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How James Franklin is Rebuilding Penn State Football

James Franklin

James Franklin

Players weren’t quite ready for James Franklin when he took over Penn State’s football program in January, fresh off a remarkable three-season run at Vanderbilt. It was nothing personal. Truth is, they might not have been ready for anybody.

Everything had changed at Penn State during the previous two years. Its reputation as one of the NCAA’s upstanding citizens had been shattered by the Jerry Sandusky scandal and the imposition of major sanctions in 2012. The football coaching staff, once a model of stability, had been in constant flux ever since Joe Paterno’s dismissal. The Nittany Lions had had three head coaches from November 2011 to January 2014, four if you counted longtime defensive line coach Larry Johnson, who was tasked with holding the program together after Bill O’Brien’s departure following the 2013 season.

After so much upheaval in such a short period of time, a particular kind of defensiveness had set in among players. Senior linebacker Mike Hull calls it “an us-against-the-world mentality.” So when Franklin showed up, bringing with him another set of assistants, schemes and expectations, those players did not rush to embrace the program’s new direction. Says Hull, “I think there was a wall there.”

Franklin sensed it, too. How could he not? A self-professed “relationships guy,” he might have come to town preaching solidarity but, as he later acknowledged, players weren’t going to trust him just because he wanted them to. “A lot of them came here to play for Joe,” he says. “Then Joe leaves and there are hurt feelings associated with that. Then Billy comes in, and then Billy leaves, and there are hurt feelings associated with that, too.

“We’ve talked about that, that the players had a little bit of a wall when we first got here, which is natural. But for us to get where we want to go, they have to let us in. They can’t do it by themselves, and we can’t do it by ourselves. We have to do it together.”

Togetherness has been the theme of Franklin’s tenure with the Lions, and not just in the locker room. In addition to gaining the players’ trust, he has talked about building relationships between the football program and Penn State fans and alumni throughout the region. He’s talked about packing 107,000 fans into Beaver Stadium on a regular basis, something the Lions haven’t come close to achieving in recent years. He’s promised to do speaking engagements and blow up balloons at birthday parties — whatever it takes to bring back all those people who’ve drifted away.

“We’re going to sell out every single game next year,” he says. “I believe that. I’m going to keep pounding the table on that because we need to do it from a recruiting perspective. We need to do it from a financial perspective. I truly believe once we get everybody pulling the rope in the same direction that we can build something really special here.”

There are places, no doubt, where that kind of off-the-charts positivity might seem overbearing or naive. Those places are not Penn State. This is a school that is still coping with the post-Sandusky fallout, a school that remains under NCAA sanctions and whose fans, alumni and trustees continue to spar over Paterno’s complicated legacy. At Penn State, all positivity is welcome, and Franklin is doling it out not with an eyedropper but with a fire hose.

So far, it seems to be working. After much lobbying from Franklin, Penn State drew 72,000 fans for the team’s spring game, an improvement of nearly 50,000 from last year. The weather was certainly a factor; last year’s game was marred by a snow squall, while this year’s was played under sunny skies and in temperatures approaching 70 degrees. But the turnout may also have had something to do with the esprit de corps that Franklin is trying to foster. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that (Penn State) is special,” he says. “And one of the big reasons we’re special is the support we get from the community.”

Players, too, have been buying in. If there was a wall in January, it was crumbling by April. “I think we’ve been able to break it down as a team,” Hull said midway through spring practice. “We’ve made a lot of progress.”

Crucially, it isn’t just current players who have responded. Recruits, too, have embraced Franklin’s upbeat vision. Before wrapping up his first spring practice with the Lions, Franklin and his staff had secured verbal commitments from 10 four-star prospects, two of whom joined the Class of 2014 following his hiring and eight of whom had committed to join the Class of 2015 as of mid-April. As of mid-August, the Nittany Lions have 12 four-star prospects committed for 2015. To put that number in context, those 10 four-star commitments (as rated by Rivals) are as many as Penn State recruited in its classes of 2011, ’12 and ’13 combined. They are two more than Franklin recruited in his three seasons at Vanderbilt. 

It comes as little surprise that Franklin and his assistants have been able to make inroads with top prospects, particularly those in Pennsylvania and nearby states. Seven members of the new staff are originally from the Northeast, and four had coached in Pennsylvania before being hired by Penn State. The list begins with Franklin himself, who grew up in Langhore, Pa., and attended East Stroudsburg University in the Poconos. It also includes former Penn State wide receiver Terry Smith, who previously coached at Gateway High near Pittsburgh and has deep roots in the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League.

Franklin and his coaches have seized on recruiting as the key to rekindling Penn State’s championship aspirations. They are confident in their ability to sign the kind of blue-chip prospects that the Lions used to get with regularity but who began turning away during the waning years of the Paterno era. That confidence stems in large part from everyone’s faith in the guy in charge. Says Smith, “He’s high-energy. He’s got a youthful spirit. He relates to players today, and he attacks recruiting. That’s a priority.”

For now, the goal is to ride out the sanctions and work toward the better days that Franklin and his staff insist are coming. Penn State is only allowed 75 players on scholarship this year, and Franklin has told the incoming freshmen to show up ready to play.

The other goal is to create an atmosphere of trust. Trust in the staff, in the schemes, in the idea that Penn State is headed in the right direction, even if there are detours along the way. “I think it’s naturally going to happen over time,” Franklin says. “I think it’s getting better, and I’m very, very confident that by the first game of the year, our chemistry will be as good as any in the country, because that’s a focus of our program.”

Written by Matt Herb (@BWIonRivals) of Blue White Illustrated for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2014 Big Ten Football Preview Editions.