Penn State Football: Franklin Does a Deep Dive on Anticipation vs. Expectations
There’s a difference between anticipation and expectations.
Expectations at Penn State date back to a 31-game unbeaten streak.
To national championships in 1982 and ’86.
To a ranking in The Associated Press Top 20 (then 25) every season between 1967 and 2000.
Those expectations — realistic or not — demanded a better record than 7-6 in 2014. And 7-6 again the next season. No matter what the extenuating and unprecedented circumstances were.
“We’ve said this in the past,” James Franklin was saying the other day, “and Penn State has always had really, really high expectations and standards — no matter what our challenges have been.”
“Expectations are,” he added, “almost like, ‘You better live up to this.’ ”
“Expectations are,” he added again, “almost like I’ve already identified in my mind how many wins and how much success you’re supposed to have.”
Sounds more like a Webster than a Franklin.
WHAT PEOPLE SAW
Since Franklin arrived at Penn State in early 2014 after three seasons of orchestrating a quick and sharp turnaround at Vanderbilt, those expectations never wavered.
That his immediate persona was James and The Giant Pitch — justified or otherwise — didn’t help. The Nittany Lions jumped out to a 4-0 start that first season. They then went 10-12 from there to the end of the 2015 season, which ended with a loss in the TaxSlayer Bowl, a diss from his departing quarterback and the exit of both his defensive genius and an old coaching hand.
Fans looked at the lack of a signature win, rather than the two bowl appearances (and one win). They saw a frustrated quarterback and a dysfunctional offense, rather than an O-line bereft of experience and a team competing with 40-some scholarship players. They saw losses to Maryland, Temple and Illinois, instead of a double-OT loss to No. 13 Ohio State or a 18-13 nail-biter defeat to Michigan. They saw highly-touted recruiting classes, rather than the patient development of redshirts.
They saw scandal and sanctions, and that coaches really do come and go. But their expectations never left them. Even though the last time Penn State received a vote for the Top 25 was in December 2011.
“A big part of that is people were looking for signs of the direction of the program and success,” Franklin said. “Although we saw it internally, people were looking for those signs externally. Even though I was a Pennsylvania kid, I wasn’t necessarily part of the family. I think that factors into it.” (That second-last sentence had to have hurt, but Franklin didn’t flinch when he said it.)
There was pressure on Franklin, no doubt. He felt it.
"The first couple of years it was like..."
He paused. So I finished the sentence for him: "...we have to get a quick hit..."
"Correct," Franklin replied.
The 2016 was a season of quick hits, in every way imaginable. Ultimately, it was expectations fulfulled. Beyond unimaginable belief.
In some ways, Franklin never doubted that the 2016 season would happen. But, even for him, it happened a few years earlier than was expected. Still, in the run-up he rarely flinched, at least not publicly. He made big staffing decisions. He eschewed the Coaches Caravan, to quell and shut out the noise. Same with social media. He re-connected with his players (including the ones who were Paterno’s and O’Brien’s, but were now finally James’), taking dozens to one-on-one lunches. He worked harder to connect with key constituencies, like the media and donors.
He trusted the process. His process. Even when most beyond the borders of Lasch Building did not.
Lord knows, and Franklin will be the first to tell you, I asked the “expectations” question at least 10 times myself between his hiring date of Jan. 11, 2014 and Sept. 27, 2016 — which came three days after Penn State lost at Michigan. That’s when I asked him if everyone should just R-E-L-A-X.
Yes, I got this, replied Franklin, essentially.
He reflected on that stretch when we talked a week ago, in advance of the start of spring drills this Wednesday. That stint at his previous institution helped immeasurably.
“What really helps, though, is not just the 23-24 years of coaching experience,” he said. “It’s the six years of being a head coach. It’s going to Vanderbilt and having success at a place where people said you can’t be successful.
“It’s interesting that people in this part of the country don’t really understand what we did at Vanderbilt. When we go recruit the south, in SEC country, what we did at Vanderbilt is viewed completely different. You have to be q diehard football fan, to have studied and watched what we did at Vanderbilt (three bowl games, a 24-15 record, wins over Florida, Auburn, Tennessee and Georgia). Having success at a place where people said you can’t be successful at, that allowed me to really feel strongly about the way we do things.
“If I had been a first-time head coach coming to Penn State and still trying to find my way, that’s a different deal,” he acknowledged. “Because when times got tough, I may have manipulated the plan. But the fact that I came here and I knew the plan worked, I never felt that way — that it needed to change, no matter what, no matter what people were saying or how it was going.
"That doesn’t mean you’re so stubborn that you don’t make adjustments. But again you don’t change your core. You don’t change the things that you think are the most critical to your success.”
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Franklin made the analogy about crash dieters, people who change their ways to drop a few pounds. For most, it works on the short-term. But, eventually, they revert to form.
“It’s a silly comparison, but it’s like people who diet,” Franklin said. “You lose the 10 or 15 pounds, but six months later you put those 10 or 15 pounds back on. So, rather than dieting, make a lifestyle change. That’s what l’m saying about the football program — instead of saying that we’re going to fix this and fix that, let’s have a lifestyle of teaching and creating winning habits. Winning habits off the field, winning habits on the field. That’s what we’re really doing, we’re trying to teach habits.”
Reminds me of my favorite aphorisms of life, taped to my computer, right above where I’m typing right now: First you form habits, then they form you.
So, for James, there was no do or diet for the home team. With a six-year contract, he was in it for the long haul. The skinny on Franklin’s consistency is this: His players believed, they developed a habit of winning (and of coming from behind) and — after starting 2-2 in 2016 — they won. And won again. And again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again.
Penn State returned to the AP poll on Oct. 23, 2016, ranked No. 24 after beating Ohio State, 24-21. It had been two months shy of five years since the Nittany Lions were last in the granddaddy of all rankings. Even in the Dark Years, when PSU had four losing seasons in five years from 2000-2004, it was unranked in only 2000, 2003 and 2004. The only other AP absences that near-equal length in Penn State’s long history were from 1949-51 and from 1936, when AP was established the poll, through and including the 1939 season.
A-B-C: ALWAYS BE CONSISTENT
Penn State’s success in 2016 was borne of consistency, says Franklin. For instance, the head coach knows that when he says the same thing to the media, week after week, it gets boring, monotonous. It’s supposed to.
“Consistency,” he says. “Same guy, same message. To a fault.”
That’s who he is, he says. Morning, day and night.
“I’m a routine guy. I drive my wife crazy with it,” he says. “When I get up in the morning, I take out my toothbrush and my toothpaste, and I sit them in the exact same spot. Then my shaving cream is out and my deodorant is out and my aloe lotion for my head is out. Then when I use them, I put them right back in the drawer in the same exact spot. I have a routine, and when things kind of affect my routine, I don’t like it. I like order, I like routine in my life.
“To me, that’s what allows you to have success long-term. It’s when you are consistent in your behavior, in what you say, and you are consistent in your actions. My dad was in the Air Force. Something that always intrigued me about him was SOP. By having a standard operating procedure, you’re going to be able to develop consistency. I believe in that.
“That doesn’t mean we’re going to be exactly the same every single year. But having a routine allows you to be consistent. I’m talking about consistency in your core values, your core ingredients. You are going to tweak things every single year, but you’re not really changing your identity, who you are. That’s something I really believe.”
There is great anticipation for the 2017 season, probably the greatest in a positive way since heading into the 1999 season. (Folks couldn’t wait to see how 2005 turned out for Penn State. But some of that, at least nationally, was schadenfreude. As it was, everything came up oranges.)
So sure, there are expectations for the 2017 Nittany Lions. But the anticipation may be even greater.
Penn State has sold over 4,400 new season tickets. Folks want to see even more of Saquon and Trace, and how they’ll operate after a year of Joe Moorpoint’s offense while operating behind an offensive line featuring seven veterans and a bunch of young studs competing for only five slots. Can the offense score faster than its 2-minute and 14-second average in 2016. Will Pitt be repaid, Michigan avenged? And, will Kodak Black be back?
So yes, there is a difference between anticipation and expectations.
“Anticipation to me,” Franklin explained when we talked, “is more of the excitement of what may come.
“Anticipation is a really good thing. Anticipation is an excitement about where we’re going in the program. I do think that people can now say, ‘Hey, we feel good about the direction of the program, we feel really good about the leadership.’
“Now,” Franklin said, “we can say, ‘Let’s now build this thing for the long-term, for the long haul.’ ”