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Make Penn State Football Great Again: A History of the Coaches Caravan

by on May 07, 2017 9:00 PM

After a year's hiatus, Penn State's Coaches Caravan is back.

For the fifth time since the spring of 2012, Penn State's head football coach will hit the road to drum up support for the Nittany Lions.

After a Big Ten championship and an 11-3 record last season, the band will no doubt be loud and the bandwagon overflowing.

James Franklin faces a much easier task in York on Monday — when he kicks off Caravan '17 — than Bill O'Brien did over five years ago, on April 30, 2012, when the caravan had its first stop in Philadelphia.

O'Brien had yet to coach a game, and the NCAA had yet to levy its sanctions. But the program was obviously in peril.

Hence, an 18-stop meandering goodwill tour that extended from Richmond to Hartford to Cleveland to Buffalo was concocted. O'Brien, powered by a PowerPoint that reiterated the long-held principles of Penn State, and wearing a tie he cursed about daily, saved the day. 

Now, five years and a somewhat improbable and still underappreciated five consecutive winning seasons later, Franklin will headline a much truncated tour this week. Seven stops in four days, but all in the Commonwealth. 

(That's nothing compared to the 2014 tour, which CJF undertook before coaching a game at PSU: It covered 17 stops, four states plus D.C., and a belly full of pork roll sandwiches at his beloved Rudy's Tavern in East Stroudsburg.)

This week will be a post-Rose Bowl parade, full of flowery messages and devoid of thorny questions. And deservedly so. However, if Franklin & Co., had undertaken the task last year (after back-to-back 7-6 seasons), the reception at caravan cocktail receptions would not have been like the applause that will greet him this week.

With applause, also comes a time to pause. To understand where the 2017 caravan is going, it's also important to remember where it's been. So with a tip of the hat to the year-by-year record-keeping of former PSU sports PR whiz kid Tony Mancuso (now with the N.Y. Jets), here's a primer of the caravan's first four years, with a quick overview of Year 5.


Headliner: Bill O'Brien.

Days on the Road: 11 (between April 30-May 16).  Stops: 18 — Philadelphia (2), Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Richmond (Va.), Harrisburg, Hazleton, Lehigh Valley, Woodbridge (N.J.), New York City, Hartford (Conn.), Scranton, Altoona, Pittsburgh, Youngstown (Ohio), Cleveland, Erie, Buffalo (N.Y.). States: 7, plus Washington, D.C. Miles traveled: 1,968. Announced attendance: 5,000. Caravan coaching companions: Beth Alford-Sullivan (T&F), Josh Brandwene (WHOC), Patrick Chambers (MBB), Dave Joyner (AD), Guy Gadowsky (MHKY), Char Morett-Curtiss (FH), Greg Nye (MGOLF), Mark Pavlik (MVB), Russ Rose (WVB), Denise St. Pierre (WGOLF), Coquese Washington (WBB).

Quotable: The title of O'Brien's PowerPoint presentation was "A Championship Program On and Off The Field," as one slide identified the four cornerstones of his program: academics, football, respect and integrity. "What is important to me is that the foundation of this program stays," O'Brien said. "What built this program, what people believed in this program will never change, and it's built on four cornerstones."


Headliner: Bill O'Brien.

Days on the Road: 6 (between April 30-May 9). Stops: 12 — Reading, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Lancaster, Harrisburg, Williamsport, Allentown, New York City, Scranton, DuBois, Pittsburgh. States: 3, plus Washington, D.C. Miles traveled: 1,471. Announced attendance: 4,345. Caravan coaching companions: Chambers, Morett-Curtiss, Joyner, Pavlik, Rose, Cael Sanderson (WREST).

Quotable: O'Brien was talking about the NCAA-sanctioned sentence handed down to Penn State — it led to many run-on sentences and his strategy for dealing with fewer scholarships: "Including today, our assistant coaches have been on the road recruiting for the past six days. They’ve been in 160 different schools. Most of those schools have been in Pennsylvania. Primarily, we are looking for guys from Pennsylvania that are good students and who are good football players and who understand that the opportunity they have at Penn State right now is a very unique one. It is huge for us. We have to do a great job of recruiting them, first of all, then we have to do a great job of explaining to them that nothing can be promised. We can’t promise you a scholarship down the road here. This is all about you coming to school here and you potentially have a role on this team and being a run-on for four years or for five years."


Headliner: James Franklin.

Days on the Road: 9 (between May 1-May 22). Stops: 17 — State College, York, Hershey, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Uniontown, Pittsburgh, Valley Forge, Philadelphia, Scranton, Whippany (N.J.), New York City, Williamsport, Wilkes-Barre, East Stroudsburg, Bethlehem, Erie. States: 4, plus Washington, D.C. Miles traveled: 2,186. Announced attendance: 6,000. Caravan coaching companions: John Donovan (FB), Gadowsky, Josh Gattis (FB), Herb Hand (FB), Charles Huff (FB), Joyner, Amanda Lehotak (SB), Morett-Curtiss, Pavlik, Brent Pry (FB), Ricky Rahne (FB), Rose, Sanderson, Bob Shoop (FB), Terry Smith (FB), Sean Spencer (FB), Erica (Walsh) Dambach (WSOC), Bob Warming (MSOC), Washington.

Quotable: "I made a comment earlier, and I think people took it out of context," Franklin said, "but we’re going to treat New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, D.C. and northern Virginia as in-state areas for us in terms of the attention that we put on it. You take a six-hour radius of campus, that’s what we’re going to treat as in-state. Then we’ll go other places to recruit nationally to do what we have to do to put our roster together. We’re going to approach it as in-state.”


Headliner: James Franklin.

Days on the Road: (between May 5-May 21). Stops: 12 — Harrisburg, Lancaster, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Altoona, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Langhorne, New York City, Parsippany (N.J.), Allentown, Wilkes-Barre. States: 4, plus Washington, D.C. Miles traveled: 1,300. Announced attendance: 2,500. Caravan coaching companions: Sandy Barbour (AD), Chambers, Donovan, Gadowsky, Gattis, Huff, Pry, St. Pierre, Rahne, Rose, Sanderson, Smith, Spencer

Quotable: Athletic director Sandy Barbour addressed the future of Beaver Stadium while she was on the caravan: "It's pretty clear to me that we need to put together a plan to address a whole lot of issues in Beaver Stadium. Obviously Beaver Stadium is historic, it's a wonderful place where Penn State family gather 107 strong on Saturday afternoons. But whether it be for working aspects of what we do, like the press box, or fan amenities and the fan experience, there's lots we need to address. And the only way to do that is systematically and to develop a master plan."

2016 - NO TOUR


Headliner: James Franklin.

Days on the Road: 4 (between May 8-May 11). Stops: 7 — York, Valley Forge, Hazleton, Middletown, Pittsburgh, Altoona, Williamsport. States: 1. Miles traveled/Announced attendance: tba. Caravan coaching companions: Barbour, Randy Jepson (MGYM), Tim Murphy (SW/DV), St. Pierre, (Walsh) Dambach, Washington.

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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