CHICAGO — As Big Ten Media Days kicked off on Monday, the proceedings seemed almost dull. There was no scandal, no obscene television deal, no murmurings of realignment. There was Jim Harbaugh and the circus he elicits, and across the room, his assembled scrum tiny by comparison, there sat James Franklin, the coach of a school that should be just fine with the pomp-less circumstance.
It’s been just more than four years since Penn State received the mother lode of NCAA sanctions after the Jerry Sandusky scandal, sanctions that were eventually revised but that mandated reduced scholarships through the 2015 season, bowl ineligibility through 2013 and a $60 million fine. It’s been two years since Franklin took over, two 7–6 seasons that entail a measure of accomplishment; to finish with winning records despite just 65 scholarship players in 2014 and 75 in 2015 is noteworthy. But now, in 2016, what might have seemed like an eternity of punishment in 2012 is over as fast as you can say “Christian Hackenberg.” The Nittany Lions have their scholarships back. They’ve gone to two consecutive (mediocre) bowl games. They should be back to something approximating normal, which means that seven wins are no longer enough to brag about.
Franklin said Monday that he believes his team is up to 82 scholarship players, and he’s spent time this summer revising its practice schedule. He’s tweaked reps and practice length to control for the fact that his roster will finally look like any other, albeit with fewer upperclassmen and just eight seniors. The coach will no longer have to manipulate his depth chart, favoring the future over the present, like he did during his first two seasons, when he says he tried to redshirt as many players as possible despite how shorthanded it sometimes left him. “I think (this season) definitely puts us in a position to capitalize on some of those decisions that we made early on,” Franklin said Monday. “Some of the growing pains that we went through will start to help us.”
During his introductory remarks on Monday, Franklin referred to this season as “pivotal,” and he’s right. His team is out of asterisks. This is not a 7–6* (*but with 65 scholarship players) team, or a 7–5* (*but banned from postseason play) group. It’s just another Big Ten football team, with a new quarterback in Trace McSorley, a new offensive coordinator in Joe Moorhead, plenty of optimism on offense and questions on defense.
“This is going to be a very important year for us, no doubt, to make progress, to show the direction that we're going, and our players understand that,” Franklin said. “Our coaches understand that, (as do) our fans and administration. I think everybody is aligned and understands that. And excited, excited about what this year is going to bring. And our guys have prepared as such.”
And he could have left it there, with preparation and excitement and the perseverance of a group of players who signed on to rebuild after a tragedy. Instead, though, Franklin took it further. He talks like someone who thinks he could sell a rockstar a used minivan at a markup, which is exactly how he went on, jabbing the table he sat behind with his right index finger. “What I hope,” he said, “is when people are looking at this 10, 15, 20 years down the road,” (jab), “they’re saying, You know what?” (jab), “The way Penn State handled this, the way the athletic department (and) the football program have handled this, they really handled” (jab) “this the right way. They're really, truly” (jab) “the model of how an athletic department, how a football program should be run.”
Franklin’s passionate, but it’s hard not to raise an eyebrow. Going from sheltering a repeat offender to a model program is a sizeable leap, one that’s hard to take in five years. That’s not to disparage everything Franklin and athletics director Sandy Barbour are doing; it’s just to say that maybe now we pump the brakes. Maybe now we acknowledge that Franklin has rebuilt the program as well as anyone could have, that he’s reached the point at which his team needs to prove itself, that there’s no reason to think it won’t. But let’s not use the word model, not yet, not after two seven-win seasons and not quite five years since Joe Paterno was fired.
A Pennsylvania native, Franklin committed to the long-term plan he and the athletics department agreed upon when he was hired in State College, and the worst is behind him. But now his team needs to install a new spread offense and rebuild a depleted defensive line, win another bowl game, finish better than fourth in its division. On Monday, the coach told reporters that Penn State is one of just a handful of programs that could have rebounded from massive sanctions the way it did. Now it’s time to do more.