CHICAGO — This is not the Penn State program Mike Hull thought he was joining.
Now, that’s not a bad thing, but the James Franklin style is not one Hull thought he’d be embracing when he was a recruit from Canonsburg, Pa., in 2009.
“My perception of Penn State was straight-edge, take-care-of-business kind of team,” Hull said from Big Ten Media Day on Monday. “But (Franklin) is putting himself out there. That’s what you need to do as a program these days.”
Putting himself out there is Franklin talking up Penn State, continuing to hang out in the SEC territory and boasting of the work he’ll put in to recruit the backyards of new Big Ten foes Maryland and Rutgers.
“From time to time that gets me in trouble, but I don’t want to lose that aspect of who I am,” Franklin said. “I come to things like this and don’t want to be this boring standard coach who gives these dry answers. I want to have fun.”
This is a strange sight, a Penn State coach who doesn't mind ruffling feathers.
Predecessor Bill O’Brien may have been the perfect figure to lead Penn State as it recovered from the death of Paterno and Jerry Sandusky scandal. O'Brien was more consumed with the product on the field far more than pleasing various factions around Penn State.
Paterno every now and then would take a dig at Jackie Sherrill and Barry Switzer, but before the scandal that tainted his legacy, Paterno aimed to keep college athletics as a place of humility and virtue.
Franklin may try to re-establish that message. At the same time, though, he’s shown no sign of backing down from poking other programs. In a speech to boosters in Baltimore, Franklin said he considers the states of Maryland and New Jersey to be in-state as far as recruiting is concerned, a shot across the bow for the Terrapins and Rutgers. “They might as well shut them down because they don’t have a chance,” Franklin told the crowd, according to the Baltimore Sun.
“I get up and talk to our fans and try to get them excited,” Franklin said. “I probably said a few things I shouldn’t have said because I’m trying to get our fans excited.”
Franklin said he’s not surprised by the attention. Poking a potential rival drives clicks to web sites, he says.
Franklin also kept his Southeastern ties alive as he and his staff served as guest coaches at Georgia State and Stetson football camps in June. The camps in Atlanta and Central Florida mean Franklin can do something SEC coaches cannot — work camps in the Southeast. SEC rules prohibit league coaches from working camps more than 50 miles away from campus; Big Ten rules have no such limitations.
SEC coaches and administrators weren’t impressed.
Franklin has at least a few good reasons for his bravado.
He led Vanderbilt to three consecutive bowl games without a quarterback garnering serious consideration for All-SEC. At Penn State, he’ll have Christian Hackenberg, who is already one of the nation’s top passers as a sophomore.
As a true freshman, Hackenberg was third in the Big Ten at 246.3 passing yards per game. He was arguably the top passer in the league in the final month of the season. In November, he threw eight touchdowns to two interceptions and averaged 8.2 yards per attempt. Penn State also returns its entire stable of running backs, led by Zach Zwinak.
But the Nittany Lions also lose Hackenberg’s top target in Allen Robinson and have a line that may be among the worst in the league. Left tackle Donovan Smith is the lone returning starter on a thin unit filled out by freshmen.
The schedule, at least, includes no non-conference opponent tougher than a UCF team without Blake Bortles and no crossover games with Athlon’s top three teams in the West (Wisconsin, Nebraska and Iowa).
As a rival coach might say, “talk is cheap.” Franklin will find out soon if the edge he’s brought to Penn State will yield dividends.
“Sometimes we think it’s too much,” Hull joked. “But it makes you want to play for someone who is that passionate.”