With surge, Penn State’s swagger returns
Franklin always believed Lions would win big
STATE COLLEGE, PA. Occasionally during his three seasons at Vanderbilt, James Franklin would hear fellow coaches offer a dream compliment: Your guys play so hard, Franklin would be told, and he’d be ecstatic.
It seemed so easy. By the end of his tenure, Franklin and his coaching staff had created a “great culture,” one built on a few basic clichés of college coaching. Hard work would be one. Effort another. It worked: Vanderbilt reached three bowl games in a row, a Herculean feat in the middle of the Southeastern Conference’s tyrannical run atop the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Replicating that same culture at Penn State, meanwhile, proved elusive.
“I think that was probably a problem when I first got here. I was so positive, and I was so enthusiastic. And it was different,” Franklin told USA TODAY Sports.
“It was different for this community. In their minds, what they thought of a head football coach, it didn’t look like me. It didn’t act like me. So that was a real difference for a lot of people. ‘Is this guy real? Is he this positive?’ It was just different. Change is hard, and this place doesn’t handle change that well.”
So on the heels of his second seven-win season in a row in 2015, Franklin “recruited the team,” he said. He identified 45 returning contributors and took them to dinner, one on one, and talked. He asked questions: What do you like? Don’t like? Don’t understand?
“I think that was when things really started to change,” he said. “I got to know them. They got to know me better. We learned. We grew. I think that was really the beginning of things kind of changing.”
BUYING IN TO CULTURE Franklin always knew he would win at Penn State; he just needed to persuade his team to believe the same. Those get-to-know-you dinners were the first step in that process. Maybe hiring former Fordham coach Joe Moorhead as offensive coordinator was another; that move showed a willingness to bend, to be flexible, after two years of middling offensive production.
But that culture Franklin and his staff built at Vanderbilt? That same mentality is seeping its way into Penn State’s foundation, Franklin said — helping the program to reassert itself in a crowd- ed Big Ten Conference while fulfilling the hype and promise that accompanied the new staff ’s arrival more than three years ago.
“We have belief in ourselves and the system,” senior tight end Mike Gesicki said. “I know it sounds corny, but we believe we can do anything we put our mind to.”
How else to explain 2016? It wasn’t Ohio State atop the final Big Ten standings, nor Michigan, Michigan State or Wisconsin. It was the Nittany Lions. After two losses in its first four games — the second a 49-10 disaster at the hands of the Wolverines — Penn State didn’t lose again until the Rose Bowl, and even then in one of the most memorable games in the bowl’s storied history.
Recent teams would have folded. “I think in the past we would’ve dug a hole and stayed in it,” Gesicki said. “Last year’s group stayed the course.”
A week after losing to Michigan, the Nittany Lions pulled out a three-point win against Minnesota. Three weeks later, on Oct. 22, Penn State shocked Ohio State 2421. After falling behind 28-7 to Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game, a number of Penn State players stalked up and down the sideline, reassuring teammates that the game wasn’t over — we’ve been in this situation before.
“The experiences that we’ve gone through as a team have built confidence in individual players, in groups of players, in units, on both sides of the ball,” running backs coach and special-teams coordinator Charles Huff said. “It’s spread. Now, amongst the team, there’s a built-in confidence. And it’s not a false confidence.”
PIECES IN PLACE TO BE ELITE As the Nittany Lions prepare for the start of spring practice in March, the next step in the program’s evolution is a national championship. Maybe confidence alone won’t bridge the gap from the Rose Bowl to a College Football Playoff national semifinal; it’s not as if Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Michigan lack confidence, after all.
But other factors stand in the Nittany Lions’ corner.
A full allotment of scholarships has dramatically improved depth across the board; Penn State is three-deep at every position, Franklin said. One year after holding one of the nation’s youngest rosters on the Power Five level, the 2017 Nittany Lions boast more senior leadership than at any point in the program’s post-sanction existence.
And there’s the offense. In overhauling Penn State’s philosophy — trading meat and potatoes for a 21st-century approach to attacking defenses — Moorhead brought the Nittany Lions offense to the forefront of the Big Ten in 2016. With a Heisman Trophy contender in running back Saquon Barkley in tow, along with a returning starter at quarterback and an im- proved offensive line, the offense might be even more productive.
“Last year was more about adapting to a new system and learning the ins and outs,” Gesicki said. “Now it’s about mastering the scheme and mastering your craft to put yourself in position to execute this offense at a high level.”
But the edge in offensive production isn’t so vast as to singlehandedly maintain Penn State’s perch atop the Big Ten — see Urban Meyer, who addressed Ohio State’s scuffles by hiring former Indiana coach Kevin Wilson, one of the nation’s most well-regarded offensive technicians. So Franklin keeps coming back to the Nittany Lions’ culture.
He has echoed the same refrain for much of the early offseason. In meetings with his team, Franklin will remind the Nittany Lions to “remember what got us here.”
“We’ve got to keep a humble, a hardworking, appreciative team with a chip on its shoulder,” he said. “We’ve got to keep that. But on top of that, we’ve got to use the experience we gained last year.”
That this offseason feels different — and it most certainly does, from an outsider’s perspective — can be credited in part to last fall’s breakthrough. But at least some part of the shift at Penn State is tied to a newfound culture: Franklin always knew he’d win; now the Nittany Lions think so, too.
For the first time in years, the talk isn’t of what Penn State used to be — it’s what the Nittany Lions are and, better yet, what they can be.
“Everyone has always talked about what Penn State was. You know, 1982, 1986, national championships,” Franklin said. “I think for the first time in a very long time, these kids have people talking about what Penn State is. For the first time in a long time. To me, that’s a powerful deal.”
Saquon Barkley rushed for 1,496 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2016 and is a big reason Penn State’s future is bright.