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Camping With James Franklin and Penn State Football on Father’s Day

by on June 22, 2015 12:40 AM

It was Father’s Day at Penn State’s Elite Camp on Sunday, with hundreds of high school football players on hand.

So were quite a few dads.

Those fathers received some sage advice from Penn State coach James Franklin -- and so did a bunch of mothers, grandparents, coaches, guardians, aunts and uncles as well.

As part of the single-day camp, Franklin had a session with all of the adults, as they gathered on bleachers and on the turf in a massive semi-circle around the coach. It extended 53.33 yards, from one sideline to the other of a Holuba Hall practice field. 

Many of the parents were anxious, no doubt, to hear the inside scoop on the Jedi Mind Tricks employed by college coaches from one of the nation’s top recruiters. Like a performer in the round, Franklin moved back and forth, front and back, his hands gesticulating and bald head gleaming. He didn’t need a microphone. When he was done, folks had heard him loud and clear.


Franklin was High Octane James, funny and engaging. But he also was frank.

“Genetics plays a role in how good your son is going to be,” said the second-year Nittany Lion head coach.

“If a kid who’s 5-9 comes up to me and wants to play the offensive line and didn’t get an offer (for a scholarship from Penn State), I’ll tell him, ‘Don’t get mad at me. Get mad at your parents. Your mom shouldn’t have married your dad.’ ”

The joke got a huge laugh, but Franklin had made a good point to a very targeted audience. The point? Perspective. There were about 500 high school freshmen through seniors on hand, but the number who are major college football prospects and Penn State-ready could fit on one hand. (That’s what two people who are very smart about such camps told me.)

Now, one or two upperclassmen may have slipped through the cracks. And there may be a few really young kids at the camp who will develop quickly and end up on Penn State’s radar. It happens. But it is a small group, known or not. According to the NCAA, 1.1 million boys play high school football in the United States each year. About 6.5% go on to play college football – and just 2.5% play football for one of the 128 Division I football teams. That’s a dozen kids out of 500 high school football players.

One parent asked Franklin if his son is missed as a junior, does the player still have a chance to be noticed as a senior.

“Sure,” said Franklin, showing a flash of optimism to go with his overall lesson of pragmatism. “There was that basketball player at Navy? What was his name?”

“David Robinson,” the crowd replied.

“He grew six inches in a year,” Franklin said. “So it can happen.”


On and on he went. Most of the parents were in Franklin’s wheelhouse, age-wise at least, so they were in some ways typical of his recruiting trail target audience. Franklin didn’t oversell Penn State. He did, however, preach the evils of social media and he gave great advice to the dads – and moms and coaches – of the 93.5% of the campers who aren’t going on to play college football.

Here’s Franklin on:

Playing more than one sport in high school: “Very few kids should focus on one sport in high school. They should be multi-sports athletes. It’s different in college, when you get to the highest levels. Kids who are two-sport athletics in major colleges – they’re sadistic.”

Private coaches: “In some most cases, you could save all that money you spent on a coach and you’d have enough to pay tuition.”

Junior college transfers: “Yes, we take a few junior college transfers. But here or anywhere else, what you need to know if that’s the route you are thinking of going, is make sure that every class your son is taking in junior college count as credits where he’s going.”

Good, sound advice. If not fatherly, then it certainly mirrors that coming from a Dutch uncle. (Come to think of, Franklin did play one year of professional voetbal in Holland.)

Penn State’s camp costs just $40 (complete info: click here). That includes a T-shirt, coaching from Penn State’s coaches, combine tests and results, and some of the Frank(talk).

On Sunday, it also included a raspy Nittany Lion O-line coach Herb Hand seal-barking out instructions to prospective offensive linemen, as well as Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, a lefty, cranking out a never-ending flow of high arching 35-yard bombs to DBs. Shoop put as much intensity into those passes as he did calling defenses in the second half of last season’s Ohio State game. During drills, Shoop would get quasi-upset when one of his easy tosses was dropped by one of the high school kids: “Hey, hey – c’mon. Soft hands!” 

Among the campers were two of the 2.5%’ers, future Nittany Lions Jake Zembiec from Rochester, N.Y., and Alex Gellerstadt, an offensive lineman from Ohio. Both are three-stars and have verbally committed to attend Penn State for the 2016 season. Zembiec plans to enroll in January. A quarterback, Zembiec’s passes were soft like Shoops’, but twice as fast and three times as low – although it could’ve been three times as fast and two times as low. I’m not quite sure.

The camps help with recruiting, especially with relationship-building. There are few real “discoveries” these days, at least at schools that are sophisticated and savvy when it comes to recruiting analytics and database management – like Penn State. They know in advance who is coming and prepare accordingly. 

Still, every kid got coaching from some of college football‘s best coaches in Hand and Shoop, meaningful test scores and times, and access to all the Penn State coaches and GA’s. They also had a chance at the end of the day to meet with college football coaches from a diverse array of schools, ranging from Princeton and Lehigh to Lock Haven, Clarion and Kings College.

A personal aside: Summer football camps are good for the kids, too, as they allow the players to benchmark themselves against their peers. I’ve been there, done that, more than a few decades ago. The harsh reality of a basketball camp at Juniata College, headed by Press Maravich (Pistol Pete’s dad and coach) ended my ninth-grade hoop dreams of a college career. And time spent at Bishop McDevitt’s football camp, run by Gump May, when I worked out side-by-side with Scott Campbell – whose dad coached with my dad at Milton Hershey when May was a student -- told me that high school varsity quarterbacking wasn’t in my future. It was an unfair and unfortunate benchmarking, as I figured out years later -- after Scott had thrown for over 7,000 yards at Purdue and played seven years in the NFL.


On Sunday, Franklin’s message was consistent and on point – to the very end.

At the close of the camp, Penn State’s head coach gathered around the players and fathers and moms and coaches – nearly a thousand people in all. His remarks were brief and his final message to the players was appropriate for the day. 

“Make sure you tell your parents or whoever is most important in your life how much you love them,” Franklin said. “Don’t take that for granted. That’s very, very, very, very important.”


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Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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