Four months ago, most reporters who cover Penn State football figured the Nittany Lions would win no more than eight games in what had all the earmarks of a transition season.
In four days, Penn State will play in the Rose Bowl.
How this team got there will be remembered around Happy Valley, perhaps forever. This season will likely be looked at as a turning point decades down the road. Barring a total collapse that hardly seems likely now, it will be the year everything changed for the better, for a program that has long needed a breath of fresh air.
It should also serve as a reminder of how quickly things can change.
Barbour's vote of confidence: For instance, when was the last time the head coach of a team playing in the Rose Bowl got a vote of confidence from his athletic director that same season?
Yet, on Sept. 29, Sandy Barbour told The Altoona Mirror exactly what she thought about James Franklin.
“I believe in where this football program is going under James Franklin,” she said following a speaking engagement. “I think he’s doing a spectacular job as a teacher, as a coach, as a leader of these young men. ... James is not on any hot seat ... and he’s not going to be on the hot seat in December.”
It’s easy to pass statements like that off as merely a quirky sidebar to this season, when it has become laughably obvious Franklin’s job is among the most safe in the nation. His team won its last nine games, beat Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game, averaged 40 points per contest over that stretch and came close to making the College Football Playoff field. For that, Franklin received widespread coach of the year consideration and there are even reports Penn State is looking to extend Franklin’s contract before another school or an NFL team can back a truckload of money up to him.
Words came at exactly the right time: But here’s the thing: If you don’t believe Barbour’s words came at exactly the right time for Penn State’s players, or that Franklin didn’t need to hear them after a lackluster 2-2 start capped off by a 49-10 loss at Michigan on Sept. 24, you’re fooling yourself.
Talk about the upset of Ohio State or the 80-yard touchdown catch by freshman receiver Irvin Charles that turned a slow start around against Minnesota on Oct. 1 as the turning points of the Penn State season. But some will say the vote of confidence played just as big a role.
“Sandy Barbour stood up for us and, specifically, stood up for me, at a point where we needed her to,” Franklin said. “I can’t thank her enough (for) her leadership, her belief in us, and specifically, her belief in me.”
Sure, every coach wants his boss to believe he’s doing a great job. But the most important words in that statement by Franklin were “at a point where we needed her to.”
Program in transition: This program has been in a very tangible state of transition since the scope of the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal set in in November, 2011.
This was Joe Paterno’s football program since 1966, and he got fired. Bill O’Brien made it clear after he arrived in 2012, repeatedly, that as much as he respected the program and appreciated its players, he never intended to stay very long. When O’Brien left and Franklin took over, fans didn’t buy his relentlessly positive pitch in the same way they were sold on O’Brien’s realistic one. The man’s first 33 months on the job were a series of pretty good highs and fairly low lows, some big victories on the recruiting trail and some major losses, and few signs Penn State would be a contender as soon as the more demanding fans and alumni and former players thought they should be.
In front of the camera, Franklin rarely acknowledged in the beginning the Nittany Lions were entering the years that since-repealed NCAA sanctions were going to harm the team most, even though behind the scenes, the program had plenty of steps to make to get where it wanted to go.
“And those steps weren’t downhill,” Franklin himself reminded. “They were up Mount Nittany.”
Barbour's words shouldn't be forgotten: But in the future, fans will remember how quickly it seemed to change during a magical 2016 season. They’ll talk about brilliance that was turned on like a light switch once October began.
Remember what Barbour said, though, and remember how so many dismissed her when she said it. Remember also what those words signified to players who had to feel that sense of transition always around them as well over the last few years, and think about what the mere promise of stability might have done for them.
“When you hear things like a coach is going to get fired and that kind of stuff, it really is a big deal,” Nittany Lions linebacker Jason Cabinda said. “It’s a big deal to the guys, because you get to know the coaches, their families, their kids. You get to go over to their house sometimes for dinner. You really get close to their families. To hear those kinds of things, it’s tough and it’s hard.
“To be able to come out and really turn this thing around, and now we’re rushing to get Franklin an extension, it’s awesome.”
Nothing happens easily or quickly in college football. As fun a story as that assumption makes Penn State’s appearance in the 103rd Rose Bowl Game, that fact remains unchanged.