February 05, 2015

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) The cheerleaders arrived at Penn State's football offices just as the sun was starting to peek from behind Mount Nittany.

Blue and white balloons were everywhere and pop music pumped loudly into a room that was filling quickly with Penn State supporters, administrators and coaches from all sports.

James Franklin sat at a table with his head buried in a stack of papers, looking like the only guy at the party trying to study - but this was undeniably his show. The Penn State coach has turned signing day into an event in Happy Valley and this one was particularly significant.

For the first time since the program was slammed by the NCAA after the Jerry Sandusky scandal, the Nittany Lions are not burdened by sanctions. Their scholarships have been restored, along with their vacated wins. And they made a victorious return to the postseason.

The school also has a new president and a new athletic director. Both were in attendance Wednesday morning to welcome the latest Nittany Lions, a group that comes to State College knowing from the moment they step on campus there are no limits.

''With our staff this is how it's been since Day 1,'' Franklin told The Associated Press. ''But I think every day and every time something changes from a positive perspective about this university, with the community and with the football program specifically, it helps. There are just a lot of things falling into place for us right now. Every time another domino falls, it's restoring hope. Hope is a powerful thing.''

A half hour before national letters of intent could start arriving, Penn State coaches were wondering which player would be the first to make his verbal commitment official.

One suggested Brandon Polk, an undersized receiver from Virginia. Another said Manny Bowen, a linebacker from New Jersey, and one of the most-heralded prospects in class that would end up ranked in the top 15 in the country by all the major recruiting services.

Franklin said it would be perfect if the first signed NLI came from Jarvis Miller, a defensive back from Connecticut, who was also the first player in the class to commit.

The winner was Irvin Charles, a wide receiver from New Jersey, who became the ''first pick'' in the Penn State 2015 signing day draft. Video coordinator Jevin Stone played the role of commissioner, either announcing the picks or handing off to one of the dignitaries in the room. President Eric Barron and athletic director Sandy Barbour each took a turn.

Franklin had a monitor on his table with a camera to make video calls. When his staff was able to connect with a commit by Skype or FaceTime, he congratulated them and told them he loved them. He told the moms the coaches were going to ''Take care of your baby.'' Franklin would call out ''We are!'' and most of the time the player or someone in his family answered, ''Penn State.''

Franklin's young daughters, Shola and Addy, dressed in No. 1 Penn State jerseys, were in charge of putting the magnetic name plates on the draft board, occasionally with a boost from their father.

A couple of horn players from the marching band played the fight song.

How times have changed at Penn State.

Even as signing day became a news event around the country, under Joe Paterno it was just another day at Penn State. In two years under Bill O'Brien, Nittany Lions signing day moved into the 21st century.

Franklin came in last year and turned signing day into a celebration, the way he did when he was trying to drum up enthusiasm during three seasons at Vanderbilt.

''It's also an opportunity to open our doors and allow people from the campus and the community to kind of see how this place works behind the scenes,'' he said.

Of course, recruiting doesn't stop on signing day.

''24/7/365,'' offensive line coach Herb Hand said.

Signing day is a good time for coaches to connect with the players they're hoping will be part of next year's class. Penn State already has four commitments for 2016.

Coaches worked the phones hard Wednesday, especially recruiting coordinators Josh Gattis (offense) and Terry Smith (defense).

The message to those prospects: A year from now this will be you.

''We try to bring some of those guys into this experience,'' Smith said.

Away from the party, the coaches chatted up recruits, passed phones back and forth to the point where they would lose track of whose they were holding.

''We loved your tape,'' defensive line coach Shawn Spencer said into his phone.

''Certainly we hope you'll take the opportunity to come out here and spend the day with us,'' Hand told a prospect.

Penn State was expecting a no-drama day. Franklin said he tells recruits and their families and coaches do not commit ''unless you're 100 percent.'' All the players that had verbally committed to Penn State coming into the day signed.

But it wouldn't be signing day if there wasn't a little worrying and some last-minute calls to make sure everything is in order.

The last letter came from defensive lineman Shareef Miller from Philadelphia. A late push from Pittsburgh caused a delay, but Gattis closed the deal.

Getting in touch with Miller was another problem. The wrong number was dialed and instead of Miller, Franklin ended up on FaceTime with a very surprised Penn State fan.

''Hey, Coach,'' Aleem Medley said. ''I think you have the wrong number.''

''Do you have any eligibility left?'' Franklin asked.

A redial got Franklin connected with Miller and his mom, who said her son was coming to Penn State to be a starter.

Robert Windsor from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, was one of the last to get the welcome to Nittany Nation call from Franklin, who made the big defensive tackle give bear hugs to his mother, father and high school coach.

''Enjoy today,'' Franklin told Windsor as he did so many others, ''and tomorrow get back to work so you can make an impact and help us take over college football.''


Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP

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