By Harry Allison
How was this year’s Big 10 media day in Chicago different from last year’s?
Just ask Penn State coach James Franklin, who in 2016 was worrying about his job security.
This year his chief concern is the high expectations his team has for a national championship!
Since New Year’s day, he has lost track of how many times he was approached and someone said something about how Penn State had played in “the best Rose Bowl game ever.”
“It wasn’t that good,” he would say. “It could have been a little bit better.”
Penn State, rather than USC, could have been on the right side of the 52-49 thriller. And the season could have been a little bit better, too, if only the College Football Playoff’s selection committee had chosen, say, the Big Ten champion for its four-team bracket rather than a team it had beaten.
If you’ve forgotten that controversy — Ohio State in the Playoff, Penn State on the outside looking in — just reference it with Franklin.
“We won the Big Ten championship and the head-to-head battle,” Franklin told a reporter yesterday, a brief flare-up during his appearance at Big Ten media days. “Where’d you go to school?”
But even so, it was all better than pretty good.
“It was a special season,” he said.
As Franklin encountered questions about Penn State’s suddenly renewed status as a Big Ten power, the backdrop was Sunday, which marked the fifth anniversary of those crippling NCAA sanctions handed down in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal.
When Franklin arrived 18 months later, the program was still reeling. And yet in 2016, the Nittany Lions overcame a 2-2 start to win nine consecutive games and the conference. Included was a 24-21 win against Ohio State that came with a 17-point fourth-quarter rally, which led eventually to the Playoff debate.
When last season began, Franklin’s name was popping up on some of those speculative lists of coaches on the hot seat. It made little sense given the state of the program when Franklin arrived. And it wasn’t reality with the Penn State administration, which understood that even though the NCAA had rolled back the sanctions in 2014, the program was dealing with the effects.
In Franklin’s first two seasons, Penn State was limited to 65 and 75 scholarship players. The initial roster included only seven scholarship offensive linemen (Franklin’s preferred number is 17); they converted two defensive linemen to get to a bare-bones nine. Also, there were no walk-on players; coaches scoured the campus to find a few. Franklin was the third head coach for most of the players.
“You’re asking players to buy into your system,” Franklin said. “They’d had (three) other coaches telling them the same thing. That’s not easy to do.”
The NCAA eased most of the sanctions just before Franklin’s first game as coach. But given everything, going 7-6 in each of his first two seasons probably should have been celebrated.
“Everybody is focused on this past season,” he said, “but the groundwork and the foundation that we laid in Year 1 and Year 2, that’s what allowed us to have the success we had (last) year.”
And as Year 4 approaches, the expectations for Penn State are as high as they’ve been in a very long time. The conversations regarding Franklin’s future revolve around ongoing negotiations for a contract extension. The buzz around Happy Valley is about potential for the Playoff. No, check that.
“The buzz is more national,” Franklin said. “There’s a lot of good things going.”
Penn State features one of the nation’s most potent playmaking combinations in running back Saquon Barkley and quarterback Trace McSorley. Though Ohio State is the consensus pick as the Big Ten’s best Playoff hope, Penn State isn’t far behind. If anything, Franklin has to try to tamp down expectations.
“Last year was a nice step in the right direction for us,” he said, “but that’s what it was. For us to go where we want to go, we’ve still got a lot of steps left to take. This is gonna be a slow, steady, scratch, claw and fight for every inch.
“I think everybody realizes we have an opportunity right now. We’ve got to capitalize on it. The thing we can’t do, and I’m not gonna allow it, is to take a deep breath. We’re not. We’ve still got a lot of work to do.”
“None of those points, none of those wins are going to transfer over,” he said. “We have to start from the ground up and rebuild this thing.”
His point was obvious. Last year, to football coaches, might as well have never happened. But Penn State is not starting from the ground up anymore. The foundation has been laid. Amazingly considering where the program was a few short years ago, the rebuilding process now tackles that next step.
“We’ve made significant strides in a fairly short period of time,” Franklin said. “And the exciting part is really we just continue to grow in every area.”