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Penn State Football: O’Brien’s Return & Start of 5th Spring Practice Add Context to Franklin Era

by on March 18, 2018 9:00 PM

Year No. 5 of the CJF Era at PSU begins Monday afternoon.

That's when Penn State officially begins spring practice in preparation for the 2018 season, which will be James Franklin's fifth as head football coach.

How's this for a countdown:

It will be four years, just three losses in the last 25 games, a high-water No. 2 ranking and one Saquon since Franklin kicked off his first spring practice in Happy Valley. 

And, make no mistake about it, the valley is happy again.

Franklin has returned Penn State to #107k greatness.

In the Big Ten over the past four seasons, only Ohio State and Wisconsin have had more wins than Penn State has under Franklin. Over the past two seasons, it's been a tight three-way race for conference supremacy. Wisconsin was 24-4 (16-2 in conference play), while Ohio State was 23-3 (16-2) and Penn State was 24-5 (15-3).

All the while, Franklin has completely over-turned the roster and replenished it with recruiting classes that have been increasingly top-ranked — going in order, from 2014 to 2018, from 24th, 15th, 21st and 12th to, most recently, fifth.

He has revived a moribund offense that plagued his first two seasons, and overseen the retooling of a coaching staff that features just four of its original nine fulltime assistants — Brent Pry, Sean Spencer, Terry Smith and Ricky Rahne. (Average age of the 2014 PSU assistant coaching staff: 40.1 years; the 2018 staff: 41.7 years.)

Critically, Franklin's admin staff, as well as strength and conditioning czar Dwight Galt, have remained, and they have had a big hand in Penn State's reconstruction — witness evidence of Big Deeg's work at the recent NFL Combine.

MARCH 17, 2014

When Franklin spoke with the media at the start of spring drills back on March 17, 2014, he had not yet met Penn State's recently-hired president (Eric Barron), had just switched tackles Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia from defense to offense (where they subsequently combined for 51 career starts), and was still looking at NCAA sanctions.

Franklin's work had just started. And he knew it.

"We've got to figure out," Franklin said that day, "how do we run that program within the Penn State system and under the Penn State umbrella, so we can be successful and put a product on the field, off the field, in the classroom, in the community that everybody can be really proud of."

Spoiler alert: He has seemed to figure it out.

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Four years and a day ago, Franklin was quite prescient when he said, "You've heard me say before we're going to sell out every single game next year. I believe that. I'm going to keep pounding the table on that because we need to do that. We need to do that from a recruiting perspective. We need to do that from a financial perspective. And I truly believe once we get everybody pulling the rope in the same direction that we can build something really special here."


Fast forward to today. Here's how much things have changed in the ensuing four years:

When Franklin and his staff host its annual high school coaches' clinic on campus on April 6-7, the keynote speaker that Saturday will be none other than Bill O'Brien.

That's right — the circle of Penn State football life will feature a return of OB, the man who preceded Franklin and guided Nittany Lion football — as well as the overall university — through the first two years following the Sandusky scandal. His role in the revitalization of Penn State football can never be understated.

Thus, Penn State's last two head football coaches will reunite on the Nittany Lions' practice fields in three weeks, before hundreds of high school coaches from throughout the Commonwealth and beyond. It's an improbable path to a much-anticipated reunion.

Because of their back-to-back tenure at sanction-ravaged Penn State, the two will be inexorably linked, even though they met a good decade before either of them set a foot(ball) in Lash Building.

Bill and James are hardly strangers, after all. They both coached at the University of Maryland in 2003-04, under head coach Ralph Friedgen, working alongside Galt.

O'Brien, the Brown grad and former defensive end, was 35 and the Terps' running backs coach in 2003. He had landed in College Park not long after thinking, for a brief while, that he was going to be in South Bend as the Fighting Irish offensive coordinator. O'Brien had been on the Georgia Tech staff with George O'Leary, who was hired to be Notre Dame's head coach, only to lose the job after some irregularities were found on his resume. O'Leary was fired before he coached a game, and O'Brien stayed one more year at Tech before heading to Maryland — although if things had broken the right way, O'Brien would have followed O'Leary to the Minnesota Vikings when the Notre Dame move fell through.

(Speaking of O'Leary: U.S. presidents traditionally leave a handwritten note for their successor on the Oval Office desk; O'Brien left Franklin a season-opening date in Dublin with O'Leary's Central Florida squad.)

When Franklin was at Maryland with O'Brien, he was all of 31 and just a decade removed from his stint as the starting quarterback at East Stroudsburg. Franklin coached the Maryland wide receivers and was recruiting coordinator, and met daily with O'Brien in the offensive coaches' room, led by coordinator Charlie Taaffe.

The Terrapins were stellar in 2003, going 10-3 overall and 6-2 in the ACC. They beat West Virginia 41-7 in the Gator Bowl to cap off the season, and were No. 17 in the final AP Poll. The next year, the Terps slipped to 5-6.


So, in 2005 O'Brien took off for Duke, where he was the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach under Ted Roof, and Franklin headed to the NFL, where he was the wide receivers coach for Green Bay for one season. Times were tough for them both; in O'Brien's two years there, Duke went 1-22, while Franklin's one-year stint with the Packers resulted in a 4-12 record that got the whole staff fired.

But both rebounded. And ultimately landed in the second-floor corner office in Lash, working behind the same big desk that was once Joe Paterno's. (On his first day, O'Brien found a legal pad deep in one of the desk drawers, full of X's and O's scribbled by predecessor, also a Brown alum.)

From Duke, O'Brien began a five-year stretch with the New England Patriots that led to Penn State on Jan. 7, 2012. Franklin's route was more circuitous. From Green Bay, he went to Kansas State (2006-07); headed back to Maryland (2008-10), where was the head coach-in-waiting for a bit; and then to Vanderbilt in 2011.

Funny. If O'Brien had gone to Notre Dame as a coordinator in 2003 and Franklin had succeeded Friedgen as head coach in 2010 and was immediately successful, it's conceivable either would have been a candidate to succeed Paterno in early 2012

Life's journeys take roads that are not always clear — at least at the time. As it was, OB still got the call to succeed JoePa. Franklin's time came soon enough, but only when he was ready.


This is true: Good things come to those who wait. 

O'Brien steered Penn State through a horrific storm in 2012 and 2013, guiding the Nittany Lions to 8-4 and 7-5 records, with an old quarterback who played with renewed vigor and excellence, and then with a new quarterback who played like he was old beyond his years.

Then Bill beat it to Houston, where he took the Texans to the NFL playoffs in 2016 and looks to have a strong contender in 2018, if J.J. Watt and Daesean Watson are healthy and the likes of Tyrann Mathieu can respond into O'Brien's big boy, player-friendly approach.

Franklin succeeded his old Terrapin co-worker, and was named Penn State's 16th head football coach on Jan. 14, 2014. He is on a streak where his teams have lost just three times by a total of seven points over the last 539 days. And counting.


Some things haven't changed in Franklin's time at Penn State. Like the head coach before him, he is enamored by the Nittany Lion wrestling coach.

Consider Franklin's comments in 2014 about Cael Sanderson.

"I've had a lot of conversations with Cael," Franklin said back then. "I love to go to the wrestling matches and sit there and not only watch the guys compete, but watch him. He's an impressive guy; he really is. He's built an impressive program.

"I want to become good friends with him. I think he'd be a really good colleague and probably more than anything, I want to keep him on my good side because I think he might pick me up and slam me."

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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