Penn State Football: Do the 2014 Nittany Lions Have an Identity?
What will Penn State’s identity be in 2014?
At this point – a mere 86 days until its first contest of the season and the first game of the James Franklin Era – who knows?
Not even The Man himself.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say that we, the team now, have an identity,” Franklin said on the penultimate stop of the Coaches Caravan in May.
It’s not an identity crisis, not now. My God, Franklin and his staff have had all of 15 practices, some team meetings and Franklin’s one-on-ones confabs with his new players. That’s it.
The Nittany Lions head into the ’14 season playing for their third staff in four years (31 FT coaches in all) and their fourth on-field head coach in the same time. So if their true identity is still a secret identity, they can be excused if they may be lacking a self-identity. For now.
“We’re working at it every single day,” said Franklin, who has quickly been identified as the face of the program. “That will really evolve during camp, and then we’ll have an identity next year. I still think that’s probably a work in progress.”
STEELING FOR CHANGE
It’s fitting, in a way, that the backdrop of Franklin’s identity-searching comments came inside the Sands Casino Resort in Bethlehem (although an affiliation with gambling and a casino, a big advertiser on the radio network, is hardly consistent with the Penn State brand).
The Sands was built, at a cost of three-quarters of a billion dollars, on the ore mines of Bethlehem Steel’s bankrupted and abandoned steel mills along the banks of the Lehigh River. Talk about a brand going bust. It is indicative of a region’s shift from a traditional manufacturing industry base to one predicated on service and entertainment.
Likewise, Franklin is aiming to building something new out of something old. The identity of his 2014 team will be part of the foundation of the rebuilt, sustained identity of Nittany Lion football program that’s been in a (Penn) State of flux for the past 32 months.
Under Bill O’Brien, Penn State football – especially its offense and the backs of its jerseys – transitioned from old school damaged goods to modern day rehab. Scandal aside, prior to OB’s 3-2 relatively-miraculous record vs. teams ranked in the Top 25 the day of the game, Penn State was 1-10 in its previous 11 such games.
Franklin, with an emphasis on branding, marketing and technology, hopes to contemporize Nittany Lion football – both the brand and its near-average 62% winning mark since the turn of the century. (Numbers like 1-10 and 62% may be painful to absorb, but they’re true – and why when Franklin talks about returning Penn State to greatness the harsh reality hits home.)
A good part of Franklin’s motivation is also service-oriented; recruits want the comparative glitz of a casino as opposed to a gritty yet fading steel mill. It’s the age of i and You – as in iPhone and YouTube. The old days are like an old shoe with a hole; there is no I in Weejuns.
But let’s be fair.
The players do have an identity. At least the veteran players. Just not the program. Not just yet.
“…I don’t think that (an identity) is consistent with us right now,” Franklin said. “They’re survivors and they’re mentally tough because of what they’ve been through. Like I said, there was a wall (between the players and new staff). They were a little guarded. But I think we’ve made really good progress with that.”
It’s nothing Franklin hasn't seen before. When he arrived at Vanderbilt in 2010, he was the Commodores’ third head coach in three seasons. Combined, Vandy had a 11-26 record, with four SEC wins overall, in the three seasons before Franklin arrived. (In 2013 alone, Vanderbilt had four SEC wins.)
“To to be honest with you, (Penn State) is no different than the last place,” Franklin said. “They had different challenges that caused that -- lack of success and things like that. I don’t think that’s against the norm. It (happens) a lot of times when you come to a place and takeover a job.”
Offensive coordinator John Donovan, who led the installation of Penn State’s brand new offense in the spring, is pleased how the team’s core knowledge – an important part of any identity -- has developed. Surprisingly so.
“If you asked me how I was the day before practice stared, I was pretty scared,” Donovan said just minutes after the Blue-White Game’s conclusion. “We couldn’t call a formation, we couldn’t call a play, we couldn’t do anything with these guys. I had no idea how we were going to do. They didn’t know how to line up.
“To see where we are now after looking back at those practices and where my state of mind was going in, we’ve made some great progress. You’re starting from scratch. You don’t know how these kids are, how they’re going to execute. But they are smart and they got a good base in the past year or two, so that helped. But to learn something new, you never really know what you’re going to get.”
Upon refection, and hours of film study, personnel evaluations and game-planning for the few games of 2014, Donovan had this to say five weeks later:
“I think we have our base stuff down. We have a good idea of what we have. Do we have a great idea of what we’re going to do a majority of the time? No, probably not. I think that’s the beauty of having a lot of different positions and a lot of different personnel. … I think we’ve done a good job (considering) where we’ve been.”
Donovan and Franklin, in combo, symbolize part of Penn State’s identity. They’ve worked together for over 11 years. Internally, the new Penn State staff is not new. At least to each other.
THY ROD AND THY STAFF
Fifteen of Franklin’s top aides – from senior administrative assistant Nelly Gonzalez to assistant head coach Bret Pry and conditioning guru Dwight Galt – made the 696.6-mile trip from Nashville to University park.
“It’s been easier here than Vandy was because at Vandy we came in from a bunch of different spots,” Donovan explained. “So we had to learn each other; some guys had to learn the system and then coach. Here, we all came together after sitting on the same page for three years.
“We all know what we want to do, what the intricacies are of each play, so maybe we’re able to communicate that better. It’s like teaching anything – you have to know what you’re doing, what the subject matter is all about, in order to teach it. When you’re learning it and trying to teach it, that’s not easy. But when you know it and you’re already teaching it, that makes it easier. That has helped as well.”
So, the staff has identity – even if, in some ways, it’s Vandy North. In some ways that’s not fair. Of Franklin’s 10-man coaching staff, half are PA natives. And nearly everyone is really a Mid-Atlantic guy. That’s an identity, right there.
The players? Well, they have identified in a different way with Franklin and Co.
The head coach took time to sit down with all of his players -- just coach to player -- in Franklin’s second-floor office/bedroom/nerve center on the second floor of the Lasch Building. And, amidst reports from strength coaches, medical personnel and position coaches, Franklin delivered a face-to-face analysis to each player. Just as important, Franklin also learned how they saw him and the new set of coaches and staff.
Now, for those of you who have seen him evangelize and schmooze and go all a-Twitter, this news may come as a surprise. But in the confines of Lasch, Franklin is often all ears with many visitors. He openly and frequently solicits opinions form his White House-like staff. And he is often as much observer as hyper-participant when game-planning and in position meetings.
TO BE FRANK(LIN) WITH YOU
This is what he learned when the teenagers who are both football players and college kids told him what they thought after they were around Franklin’s world in 80 days.
“I do think that they feel that this staff is how they view a college staff to be,” Franklin said on the caravan. “You know, how we practice, how we do things. Not that one way is right and one way is wrong, just that we have a college staff, and the relationships and the emphasis that we put on things. That was something that came up over and over again.
“There was a lot of concern about coaches leaving and what coaches I was bringing in. Almost to a man, each player seems to be really pleased with his coach, what they’re learning, who they are as people -- those types of things. That was a common thread that kind of came out.”
If you’re constructing a new identity – your third in four years, after mostly successfully holding steady for 46 years – that’s a start. And, maybe, the most important one.
We’ll start to identify the 2014’s squad on Aug. 30, in a country an ocean away. And hey, if Ireland’s culinary image can go from potato famine to Guinness feast, certainly Penn State's new head coach can have PSU tasting success again as well.
But to be Frank(lin) with you, it just might take awhile.