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WOGENRICH: Penn State's James Franklin and the psychology of awesome

MARK WOGENRICH
YorkDispatch


Before ever coaching a game at Penn State, James Franklin opened a window onto his strategy for a group of high school coaches in hotel ballroom in Allentown.

First, never shake his hand weakly. Sets a meek tone. Next, never respond to the question, "How are you?" by saying, "OK."

That's negative. Franklin gives no time for anyone who's negative.

"Life is how you perceive it to be," Franklin told those coaches at a 2014 seminar. "If you ask a kid, 'How's your day going?' and the kid talks about, 'Oh, it's OK,' that's probably how your life is going to be: OK.

"I can't stand people like that: Woe is me. 'How's your day? Best day I've ever had in my life, living the dream.' That's the type of people I want to be around."

With that in mind, let's revisit Franklin's response to the last question of his post-game press conference Saturday. The Lions had just defeated Army West Point 20-14, but most media questions concerned his team's chronic offensive struggles.

For a coach whose favorite word is "awesome," this grew tiresome. Finally, when asked about fan expectations and covering 26-point betting spreads, Franklin responded with exasperation — while remaining positive.

"Do we need to get better? Yes," Franklin said. "But you guys can ask me every question in the book, and try to get me to be negative, I'm not going to do it. Not gonna do it."

Struggling offense: Currently, Franklin presides over an offense laboring through a statistically dreadful season. Penn State ranks 95th or worse nationally in total offense, scoring, passing, third-down conversions, red-zone offense and first downs.

The offense is a collection of belt-tightening plays to prevent big mistakes that occasionally looks for the bigger payoff. It's injured, depleted a some positions, still young at others and not quite sure what to do with itself.

Franklin's team, however, is 4-1 heading into the remainder of the Big Ten schedule. So Penn State is 80 percent on "winning the day."

Ultimately, then, Franklin's 90-second answer was pretty good. He addressed expectations ("Gotta get better. I know it, you know it, the fans know it.") while relentlessly holding to the first of his four core values: maintain a positive attitude.

Positivity not an act: If you've heard Franklin speak anywhere (to donors, high school coaches, or the 2014 East Stroudsburg University graduating class), you know this. In that answer Saturday, Franklin said the word "positive" three times and "love" 14 times.

His colleagues and former teammates say that's Franklin's natural personality, not a front or act. It's also a course of study.

Franklin got his degree from ESU in psychology and interned at two psychiatric hospitals. "It didn't take very long in that setting to say, 'This is not what I want to do,'" Franklin has said.

But Franklin has studied the effect positivity has on football players. He believes in its power.

"If a guy's fussing and moaning and complaining all the time, he won't be there very long with us," Franklin told those high school coaches last year. "The kid who, the whole time he's working out, he's complaining and moaning about the coaches, he won't be part of the organization."

That's not a radical executive model, particularly among coaches. Everybody says "Win the day." Getting players to believe in your conviction, every day, is the difficult part.

"He keeps our mental psyche in check all the time," quarterback Christian Hackenberg said. "He does a great job of finding ways to motivate people. People step up and react well to what he does."

He does get angry: Of course, Franklin gets angry. He showed that Saturday after the game. But if he needs to purge negativity, that goes elsewhere.

"I'm sure he finds his own ways to do it," Hackenberg said, "but he doesn't show it as much to us."

And if you expect him to share any negative evaluations of his team publicly, think again. One more thing Franklin told the high school coaches last year: "When I get up in front of the media, I'm going to talk for 35 minutes and say nothing. I'm going to talk in circles."

Just because Franklin won't share his concerns with you doesn't mean he doesn't share your concerns. He instead calls them "challenges," which he will flood with awesome.

"I'm going to be positive, and I'm not going to go down that road [of negativity] with anybody," Franklin said Saturday. "Love our players, love our coaches, love our media. Love everybody. Love them."

Cover 3

Final thoughts from Penn State's 20-14 win over Army West Point.

1. Penn State receiver Chris Godwin needs to get more chances on go routes. The sophomore has caught at least one pass of 30 yards or longer in all five games. His 49-yard, fingertip reception was vital Saturday.

2. First-and-five from the Army 12-yard line, and Penn State settles for a field goal on fourth-and-three? That sequence underscored just how important Whitehall's Saquon Barkley has become to the offense.

3. Penn State played without starting safety Marcus Allen, made wholesale defensive-line rotations and used two true-freshmen linebackers against Army's moving-part offense. That helps explain some of the open gaps and missed tackles..