Penn State completes an unlikely ‘turn around’
Football program, punished by the NCAA, continued to win games through the upheaval
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.