After spending a total of six hours driving roundtrip, about three hours in Beaver Stadium and roughly another three hours transcribing and writing, all I was afforded the opportunity to convey about my impressions of Penn State’s new coaching staff needed to presented in a 500-word package.
When trying to communicate the overall philosophy and personality of a group of 10 men, that barely scratches the surface. Luckily, my talented colleague Kevin Gorman accompanied me and did a fine column on Terry Smith.
Just as fortunate is that, even with the realities of shrinking news holes for modern newsprint, this particular forum exists that did not even a decade ago. So I can attempt to present a more thorough picture of what this new James Franklin staff is like (as well as sprinkle in some personal observations) on this blog.
I’m probably just a cynic, but I typically tend to subconsciously give a figurative roll of the eyes to talking points such as how “energetic” this group of men is or how much “chemistry” they have amongst each other or how they set out to foster “positive relationships.” I’d like to think I see through hollow buzzwords.
Perhaps my cynicism has been surpassed only by my naivety, but I’m here to tell you I have bought in that these aren’t merely corporate catchphrases. Holy cow, walking up and down the Beaver Stadium recruiting lounge (a panoramic view of Mt. Nittany providing the background), the “energy” of this staff isn’t just palpable – it practically slaps you in the face. I made sure I spent at least five minutes or so with every single assistant (other than Smith, whom Gorman was with, and defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, with whom I had talked to extensively over the past week). In their own way, you can’t help but be drawn to each. From defensive line coach Sean “Chaos” Spencer’s constant standing to running backs coach Charles Huff’s lessons in marine biology to strength coach Dwight Galt’s charm to the presence offensive line coach Herb Hand has in engaging a captivated audience in simple conversation… these guys have an it when it comes both to having a motor running that leaves them constantly on. An innate ability to connect with people. I suppose a skeptic would protest by trying to portray them as “phonies,” and I’ll concede I don’t know them enough to flatly contradict that. But – take it from me – you can’t help but want to like these guys. At least, if first impressions are any indication.
And don’t underscore the importance of that when it’s considered what a priority the staff places on recruiting. I’m not smart enough to know how many games or Big Ten or national championships Franklin & Co. can lead Penn State to, but I will confidently predict that they will consistently produce top-10 national recruiting classes.
An assistant told me, with a resolute tone, they will have a top-five class. Seeing as how we’re in mid-January, the recruiting turmoil usually associated with a coaching change is upon us and the school is in the final year of annual scholarship reductions, I instinctively assumed he meant 2015 (and beyond) when he dropped the “top-five class” line. When I said so, he quickly interrupted and assured me he meant right now. In 2014.
I don’t know if that’s possible with a 20-player maximum class… but after meeting these coaches and recognizing the premium they place on recruiting, I’m not going to outright dismiss their chances. Behind the scenes, they are working on some very big names – ones that previously were thought to have not even given Penn State a thought. You might be surprised if/when you hear who. I know I was.
Now, does all of this energy, youthful enthusiasm, genuine chemistry among each other and emphasis placed on aggressive recruiting mean The James Franklin Staff Nittany Lions will beat Ohio State come October? That they’ll be in the new College Football Playoff come each and every January? That remains to be seen. It’s still a young group (average age of 39.6) with scant full-time FBS coaching experience (45 seasons among the nine on-field assistants… or one fewer than Joe Paterno was head coach alone) – and no experience whatsoever of coaching in the Big Ten.
Youth is both a strength and a curse, though. And about the relative dearth of “big-name” schools on their resumes? Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop told me, “The key is we keep that chip on our shoulder. Our defensive staff, I promise you, we’re just a bunch of I-AA guys who worked our way up, keep our mouth shut and do our job.”
You can’t argue with what these guys (sans Smith) did together at Vanderbilt. Arguably, there isn’t a Power Five conference school in the country in which it is harder to win. Yet these coaches guided the Commodores to a better record over their final 20 games there (16-4) than SEC team other than Alabama.
The first game for this coaching staff at Penn State remains seven months (and entire continent) away (Aug. 30 against Central Florida in Dublin, Ireland). There’s no guarantee, of course, Franklin & Co. will be a success in leading the Penn State program out of the NCAA sanctions abyss and back onto its perch among the hierarchy of the nation’s elite programs. We’ll find out beginning this fall, and that will play out over the coming years.
Big Ten titles aren’t won over a two-week span of mid-January. What James Franklin and his 10 lieutenants have shown so far (selling the program – both to fans/alumni and prospective recruits) is their strength. It’s what they do best. This is their star turn – both in their actions and while viewed through a prism of a so-called “honeymoon period.” They’re still undefeated, after all.
But all we know is what we’ve seen so far. You can’t get too carried away in evaluating a staff that hasn’t even so much as presided over a practice yet. That said, the James Franklin-led staff is off to quite the start in leading the football program at the Pennsylvania State University.
Tomorrow, I’ll post a collection of quotes from Penn State’s coaches. As you might expect, this gregarious staff is quite quotable.