CHICAGO -- After a Sunday night flight and a late dining experience at Miller's Pub, a woodsy downtown institution featuring walls jammed with pictures of famous patrons, James Franklin set about conquering his Monday. At roughly 9 a.m., a half-hour before the official start of Big Ten media days, Penn State's first-year coach had a camera aimed at his face and a microphone in his hand. That business finished, he spied two Michigan players standing nearby and thrust out his hand for introductions.
“You guys are clean!” Franklin barked as he sized up the suit-and-tie combinations of Jake Ryan and Frank Clark, leaving them smiling as he collected his phone from a school official and headed elsewhere.
By mid-afternoon at the Hilton Chicago, Franklin announced that he refused to take the elevator to his room, because the one with the Penn State logo didn't go to his floor. He talked about “attacking” a community-service hospital visit with his team. He discussed Michael O’Connor, a freshman quarterback from Ottawa, along with a desire to create a recruiting pipeline to the north and T-shirts that would read Dominate Canada. He mocked one reporter's sweater-and-shorts ensemble and then wouldn't let his three players leave the interview room without a group selfie, posted immediately for his 77,000-plus Twitter followers. He was happy to have all eyes on him, unrelentingly, from start to finish.
Previously battered by scandal and sanctions, Penn State may now profoundly affect the bearing of the Big Ten, near- and long-term. This fall, the Nittany Lions can influence the inaugural College Football Playoff race as much as any team banned from the postseason possibly could, as title hopefuls Michigan State and Ohio State both must visit State College. The program can also stifle Rutgers and Maryland and render their additions little more than grabs for television sets, if Franklin and his staff sweep through northeast and mid-Atlantic recruiting to horde top talent. All of that could lead to another championship-level era in central Pennsylvania. If it happens, it'll happen unflinchingly, because the man leading the charge does so like water let loose from a hydrant.
“That's just kind of who we are,” Franklin said, sitting in a small fourth-floor conference room that provided a temporary refuge from the media day roar. “That's my personality. We're aggressive in everything we do, within the rules. I don't really worry about that. It's my job to do everything in our power to help Penn State be as successful as possible in the classroom, in the community and on the field. And we're going to be aggressive in every aspect.”
Of course, Franklin's energy strains against the limits imposed on it. That is the central challenge to winning games in 2014 and winning back anyone who hasn't healed in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal that rocked Penn State to its core. The Nittany Lions can't play in a bowl this year or the next. The program won't have a full complement of scholarships available until ‘17. Franklin is still trying to motivate an otherwise rapacious fan base and recruit new, younger season-ticket holders. As he put it on Monday, “We've had some people fall off the bandwagon in the last 10 years.” So what if Penn State lures 90,000-plus fans to Beaver Stadium? “We want to be at 107,000,” Franklin said.
Depth on the field, as opposed to in the stands, is an even more pressing concern. To be in position to author conference-rattling upsets when Ohio State visits on Oct. 25 and Michigan State comes to town on Nov. 29, Penn State's youth must be on an accelerated learning curve. For example, sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg, an emerging star who threw for 2,955 yards with 20 touchdowns in 2013, will lead the offense. He is plainly not the problem. The problem is a thin offensive line (which lost fifth-year senior Miles Dieffenbach to an ACL injury this spring) paired with unproven skill weapons.
“People are going to say, well, I wish they were throwing the ball down the field more,” Franklin said. “Well, to do that, you usually have to drop back and hold on to the ball for a second to get the ball out. That's what we're excited about, is to continue evolving and growing so that hopefully as the season goes on, we can spend more time focused on how do we attack the offense, how do we attack the defense, how do we attack on special teams, rather than trying to hide our deficiencies.”
UCF (in Dublin, Ireland)
Franklin and his staff are compensating for depth by hauling in talent at a hasty rate, one that has raised hackles in the South and also raises the possibility of suppressing the program's newest Big Ten neighbors. In one dust-up, Penn State's summertime satellite camps -- its coaches guested at camps for prospects at Georgia State and Stetson -- had SEC coaches complaining. (The league doesn't allow guest coaching at camps more than 50 miles from campus.) But others in closer proximity may be even more torqued. As he transitioned to his new job from Vanderbilt, Franklin snared two of New Jersey's top five high school prospects, per Rivals.com rankings of the class of 2014, including flipping receiver Saeed Blacknall from Rutgers. Of the Nittany Lions' 18 current commitments from the class of ‘15, six are from New Jersey, four ranked among the top six prospects in the state. The class itself is ranked sixth nationally, according to Rivals.com.
“The Big Ten schools have always recruited New Jersey -- it's not something that happened when we got into the Big Ten,” Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said on Monday. “Fortunately in Jersey, it's such a good high school football environment, there's a lot of players to choose from.”
It's a sunnier view than is deserved. To compete in the Big Ten, Rutgers must keep its very best talent within state lines. Likewise, Penn State's commitments for 2015 currently feature five players from Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., the heart of Terrapins country. Franklin figured that if Penn State could dominate recruiting in a six-hour radius from campus than the Nittany Lions would thrive again. By extension, such success could stunt the growth of Rutgers and Maryland substantially. “When Penn State was rolling, that's what they were able to do -- within six hours of their campus, they pretty much were able to keep the guys they wanted home,” Franklin said.
The chance to impact a national title race, to define the future of more than one program -- it all makes Penn State arguably the most intriguing Big Ten team, and potentially the most threatening on the field. Who knows if Franklin can will it to happen? It won't be for lack of trying.
“The way he attacks everything, there's so much energy in what he does, that kind of drives the team to attack things similarly,” Penn State kicker Sam Ficken said. “With class, there are rules he's instilled that are a little more tight than what we've experienced in the past. He says compete in everything you do. That's one of our core values, and that's something you can little see. He's not going to want someone that is going to be complacent in what they've done.”
When Franklin wanted to test his kicker's mettle during spring practice, he would set up Ficken to make a kick that would determine if the team would do extra running at the end of a workout -- standard coaching fare. Less typically, Franklin would blow an airhorn just as Ficken went to kick. Or the Penn State coach would squirt water in Ficken's face as he approached the ball. It was relatable to challenges and distractions faced on game weekends, but it also was just sheer fun. It was another gust of Franklin's unremitting energy.
As with every other blast, it was coming, like it or not.
“If I'm going to work for 16 hours, I want to have fun for 16 hours,” Franklin said. “If I'm going to come to media day, I want to have fun at media day. If I'm going to do a 17-stop caravan, I'm going to try to find a way to have fun at all 17 stops. Now from time to time, that gets me in trouble. But I don't want to lose that aspect of who I am.”