Noah Cain, who has lived in Louisiana, Texas and Florida, brought three jackets with him to State College this past weekend, when he became a Penn State freshman.
The running back, part of Penn State’s gifted 2019 recruiting class, also brought plenty of confidence.
“A lot of dudes up there, they’ve been kind of used to being second tier to Ohio State and Michigan. I don’t want to be that anymore,” Cain said before last week’s Under Armour All-American Game in Orlando. “I want to be the new Ohio State, the new Michigan, be at the top of the Big Ten, have the opportunity to go to the Final Four.
“I see the pieces they have, and the pieces we have in the 2019 class, and we can help them get over the hump: beat Ohio State, beat Michigan, become that new face of the Big Ten, become the new face of college football.”
With Alabama and Clemson dominating the College Football Playoff in recent years, most programs are asking the same question as Penn State: How do we become the new face of college football?
The Lions finished a relatively disappointing 9-4 this past season and were ranked No. 17 in the final Associated Press poll. That's a long way from being the new face of college football.
As part of his “great-to-elite” speech after Penn State’s loss to Ohio State in October, coach James Franklin promised to make sure that everyone in his program “including myself” is very uncomfortable, “because you only grow in life when you’re uncomfortable.”
“We’ve been knocking at the door long enough,” Franklin added.
How does that translate into building a playoff team? Let’s count the ways.
Recruiting, recruiting, recruiting: Cain’s recruiting class is one of the highest-ranked ever at Penn State. Its average star ranking (3.89, according to the 247Sports recruiting site) ranked third in the nation, behind Georgia and Alabama. The class has 17 players ranked as four-star prospects or higher, the most since Rivals.com began its recruiting rankings in 2002.
Over the past four years, Penn State has brought in 62 players ranked as four-star prospects or higher, the most ever for the program. Ohio State, which Franklin called “elite” in October, has had 71. Alabama recruited 83.
Coaches insist that stars don’t matter once players arrive on campus, which is true. But the better programs populate themselves with a lot of talent. Franklin is moving Penn State in that direction, having made recruiting a strategic and financial priority.
Penn State spent $258,800 on recruiting in 2011, according to athletic department financial statements. In 2017, Penn State spent more than $1.2 million.
In the three weeks between the regular season’s end and the beginning of the early signing period Dec. 19, Franklin visited 23 states and flew more than 15,000 miles to recruit players. But he’s not satisfied.
Recruiting extends beyond players. During game weeks, Franklin pages through opponents’ media guides. In reading Michigan’s, Franklin noted that coach Jim Harbaugh has 13 more football-specific staff members than Penn State to handle recruiting and personnel matters, to break down game film and generally to run a program.
That leads to the next step.
Pay up: Franklin’s salary increases $850,000 this year to a guaranteed total of $5.35 million before bonuses. That marks the largest single-year increase of Franklin’s new 2017 contract, proving how important Penn State graded this season during negotiations. But he’s not the only coach getting more money.
At the Citrus Bowl, Penn State Athletic Director Sandy Barbour said she agreed to a salary-pool increase for football assistants. That’s important, because the market is booming for in-demand assistants and strength personnel.
According to USA Today, more than 20 assistants made more than $1 million last season. Ohio State just paid Mike Yurcich, formerly of Oklahoma, $950,000 to become its quarterbacks coach and passing-game coordinator.
Penn State does not make assistant-coaching salaries public, but the pool has been expanding. Football salaries have risen every year since 2014, from $10.6 million to $11.4 million, according to athletic department financial statements.
Franklin wants to retain his in-demand assistants (such as defensive coordinator Brent Pry, defensive line coach Sean Spencer and running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider) while paying market value for new hires. Further, he wants to wow recruits with splashier facilities.
Penn State has spent more than $30 million on renovations to the Lasch Football Building, with another $30 million to come, Barbour said. In all, Penn State spent $39.8 million to run its football program in Fiscal Year 2017, and the budget will increase.
“Certainly, football drives the train,” Barbour said. “Drives it emotionally, drives it financially. But we kind of like to win in volleyball and hockey and wrestling and soccer and down the line. That’s going to take a lot of resources.”
All-in: One of Franklin’s favorite expressions involves urging everyone at Penn State to “pull the rope in the same direction.” He includes coaches, administrators, fans and donors, but the appeal begins with his players.
Franklin took over at Penn State as the third head coach for some players. They were coach-weary, and it took time for that residue to dissolve from the program.
The 2019 team will be Penn State’s first with a roster entirely recruited and coached by Franklin. They’ve all heard his message and, presumably, bought into it. But it’s not always that easy.