Penn State's Franklin: Program turns corner in wake of NCAA sanctions
With the annual Blue-White Game marking the end of spring football practice Saturday, Penn State coach James Franklin is fully immersed in his second season at the helm.
Or is he?
"I would say that in a lot of ways this is our first year," Franklin said in a recent telephone interview. "Last year there were so many things affecting our decisions that were out of our control."
Much has changed, he said. Uncertainty has given way to stability. Coaches and players are more in sync. There is quality depth. Franklin said the state of the program "is not even close" to what it was a year ago.
"I don't think there's any doubt in Year 2 we have a better understanding of what we're dealing with," he said.
After coaching at Vanderbilt for three seasons, Franklin, 43, took the Penn State job in January 2014, replacing Bill O'Brien while inheriting NCAA sanctions imposed as a result of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. Including two interim replacements (Tom Bradley and Larry Johnson Sr. for 10 days), he was the fifth head coach in 26 months. It was, he said, a unique and uncharted situation.
"You do as much research as you can, but you never truly understand something until you're here," Franklin said. "Although I had a pretty good understanding of some things, it's different when you get there.
"We walked into a really interesting and challenging situation. Think about all the turnover with the players, turnover with the staff. There were just so many challenges in general."
The sanctions were lifted in 2014, but sanction-imposed scholarship reductions, along with injuries and freshman redshirts, left the Nittany Lions with only 41 active scholarship players by season's end, Franklin said. Only 12 roster players were seniors.
In the end, Penn State went 7-6, 2-6 in the Big Ten. The best game probably was a loss, to eventual national champion Ohio State in double-overtime.
"The lack of numbers and depth have a dramatic impact, how you practice and how you compete," Franklin said. "We had to practice a certain way, although you'd like to set the tone. 'This is how hard we practice.' Well, it's hard to do when you don't have the depth."
With added depth, "we won't be dictated" by the same problems, Franklin said. "I'm really looking forward to that, but it's gonna take at least one more year to be back where we want to be."
A self-described "Pennsylvania kid" who grew up outside Philadelphia, Franklin said his only visit to Beaver Stadium before taking the job came when he was in 11th grade. A good part of his first season was spent "really understanding Penn State, understanding the history and tradition and culture," he said. "Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the university and the community and, most importantly, getting to know the people. Getting to know the players and what makes them tick. The administration. Remember, I took a job not knowing who the president and the athletic director were gonna be."
All but one of Franklin's assistants had coached under him at Vanderbilt. But that's where the continuity ended. Awaiting the coaches was a group of players who had coped with turmoil and change. Franklin several times has referred to a "wall" between the two groups.
"When you have that type of (coaching) turnover, the players really just start to rely on each other," he said. "You're coming in with your vision and your plan. There were some real challenges to overcome."
At Vanderbilt, Franklin took over a program coming off successive 2-10 seasons where the returning players "desperately wanted to succeed, and they're gonna jump in with both feet as soon as you sound like you know what you're talking about," he said.
Even though several Penn State players had been through a difficult and emotional period, the program had "some success, and a great tradition and history," Franklin said. "(The players) are not gonna blindly jump in with two feet."
His youthful exuberance, social media savvy and open-door policy are helping get his message across.
"He's a very young coach," running back Akeel Lynch said. "He's very in tune with us. "
Franklin spent his first season selling Penn State's future to recruits and his players. In some respects, the future is now.
"A lot of positive things have happened," he said. "A lot of really positive things are falling into place."