Penn State Football: Franklin Practice Day 1, NCAA Sanctions Day 601
Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a series previewing Penn State football, part of StateCollege.com's countdown of insight and analysis about head coach James Franklin and his team heading into the Blue-White Game on April 12.
Monday marks Practice No. 1 of James Franklin’s reign as the Nittany Lions’ head football coach.
It’s only 166 days, appropriately enough on this St. Patty’s Day, until Franklin coaches his first game as Penn State’s 16th head coach – in Dublin, Ireland, of all places.
It is also Day No. 601 of the NCAA’s sanctions on Penn State football. Only 900 or so more to go.
That’s more than two years sooner than what was originally thought on July 23, 2012 -- The Day That Will Live in Nitinfamy.
Penn State should be free and clear of all scholarship and bowl penalties no later than the start of fall practice 2017. As of now, the Nittany Lions are two no-bowl postseasons down and two to go. They have picked up 25 scholarships (5 in 2014, 10 in 2015 and 10 in 2016) over the next three Februarys. In addition, their overall scholarshipped roster jumped from 65 for 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017 to 75 this fall, 80 in 2015 and then up to the normal 85 beginning in 2016.
That’s quite a program-warming gift Bill O’Brien left on his Lasch Building desk for Franklin, his former Maryland coaching staff colleague, on his way out the door to the NFL. (Choked up about the trip to Croke? Not so much.)
By all accounts, the 2014 season was to be the high tide of the tsanction tsuanami. Conventional wisdom held – and still does – that a 6-6 season is a success this year, and that Penn State should be able to at least compete for the Big Ten Conference’s East Division title when it is eligible again, in 2016. That would be the fourth season of eligibility for the heralded Class of 2013 group of Hackenberg, Breneman and Bell.
Winning the division three years hence would be a tall order even without the sanctions, given that the new alignment places Penn State in with Michigan and Michigan State (a combined 36-12 in the Big Ten in 2011-13), along with Indiana and former Nittany Lion punching bags Rutgers and Maryland.
While in Indianapolis for the NFL Combine last month, O’Brien acknowledged that the divisions were lopsided in Penn State’s disfavor. But that’s hardly the reason he left Dodge. In fact, during a quiet moment away from the crowds just four days removed from the four-overtime victory over Michigan last October and only three weeks after the NCAA announced a reduction in sanctions, O’Brien let down what little hair he had. As such, he offered a succinct yet sincere glimpse into what he saw as Penn State’s future.
“I really think you can win a national championship here,” O’Brien told the two guys he was with, and he believed it. Although he didn’t stick around long enough to reap what he had sewn, O’Brien kept the building from collapsing – and then laid a strong ground floor and constructed a solid bridge that led to Franklin. For that, despite the millions he was paid, O’Brien should always be owed an debt of gratitude by Penn State.
Franklin, for his part, has already said his goal at Penn State is to win a national championship. He had the same hopes and dreams at Vanderbilt, a program that was 4-20 before he came in and was 16-4 on his way out.
“At that institution, we only talked about winning championships,” Franklin told a couple of hundred Pennsylvania high school coaches last month. “We had no other goals.”
CLOSE SHAVE, CLEAN START
Plenty of goals await Penn State. But winning the East, then the Big Ten, then making the four-team College Football Playoffs, then winning the national championship will take some time. Franklin gets that. His stump speeches, Signature Events and recruiting red-eyes rarely include the words “sanctions,” “NCAA” or “Vanderbilt.” Every day is a new day for the 42-year-old, who likes to say he rolls out of bed at 4:30 a.m. doing back-flips. Among the first things he does while the sun is still tucked behind Mount Nittany is give his head a complete and clean shave.
A daily fresh start. Meet Norman Vincent Franklin.
“It is what it is,” he says of the sanctions. “We focus on the things we can control. We can’t control that. We only have two scholarship offensive tackles in the program. We have challenges. Those things aren’t changing, so we’re going to focus on the things we can have an impact on – that’s coaching and loving these kids up and making sure they have an unbelievable experience and just continue to build for the future.”
Let’s not kid ourselves. It’s helluva project, and Lowe’s on North Atherton doesn’t have the lowdown on how to handle the next few seasons. The offensive line will enter spring drills missing four of its top six players to graduation. The returning wide receiver corps had 35 catches in 2013. As a group. (That’s just 14.5% of all PSU receptions.) Come fall, the D-line will feature 16 or so scholarship players and the linebacking group only seven. No one on the roster has punted in a college game. And Christian Hackenberg’s likely backup at quarterback has been on campus for all of eight weeks of classes.
It will take time. Less time than anyone thought 86 weeks ago. Time softened by Franklin’s bringing along his Vandy staff in one fell Shoop.
In early March, Clay Travis – a Nashville-based sports journalist, sports radio host and Friend Of Franklin – asked his buddy James, “How long?”
“To be honest with you, I think it really takes three years to figure out how to get things done,” Franklin replied. “All these places are complicated and sophisticated ... It takes time. It will take two-three years here to work things through it ... It has been a sprint since the day we arrived and it will be that for two-three years.”
If there is a further lifting of the bowl ban, it won’t come until this September, after NCAA monitor George Mitchell issues his next compliance report. By then, the Nittany Lions will have made the 6,654-mile round-trip to Dublin.
That’s quite a first game to think about, on this the day of James Franklin’s first official Penn State practice.
Still, it’s a lot shorter than the one to hell and – now on its way back -- undertaken by Penn State football.