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James Franklin's 62% Solution for Penn State Football

by on April 06, 2014 11:30 PM

Editor’s Note: This is the 25th in a series previewing Penn State football, part of the countdown to Saturday's Blue-White Game by StateCollege.com and Onward State. Read the previous stories here.

Every winter after National Signing Day, Joe Paterno would check in with a longtime assistant down the hall and ask where Penn State’s newest class was ranked by the recruiting experts.

“Uh, Coach,” would often come the reply, “we’re not that high.”

“Good,” Paterno would retort. “That way they won’t expect very much out of  ’em.”

Expectations. Paterno was a master at tempering them. As was his predecessor, Bill O’Brien – the latter for very real reasons. James Franklin? Not so much. At least for the years ahead.

“We’re going to unite the coaches, we’re going to unite the community, and build this program where everybody wants it to be,” Franklin said the day he was hired. “We’re coming here with the mindset that we’re going to build this program. We’re going to build it the right way, and we’re going to build it for the long haul. We plan on being here for a very, very long time.”

The hardest part will be the part that's on the field. Right now.

HOPE MEETS REALITY

Beginning with Saturday’s Blue-White Game, the honeymoon may not be over, but Franklin’s incredibly difficult balancing act goes public. This is Franklin’s tenuous task: Sell Penn State and its future to high school stars who can make it bright, and get the buy-in of Nittany Nation as well. But with that hope, also mix in reality.

Like this, which Franklin said recently: “We think have really good football players. We have great kids here. We just don’t have enough of them. That’s the reality of it.”

Just 13 weeks after he was hired, Franklin will start being judged, in part, by the product he puts on the field. Among the 90 or so players who will dress on Saturday, just five signed on the dotted line while Franklin was in charge. But now, they’re all his.

And there’s no doubt about it. The 2014 season will be the rockiest road on the return from Sanction City. O’Brien knew it, too. So many potholes, so few offensive linemen. So many detours, so few seniors. The only way to survive, and maybe occasionally thrive, is to look at the trees and not the forest. 

“I don’t really look at it from the big picture,” Franklin said on Saturday, after his team’s 11th practice of the spring. “It’s just wake up every single morning, maximize that day. I think our guys are doing that. I’ve been pleased with it. I think the coaching staff is doing a heckuva job.”

It was a heckuva job they were handed. Before drills started, they weren’t quite sure what they had inherited. “How good will we be?” someone who theoretically should know said rhetorically last month. ”Your guess is probably better than mine.”

He wasn’t being flip, just honest. The 15th practice of the spring may provide some answers – like will the Blue-White crowd of 80K that Franklin envisioned appear? – but it also may raise an equal amount of questions. Even at $10,958 per day, Franklin was handed a tougher deal than most folks realize. It could be a dickens of a time this fall. More curb your enthusiasm than great expectations.

A total of 6,015 days have gone by since the Penn State football team was last ranked No. 1 in the country. And tack on 139 more ‘til the season-opener in Ireland.

That No. 1 ranking lasted a week and ended on Oct. 18, 1997, when quarterback Mike McQueary threw two picks in the Nittany Lions’ 16-15 Homecoming Day win over Minnesota in Beaver Stadium. The next week they slipped to No. 2 and ultimately finished the year No. 16. They got to No. 2 in 1999, and to No. 3 at both the end of 2005 and in mid-2008.

62% SINCE 2000 

Since the turn of the century, Penn State has been a 62% team.

Over the past 14 seasons, Penn State has won 62.4% of its games. Since 2010, its record has been 31-19. That’s 62%. Under O’Brien in very trying circumstances in 2012-13, the Nittany Lions were 15-9. That’s 62.5%. Over his final 200 games, Paterno’s teams were 125-75 on the field. That’s 62.5%.

That’s not elite – at least not consistently. Franklin acknowledged as much to Stewart Mandel when the SI.com writer came to campus last week.

“Obviously the thing you have here is, you’ve got the history, the tradition and the facility,” Franklin told Mandel. “Those things are in place. It’s the other things we’ve got to get going -- because although this place has got an unbelievable tradition and history, if you look at the last 10 years, that hasn’t been the case.”

In 23 months, O’Brien made some big inroads. He built trust. He rebuilt the recruiting operation inside and out, borrowing deeply from Nick Saban. He rebuilt the strength program and the offense. He built a big-time quarterback and constructed big wins over Northwestern, Michigan and Wisconsin (twice).

O’Brien’s two years were a start. And Penn State’s storied football tradition -- dating back to a 54-0 whitewashing of Bucknell in Penn State’s first game ever, on Nov. 5, 1887 – is a solid foundation as well. But Franklin’s task ahead is a large one. Maybe bigger than O’Brien’s, when taken in its totality.

THE VANDY COACHES CLUB

For now, Franklin and Penn State’s fans are emboldened by a tsunami of impressive recruit signings. Franklin will be the first to tell you, as he did last week to the Big Ten Network’s Gerry DiNardo, that the Sixty-Two Percent Solution is simple.

DiNardo and Franklin are kindred spirits, of sorts, even though DiNardo is nearly two decades older. Both are gregarious and witty, shiny-headed and battle-scarred members of the Vanderbilt head coaches fraternity. DiNardo was 19-25 at Vandy from 1991-94, a record better put into perspective when you learn the Commodores were 5-28 the three years before his arrival. Franklin was 24-15 the past three seasons at Vandy, on the heels of an 11-26 skein that preceded him.

DiNardo knows the Big Ten, too, having finished his coaching career at Indiana in the mid-2000s, going 8-27. DiNardo’s biggest victory may have been getting out of Nashville in 1994 and landing as the head coach at LSU. It’s a trick made all the more amazing when you realize his last game at Vanderbilt before being heading off to Baton Rouge was a 65-0 loss to Tennessee.

He knows all about expectations.

“What,” asked DiNardo of Franklin, “are the biggest challenges getting Penn State back to the historic past?”

“I think it's recruiting,” Franklin replied. “Everybody thinks recruiting is about getting the star player. That is very, very important. But just as important in recruiting is not making mistakes. And making sure you have guys that can impact the roster -- from freshmen all the way to seniors.”

Did you expect him to answer any other way?

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Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979. He is a senior lecturer in Penn State's College of Communications and teaches a pair of classes in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism: “Sports Writing” and “Introduction to the Sports Industry.” He created and taught for several years the Center’s course on “Joe Paterno, Communications and The Media.” 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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