This is a story that’s been told many times around the newsroom over the years.
It’s about a local high school football coach of impeccable reputation (I won’t name him) who years ago was presented with a coach of the year trophy after a season in which his teams steamrolled the competition.
The scores his team won all those games by? Well, many were pretty lopsided. Nobody could stop his kids, it seemed. And he didn’t exactly try to contain them to save opponents’ feelings.
Well, his name is announced at the award ceremony, and as he approaches the podium, he hears a smattering of boos. Maybe more than a smattering. Either way, certainly enough for the old coach to notice.
So, as he stepped up to the podium and clutched the trophy, he eschewed any formal acceptance speech he may have penned. And he delivered a very blunt message to the critics.
“If you don’t like what happened last season,” he glared out at the crowd and warned, “get better.”
Sports radio hosts go on rants: You can take the rest of this however you want. But, keep that story in mind when you start thinking about 56-0 leads and icing the kicker and what Penn State coach James Franklin did in the closing 11 seconds of Penn State’s thumping of Georgia State last Saturday.
If you haven’t been listening to WFAN much lately, Franklin called a timeout just before Panthers kicker Brandon Wright drilled a 31-yard field goal that would have helped his team avoid a shutout. After the pause, Wright missed the second attempt, quite badly. Shutout preserved. Franklin sips a victory swig of water out of a Gatorade bottle. Fans go nuts.
So do the sports-talk radio hosts.
SiriusXM radio host Mark Packer said he was “embarrassed for Penn State” because of Franklin’s actions. Others echoed those remarks. Mike Francesa, the famed Sports Pope on WFAN in New York City, evidently, called Franklin a “stooge,” a “jerk” and a coach without “any class.”
Here’s what Penn State fans can’t debate: The premise of the national outrage is correct. Franklin didn’t have to call the timeout. Bottom line. Nobody cares Penn State even played Georgia State. So, the score didn’t matter. Franklin’s argument is that he had a fourth-string defense on the field, and those fourth-stringers don’t even know how to line up to attempt to block a field goal.
But, Franklin also could have had those 11 fourth stringers lie down and make snow angels on the Beaver Stadium turf, and it would not have mattered in the slightest, to anybody, anywhere, for any reason known to mankind. The only way to draw any criticism toward his program, of any kind, was to do what he did.
Providing low-hanging fruit: Most people in that business fill their bellies with the bounty of low-hanging fruit provided by coaches and players; Franklin planted them an entire orchard’s worth Saturday.
If you’ve been paying any attention to Franklin this season or toward the end of 2016, though, it becomes a bit more understandable why he spread the seeds.
There are two kinds of coaches who make statements like these: stupid ones, and ones who truly believe their teams are on the verge of greatness.
And James Franklin is far from a dummy.
We live in a sports society where you can do what he did Saturday and not expect major backlash. But it’s still a bit unclear why nobody has been expecting any major backlash from Penn State.
This is the program, after all, that has been ridiculed, at times rather harshly, during the Franklin era.
This is the staff that ruined Christian Hackenberg’s career, you may have read. As Hackenberg’s struggles have continued into the NFL, there hasn’t been the requisite commentary qualifying the reality that, maybe, Franklin and his staff might not have been the detriment many once thought in that regard.
Michigan State example: Michigan State beat the Nittany Lions senseless in East Lansing, 55-16, in 2015. The Spartans scored their last touchdown on a 9-yard run by Jack Allen.
Allen was an offensive lineman. Nobody said a word including, to his credit, Franklin. Michigan State cruised into the College Football Playoff that year despite — while we’re calling a spade a spade — a late game, in-your-face decision that didn’t have to be made.
Franklin didn’t like it, for sure. But, he got better.
“Success without honor is an unseasoned dish,” another successful Penn State coach, Joe Paterno, once said famously. “It will satisfy your hunger. But, it won’t taste good.”
Leaving nothing to chance: There’s not much honor in icing a kicker with a few seconds left in a game that lopsided. There isn’t much honor, either, in lining up to kick that meaningless field goal in the first place. Nor is there much honor in calling the 35 points your opponents scored on you in the first half “cheap,” which Georgia State coach Shawn Elliott did at halftime and later reiterated in his postgame comments.
But honor without success in college football gets you stepped on, and nobody knows this better than James Franklin. Read between the lines, and it’s obvious he believes his team was not only more deserving of a spot in the College Football Playoff than Ohio State last season, but that the CFP committee changed its standards on the fly to get the Buckeyes the spot.
Now, Franklin seems to be leaving nothing within his control to chance as his Nittany Lions pursue the playoffs again.
Nobody has to like that. But it’s not the likable teams that are guaranteed a spot in the tournament. It’s the ones that leave no doubt.