The Penn State Coaches Caravan has been a near-annual event for Penn State athletics since the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke in 2011.
Over the past six years, there have been five such events, where several PSU coaches caravan across the state for meet and greets and media sessions to promote the athletic teams and drum up support and excitement for the upcoming seasons.
After taking a year off in 2016, the caravan was back this year for the fifth edition, beginning on Monday, with the first stop taking place at Penn State York, one of many satellite campuses around the state.
"This is such a great time for us," PSU athletic director Sandy Barbour said at the event. "...I love being on our commonwealth campuses. I think this is a way to pull together the entire Penn State University campus idea, and I love being out talking about our 800 student-athletes and the successes they've had and the challenges that we've got ahead of us."
Also in attendance for the first stop was head football coach James Franklin, men's gymnastics coach Randy Jepson and women's golf coach Denise St. Pierre. Over the course of four days this week, the caravan will make stops at seven different locations. Joining Franklin and Barbour along the way are other coaches, including women's basketball coach Coquese Washington, women's soccer coach Erica Dambach, men's and women's swimming and diving coach Tim Murphy and deputy AD Phil Esten.
During the first stop at Penn State York, each coach answered questions on a variety of different topics before a sold-out crowd, with Franklin headlining the group.
Coming off a season in which the football team greatly exceeded expectations by going 11-3, capturing the Big Ten Conference championship and losing in the Rose Bowl to USC, it's anticipated that there will be even more excitement around this year's caravan. In addition, several other programs at Penn State enjoyed banner seasons, including another national title in wrestling, the men's hockey team winning the Big Ten title and making the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history and the women's soccer and field hockey programs also earning Big Ten championships.
So, there's plenty to be excited about for PSU fans as the caravan rolls across the state.
"Obviously, with some of the success that we had last year, it'll be a little bit different, but the message from us will still be the same," Franklin said. "But, I do think some of the things that went on this year probably got some people to show up to these type of events. Season ticket sales are way up right now, so that's a positive, so I think there's an excitement and an enthusiasm, and I think all the sports play a part in that."
No rush on Franklin extension: Barbour was coy when she was asked about how a contract extension for Franklin was progressing.
When PSU persuaded Franklin to leave behind Vanderbilt in January of 2014, it did so by offering him a six-year contract that ran through 2020 worth an annual $4.5 million.
Coming on the heels of a strong 2016 campaign, Franklin is set to make $4.3 million in 2017, but can earn up to $1 million in incentives.
"It's moving along," Barbour said. "There's no pressure or hurry from either Penn State or from coach Franklin, so I think it's happening as it's happening."
For coaches such as St. Pierre and Jepson, who lead less-popular programs, being part of the caravan is a way for them to get out into the community and promote their athletes and teams.
St. Pierre boasts a lineup that has five players from Pennsylvania, so this is her chance to generate recognition for her players, since golf is a rare sport that doesn't have regular home matches, hosting just one tournament every season.
"Anytime you have the opportunity to get out in front of people who are supporting Penn State and interested in Penn State athletics (is great)," St. Pierre said. "Obviously, women's golf isn't something that is out there with a home schedule where people get to see us very often, so it's kind of nice to be able to put a face to my team and let people know what we do and what we're all about."
Y-A League athletes at Penn State: Of the three coaches that spoke on Monday, only two of the teams have any athletes from the York-Adams League who will compete for the Nittany Lions in the future. Franklin extended a preferred walk-on spot to South Western senior Drew Hartlaub after the versatile athlete tore his anterior cruciate ligament at the start of his junior season and saw his production on the football field diminish as a senior. Hartlaub will battle for a spot on the depth chart over the summer heading into the 2017 season.
The other Y-A League athlete competing for either of the three coaches in attendance is Brayden Borromeo, a Littlestown graduate who just completed his freshman season on the men's gymnastics team. Despite battling through injuries, Jepson spoke highly of Borromeo and his entire family, including his brother, Josh, who also competed for the Penn State men's gymnastics team.
"It's an outstanding family," Jepson said about the Borromeos. "...Their kids are outstanding students. His brother was an engineering major in nuclear engineering and Brayden is following in those footsteps as a biomedical engineer. Brayden had some injury problems this year, but overcame those to compete for us at the NCAA championships and has an outstanding future. I'm really excited to have another Borromeo with us."
The caravan also made a stop at Valley Forge Casino outside of Philadelphia on Monday and will continue to the PSU Hazleton and PSU Harrisburg campuses on Tuesday. After that, the caravan will trek to Pittsburgh for a stop before wrapping up in Altoona and Williamsport on Thursday for a total of seven stops in four days.
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at firstname.lastname@example.org