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Inside the Penn State Locker Room: How ‘The Process’ Really Works

by on October 27, 2019 5:30 PM

EAST LANSING, Mich. — This is about Penn State football and the way James Franklin runs his program and how his players respond to him and absorb his messages.

And, how that ultimately translates into victories.

It’s told in the words of the people who know it best — Penn State’s players — and helps explain: 

How Franklin’s process has led to an unexpected 8-0 record and a No. 5 ranking in 2019.

How the Nittany Lions just beat Iowa, Michigan and Michigan State back-to-back-to-back in 15 days, two of them on the road.

How, as Penn State athletics proudly Tweeted out this past week, it has made Franklin No. 3 in winning percentage among all current FBS coaches since 2016. (Franklin is at .813, 39-9 in that span, trailing only Alabama’s Nick Saban and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, both at .942, with identical 49-3 records.)

How, if Penn State beats fellow unbeaten Minnesota on November 9, the Nittany Lions are poised to be in the Top 4 of the College Football Playoff rankings when they are released on the following Tuesday. For the first time. Ever.

How?

It’s about the process. 

Which, to Franklin, is nearly paramount above everything else, things like scheme, weather, history, the opposition, outside noise. Process — as in trust the process — is right there on his very top shelf level with relationships, recruiting and development (of both people and resources).

It’s having a system and sticking with it, but forever tweaking it and challenging it and, in the words of Franklin, “being uncomfortable.”

It’s about how going 1-0 really resonates and then functions in a player’s mind, and what it really means. And how understanding a bit about Amazon helps us explain PSU and CJF a bit more.

WHAT AMAZON HAS TO DO WITH IT

A recent article in The New Yorker examined the flaws and frailties of Amazon, Jeff Bezos' massive behemoth.

The piece, by Charles Duhigg, made me think of James Franklin and Penn State football. Bezos is all about process. (Like Franklin.) Lives with a Day One philosophy (reminiscent of 1-0) and a multitude of slogans (James quotes everyone from Aristotle to Belichick). Is all about maintaining and buying into a specific culture (ala CJF). And always looking to build, figuratively and literally. (see: Lasch, $69 million renovation).

Amazon, with $232 billion revenues last year, is the nation’s second-largest private employer. Penn State has the largest alumni base in the country, with 700,000 graduates, and last year was No. 2 nationally in home stadium attendance.

From Duhigg’s article:

“Silicon Valley is filled with product companies. Google invented two products — a spectacular search engine and a set of algorithms for matching people’s online behavior to ads — that today deliver eighty-five per cent of its revenue. Facebook invented (and acquired) addictive social-media products and then basically imitated Google’s ad-matching algorithms, and gets ninety-eight per cent of its revenue from those products.

“Amazon is a process company.

“Amazon is special not because of any asset or technology but because of its culture — its Leadership Principles and internal habits. Bezos refers to the company’s management style as Day One Thinking: a willingness to treat every morning as if it were the first day of business, to constantly re-examine even the most closely held beliefs. ‘Day Two is stasis,’ Bezos wrote, in a 2017 letter to shareholders. ‘Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day One.’ ”

To Franklin, and now by extension his players and fanbase, every new opponent is actually Day One. Right?

Franklin, whose product just happens to be football (and building young minds and bodies in the process), has taken six years of 24/7/365 to create a process that may one day (soon?) let him compete daily, on and off the field, with Saban and Swinney. The cornerstone of that process are his Four Core Principles (the caps are Franklin’s), which are splattered throughout Penn State’s facilities:

“1.) Positive ATTITUDE.

2.) Great WORK ETHIC.

3.) COMPETE In Everything U Do.

4.) Must Be Willing To SACRIFICE.”

Amazon, under Bezos, has its 14 Leadership Principles. Again, from Duhigg’s piece:

“At Amazon’s headquarters, in Seattle, the company’s fourteen Leadership Principles — painted on walls, posted in bathrooms, printed on laminated cards in executives’ wallets — urge employees to ‘never say that’s not my job,’ to ‘examine their strongest convictions with humility,’ to ‘not compromise for the sake of social cohesion,’ and to commit to excellence even if ‘people may think these standards are unreasonably high.’ ”

Franklin is very clear about how he goes about his business. He said this on Saturday night, minutes after his Lions sloshed Sparty in a downpour: 

“As you know, I’m a process-oriented guy,” Franklin admitted. “We don’t talk about rankings. We don’t talk about whatever the challenges may be.”

Sometimes, those challenges are internal. Like when Sean Clifford threw an uncharacteristically wild pass in the rain for a pick against Michigan State. Or when Franklin’s team got three unsportsmanlike conduct penalties in the fourth quarter, and Antonio Shelton got ejected. That bothers him.

“There are things that pop up that as a coach I struggle with,” CJF said Saturday night. “I take so much pride in not just the wins, but more importantly how we win and how we operate and how we manage things.” In other words, the process.

Franklin also thinks with his heart, and he said this on Saturday night: “I think we’re in a good place. We have a healthy locker room that cares and loves for each other. I have a really good group of coaches that have my back.”

WHAT THE PLAYERS SAY

Ultimately though, like any good teacher, it’s not about what you know. It’s about what your students know. And believe. And how they act.

This is what four of Franklin’s key players said after beating Michigan State, when they tried to explain what the process of going 1-0 is really all about. To them.

“AN EMPHASIS ON THE PROCESS”

Redshirt junior offensive tackle Will Fries: “The process is our whole team — our offensive unit, our offensive line and me personally — it’s what gets us going every week. It’s that focus of being 1-0 every week. It’s the focus of what do I need to get done on this play, this day, this rep, to keep moving forward.

“I think it’s the one thing we’re doing, and that’s putting an emphasis on the process this year. It’s brought a different mindset every day. It keeps us humble and focused. This is what the process is all about: It’s not a bye week, it’s how we can take advantage of this bye week and make it a get-better week? So that process continues on.

“It starts with the coaches preaching that message, especially Coach Franklin, and it goes down to our coordinators. We have great leadership with our captains. Michal Menet, Pat Freiermuth and Sean Clifford really do a great job of reinforcing the process and what the coaches are saying. Then everyone buys into it from there. I wouldn’t say it’s new. But I would say it’s something more people have accepted, and more people have bought into. It really started back in camp when we realized we could have something special going, so we had to keep on focusing on being 1-0 every week.”

“EVERYONE HAS BOUGHT INTO IT”

Redshirt senior defensive end Shaka Toney: “We have a lot more focus this year. We don’t have any off-the-field issues. People are putting in extra time: we’re rehabbing, watching extra film, extra work after practice. We’re just locked in right now. We looked at how our last two seasons ended, and we see the success that is going on right now. So there is zero tolerance for any foolishness. You’re either in or you’re out.

“I think everyone has bought into what Coach (Franklin) and every position coach is saying. It’s all about us this year and we’re focused on us. I’m not saying we were complacent last year. I am saying we are working harder than what we were before. You can always get better. I just think we’re getting a whole lot better a whole lot faster.

“Like coach says, it’s our process. We believe in everything coach says. He says jump, we say how high? You can’t have anybody pulling the rope in any other way except for the direction of the team. We’ve taken care of ourselves and coach has taken care of us — recovery, film, preparation. We’ve done all of those things.”

“GREAT JOB WITH ROUTINES”

Tight end Pat Freiermith, a sophomore team co-captain: “This team does a great job with routines. We have the same routine every week. Even though we have Mondays off, I think kids have a good feel for what they need to do. They come in and watch film on their own, watch the opponent, just get better, get their bodies feeling right. I think our team is a great routine team. We can stay consistent through a lot of different things and not get thrown off when they happen.”

“BE WHERE YOUR FEET ARE”

Junior cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields: “I think our process is just not looking ahead — it’s really about being where your feet are, being present. That can be in position meetings, team meetings, defensive meetings. It’s always being where your feet are and once you do that, the process takes care of itself.

“The whole program kind of preaches that. It sounds like a little thing, but we’re still college students. I could be in a team meeting and thinking about class or whatever. Instead, I think we’re doing a great job of just locking in and focusing on the task that is at hand. Kudos to the leaders and Coach Franklin for creating a great culture. I think the young guys this year are doing a great job of following us and just doing everything we do. As long as we handle ourselves the right way, to the standards of the process, we’re going to be good.

“We need to stay true to who we are, not putting too much emphasis on anything — no matter what the ranking is, no matter what the negative or positive comments are. That’s what we’re going to do.”



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