col­lege foot­ball’s fast lane. The legacy pro­gram that was ex­pected to be dec­i­mated by NCAA penal­ties has never suf­fered so much as a los­ing sea­son. The same Nit­tany Li­ons who at one time counted just nine schol­ar­ship of­fen­sive line­men on the en­tire ros­ter head into this sea­son as the de­fend­ing Big Ten cham­pi­ons with big ex­pec­ta­tions and equally lofty am­bi­tions.

“I can’t tell you how many guys in that locker room are say­ing they aren’t leav­ing here with­out a na­tional cham­pi­onship,” se­nior of­fen­sive line­man An­drew Nel­son said.

Penn State’s path back is more twisty back road than easy su­per high­way, but es­sen­tially the turn­around be­gan with the turn around — when Zet­tel redi­rected his Im­pala to the east­bound lanes of In­ter­state 80.

“In a so­ci­ety and a day and time where most peo­ple take the easy course, those play­ers didn’t,” Coach James Franklin said. “They stayed, and they toughed it out. They put the pro­gram and the university on their backs and led us out of it.”

Pulling to­gether and apart

Five years doesn’t seem like enough time to stitch to­gether folk­lore. But at Penn State, the tales from that sum­mer of 2012 al­ready ap­proach leg­end. The 500 foot­ball let­ter­men who de­scended on cam­pus to con­vince the play­ers to stay put, the de­fi­ant news con­fer­ence Mauti led, and the be­hind-the-scenes work the se­niors did to con­vince their team­mates not to trans­fer — all are sto­ries that Penn Staters love to tell and retell.

Those play­ers, that staff and in par­tic­u­lar the head coach at the time, Bill O’Brien, held the fray­ing fab­ric of Penn State foot­ball to­gether. The temp­ta­tion to bail was strong — Mauti said he alone fielded 40 calls to trans­fer from other coaches, and he had just one year of el­i­gi­bil­ity left — but ul­ti­mately all but nine play­ers re­mained. Hit with the same hard choices and equally tough sales pitches, 17 of 23 play­ers who had com­mit­ted to Penn State’s class of 2013 opted to stay.

In­stead of dis­ap­pear­ing, Penn State won 15 games in the two years af­ter the sanc­tions.

“What Bill O’Brien did for this pro­gram is un­par­al­leled,” said Terry Smith, an as­sis­tant coach on Franklin’s staff and a 1991 Penn State grad­u­ate who was one of the 500 let­ter­men to come to cam­pus at O’Brien’s in­sis­tence. “He kept it to­gether.”

When O’Brien, who de­clined to com­ment for this story, turned down NFL over­tures af­ter year one, fans re­joiced and ex­haled. The sec­ond round proved too hard to pass up. The news broke that O’Brien was leav­ing to be­come head coach of the Hous­ton Tex­ans on New Year’s Eve 2013.

Eleven days later, Penn State hung out the back­drop, plugged in the mi­cro­phone and the show be­gan. The new coach, fresh off lead­ing Van­der­bilt to its first two nine-win sea­sons since 1915, proclaimed he had a “Penn State heart,” and his play­ers said how ex­cited they were to wel­come their new coach.

The truth? The truth is James Franklin at­tended his first Penn State foot­ball game on Aug. 30, 2014, the day he ran onto the field as the pro­gram’s head coach.

And the more trou­bling truth? The play­ers were about as wel­com­ing as a pack of mid­dle school mean girls.

“Some guys were on their third coach in four years,” Nel­son said. “We were like, ‘What­ever, man. We’ve heard it all be­fore. We’ve seen in all. We’re go­ing to do us.’ ”

For two sea­sons, the thing that saved Penn State in the im­me­di­ate aftermath of scan­dal and sanc­tions — a tight locker room bound by do­ing some­thing be­yond win­ning foot­ball games — now threat­ened the pro­gram’s fu­ture. On one side there were Franklin’s guys, the play­ers he re­cruited, and on the other there were O’Brien’s. In be­tween was a vast chasm that even Franklin, a man who prides him­self on build­ing re­la­tion­ships, strug­gled to breach.

The world out­side the locker room wasn’t much more re­cep­tive. To alumni steeped in Penn State traditions, Franklin ap­peared brash, his so­cial me­dia savvy more sales­man­ship than sub­stance.

“A lot of the let­ter­men ques­tioned me. They’d pull me aside: ‘Hey, is he the right guy?’ ” Smith said. “They wanted to know if they should hang their hat on him or come at him. I’d preach pa­tience, but you’d hear grum­bling.”

‘It’s like it clicked’

As if that weren’t enough, there also was the harsh real­ity of Penn State foot­ball in year three af­ter the NCAA rul­ing. Though the NCAA lifted the bowl ban be­fore Franklin coached his first game and would re­store the schol­ar­ships by 2015, the 2014 ros­ter had lit­tle depth and less ex­pe­ri­ence. Just three se­niors re­mained on the team, and the of­fen­sive line, which would prove to be the most crit­i­cal com­po­nent in re­build­ing the pro­gram, was hit the hard­est.

The coach­ing staff was forced to mix and match line­men, their in­ex­pe­ri­ence mak­ing the of­fense easy to de­fend. One­time stand­out quar­ter­back Chris­tian Hack­en­burg’s col­lege ca­reer turned into a sack-plagued dis­as­ter. That, in turn, led to losses that boiled into an even more disgruntled locker room, with de­fen­sive play­ers ticked that the of­fense couldn’t hold up its end of the bar­gain.

It all fo­mented into an abysmal half against Min­nesota last Oct. 1. Com­ing off a dis­ap­point­ing 7-6 sea­son the year be­fore, the Li­ons were al­ready 2-2 when they took a 13-3 deficit into the locker room. Fans booed Franklin’s play-call­ing, and the stu­dent sec­tion even mounted a “Fire Franklin!” chant.

“It was ugly,” cor­ner­back Grant Ha­ley said. “But then I’m not sure what hap­pened. It’s like it clicked. The lead­er­ship rose up. Peo­ple, ev­ery­one re­ally, was say­ing that this isn’t us. This isn’t why we came here. Saquon [Barkley], Brandon Bell, Trace [McSor­ley], just ev­ery­one started talk­ing. It wasn’t the coaches. It was us.”

The Li­ons would go on to win that game, 29-26 in over­time, the be­gin­ning of a nine-game win streak that ended with a Big Ten cham­pi­onship and a spot in the Rose Bowl.

What reads as mag­i­cal was ac­tu­ally a lot more me­thod­i­cal.

At half­time of the Min­nesota game, of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Joe Moor­head quite lit­er­ally changed his of­fen­sive think­ing. In McSor­ley he had a quar­ter­back who was a deft run­ner but, at just 6 feet 1 and 200 pounds, also a quar­ter­back who could get hurt pretty eas­ily. Moor­head was un­der­stand­ably re­luc­tant to call de­signed runs for him.

The drudgery of that Min­nesota half changed Moor­head’s opin­ion — and the tenor of the sea­son. Moor­head un­leashed McSor­ley, turn­ing the quar­ter­back and gifted run­ning back Barkley into one of the most ef­fec­tive read-op­tion tandems in col­lege foot­ball.

Win­ning cures a lot of ills and cer­tainly helped the frac­tured locker room come to­gether, but Franklin had been work­ing be­hind the scenes to mend fences for some time. He in­stalled a lead­er­ship coun­cil, open­ing lines of com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween the coach and team. He sought their opin­ions and lis­tened to their con­cerns. They wanted a more nutri­tious train­ing ta­ble, bet­ter shower gel and shorter prac­tices. The coach fixed the train­ing ta­ble, got the shower gel. He tabled the shorter prac­tice idea for a while.

And while he didn’t nec­es­sar­ily tem­per his showy per­son­al­ity, he un­der­stood bet­ter how to em­ploy it. Franklin re­al­ized Penn State wasn’t Van­der­bilt, and the Nit­tany Li­ons weren’t the Com­modores. You need to sell ex­cite­ment to a pro­gram that hadn’t won nine games since 1915. You can get a quick buy-in from play­ers whose pre­vi­ous sea­son in­cluded one win.

“I don’t think he’s changed, but you come into a place and you’re deal­ing with tra­di­tion, the whole, ‘We’ve al­ways done it this way,’ ” said spe­cial teams co­or­di­na­tor Charles Huff, who worked with Franklin at Van­der­bilt be­fore re­con­nect­ing in State Col­lege. “It’s not that Coach changed. But he learned how to make his ways and Penn State’s ways fit bet­ter. You re­al­ize, hey, I’m say­ing the same thing but I’m go­ing to say it in a dif­fer­ent way.”

Don’t stop be­liev­ing

The game ended well past bed­time, or at least bed­time for an NFL player with a game the next day.

There was, how­ever, no way Zet­tel was go­ing to sleep. The newly minted Detroit Li­ons player had watched his Penn State foot­ball team up­set No. 2 Ohio State.

The win on Oct. 22 checked all sorts of boxes in the record book: the first vic­tory against a ranked op­po­nent un­der Franklin; the first against a top five team since 1999. It launched Penn State into the As­so­ci­ated Press rank­ings for the first time in nearly five years. It meant even more in ways that could never be mea­sured.

Four years ear­lier Zet­tel de­cided to turn his car around, hop­ing that he could help or­ches­trate an even big­ger U-turn for Penn State. Now here he sat, watch­ing the proof in the form of fans storm­ing the field.

“That game, the Rose Bowl, all of it, it wouldn’t have even been a dream if we didn’t hold the pro­gram to­gether,” he said. “We all be­lieved that if we stayed we would do some­thing even big­ger than win­ning a na­tional cham­pi­onship. Watch­ing that game, that’s all I could think about.”


Bill O’Brien, cen­ter, left Penn State for the Hous­ton Tex­ans. His re­place­ment, James Franklin, led the team to the Big Ten ti­tle last year.

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