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Penn State Football: Good-bye to the Year of the Portal

by on June 27, 2019 8:00 PM

Penn State football has seen a lot of changes over the past fiscal year — which, for The Pennsylvania State University overall, ends on Sunday.

A few days ago, Jeff Nelson, Penn State's PR point man for football for most of his 26 years at Penn State, announced his retirement.

Plus, if you haven’t noticed, there have been more Penn State football commits and de-commits lately than an episode of The Bachelorette.

To recap: James Franklin has snagged six — count ’em, six — new verbal commitments for the Class of 2020 in the past seven days.

Of course, he lost four recruits that — bing, bam, boom, wingo — decomitted to Penn State in a two-week stretch. Not to mention the Spurning of Julian Fleming.

Still, there are 175 shopping days remaining until the first of two National Signing Days, on Dec. 19. So who knows what the future holds?

All we know…sort of…is what happened in the past. Which is why, in the face of all the potential signees, it’s safer to look backward.

Thus, this week might be an appropriate time to do an accounting of the changes, at least as it relates to personnel.

The dollars are that 36% of the $155.2 million to run Penn State’s athletic department last year went to paying coaches (19%, $29.8 million) and 17% went to paying administrators and support staff ($26.5 million). 

The sense is that college athletics is supposed to be about people, i.e., the athletes, who got $20.3 million (15% of all expenses) in scholarship money.

And while some changes among that personnel is good, too many changes can be debilitating and costly, in many ways — especially at an institution that rightly prides itself on tradition and loyalty.


Speaking of money, let's go back to Nelson.

I don’t know what Jeff was paid, but he was a bargain. (As is his wife, Julia, an inspired and inspiring art teacher in the State College School District, who all three of my kids were fortunate to have as students.)

Hired at Penn State under L. Budd Thalman after leading brilliant back-to-back Heisman campaigns for two-way standout Gordie Lockbaum at Holy Cross (fifth in 1986, third in 1987), Nelson served as the primary media contact for Nittany Lions football for Joe Paterno, Bill O'Brien and the early days of James Franklin. For many of those years, he actually pulled double-duty — running Penn State’s overall 31-team sports information office (now called strategic communications) and also serving as a caring mentor for scores of Penn State undergrads.

Nelson has been the glue, in many ways, of Penn State athletics, especially through the Sandusky scandal. (Although it was Tom Bradley, after being named interim head coach, who was the first Penn State employee to meet a blood-thirsty press after the scandal hit.) Always professional and painstakingly thorough, forever gracious and humble, Nelson has been the consummate media relations practitioner. And he has the awards to validate it.

Even though he's done less with football over the past few years, as Kris Petersen has been Franklin’s PR guru, he will be missed.

His exit just underscores that when it comes to Penn State football, FY18-19 has been the Year of the Portal. The faces of Nittany Lion football — behind the scenes, on the field and even the press box — have certainly changed in a dramatic fashion. In my 40 years of covering Penn State, only the transition from Paterno to O'Brien and OB to CJF has there been as much turnover. And even at that, O’Brien kept a number of Penn State staffers and support people around during his tenure, to a degree that Franklin has not.

This is not to state that State’s football program or athletic department is unstable. Sandy Barbour, operating with a new contract, has made Penn State a strong self-sustaining entity again, in the Top 10 of the Learfield IMG Directors Cup standings, the final edition of which should be released in the next day.

And Franklin’s contract runs through Dec. 31, 2022. Unless it’s to USC, I don’t think he’s going anywhere before then.

Still, there have been a lot of changes in Penn State football over the past 362 days. That includes the media as well.

Dave Molinari jumped from covering Penn State football for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to the Penguins for DKSports, while John McGonigal has left the Centre Daily Times — where he was the chief beat reporter — for the Post-Gazette, where he’ll cover Pitt football and basketball. Both are friends, who I will miss. And both are very talented, responsible, ethical and funny (in different ways). Their presence on the beat will be missed in word and deed — both did more than their fair share of asking questions and holding Franklin accountable.


Here’s an overview of Penn State’s football-related departures since last July — almost three dozen — knowing that I may have missed one or two. Not included are the myriad student interns and assistants who help keep things humming in Lasch Building. Note that Franklin’s recruiting division has undergone some fairly significant changes. And of ourse, by its very nature college is a cyclical business in many regards and, for some, departures signify a promotion and another step up the career ladder.

PLAYERS — Transfers with Penn State eligibility remaining: Matt Alosi, Manny Bowen, Torrence Brown, Jabari Butler, Brandon Clark, Danny Dalton, Dae’lun Darien, Brelin Faison-Walden, Alex Gellerstedt, Isaiah Humphries, Sterling Jenkins, Juwan Johnson, Zech McPhearson, Jarvis Miller, Ayron Monroe, Brandon Polk and Tommy Stevens.

DE-COMMITS — Class of 2019: Emery Simmons, Isheem Young, Zachary Franks. Class of 2020: Derek Wingo, Aaryn Parks, Joshuah Moten, Grant Toutant.

ASSISTANT COACHES — Sean Cascarano (grad assistant, offense), David Corley (wide receivers), Matt Fleischacker (grad assistant, defense), Phil Galiano (special teams, assistant defensive line).

RECRUITING STAFF — Andrew Goodman (assistant coordinator), Justin King (assistant coordinator), Kenny Sanders (assistant director of player personnel).

ADMINISTRATORS — Greg Campbell (assistant director, strategic communications), Phil Esten (deputy director of athletics, COO, and chief administrator of football), Dave Hamilton (assistant AD for applied health and performance science), Dr. Scott Lynch (director of athletic medicine), Jeff Nelson (associate AD, strategic communications).

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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