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Penn State Football: Sermon On The Mount (Nittany); Stick with 1-0. It Works

by on October 14, 2018 12:00 PM

It’s The Day After.

Penn State is 8-4 in its last dozen games, with a pair of losses each to Michigan State and Ohio State in that time. By nine points — combined.

Indiana is next, followed by Iowa and Wisconsin at home, with a trip to The House of Harbaugh sandwiched in-between.

That’s a stretch of Big Ten rivals which would be tough to swallow for almost any team.

But just like there’s a Trump Tweet for everything, there’s a Joe Paterno footballism that always seems to fit for Penn State. Like now:

Take care of the little things and the big things will take care of themselves.

You’re never as good as people say you are, or as bad.

Publicity is like poison. It only hurts if you swallow it.

The current occupant of the vast, corner office on the second floor of the Lasch Building is big on messaging, too. That can be both a blessing and a curse.

SERMON ON THE MOUNT (NITTANY)

James Franklin’s message extends far beyond his 105 or so players.

There are his assistant coaches — two of whom have been at Penn State for nine months, two more who are full-time, on-the-field coaching assistants at Penn State for the first time, and a fifth who is in a new position.

Then there’s the support staff — new to the Franklin Team are a recruiting graphic designer (last stop: Syracuse); a recruiting coordinator (following stints at Northwestern Mutual and Pitt); an assistant PR person (a PSU grad, returning home) and a head trainer (from Washington State), as well as the in-house, Penn State intercollegiate athletics nutritionist and team psychologist — both of whom have fairly new expanded roles in football.

Then, this is important, there’s the regular football beat of writers, websters, bloggers, TV people and the like. The reporters for the two major TV stations in the market are new (again), plus there is a never-ending churn of student writers and reporters. They spread Franklin’s message, often with little context and rarely ask a question, good or bad. 

More than 40 people — an astonishing number for a program still tucked in the middle of nowhere — form a crowded semi-circle around Franklin on the Lasch artificial turf field every Wednesday night at 6:30 for his 11-minute media scrum of five or six questions. What Franklin says then is disseminated to Nittany Nation, with little corresponding relevant analysis or commentary. What Franklin says is the news of the day.

Then, there are the football donors and boosters — current and potential — as well as recruits and their parents, lettermen and Penn State brass, to say nothing of nearly #700k alumni and a rabid fan base.

What James says matters.

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The most-trafficked portion of one of the pay sites that covers Penn State football is the live broadcast of Franklin’s post-game presser from the bowels of Beaver Stadium. Franklin’s weekly State of the State address. He talks to all of us, and a lot of preparation goes into his messages — post-game and otherwise.

A big part of his job these days is messaging. After you win — and win consistently, in a spectacularly big way — that post-game message is easy. 

When you drop back-to-back heart-breakers to Ohio State and Michigan State twice in 50 weeks, it’s tough. Game days, especially in the fourth quarter and the pressers that follow, are when a college football coach earns his pay.

Franklin has a pair of talented, prodigiously hard-working communications pros to rely on and help with that prep. One male, one female. One who came with him from Vandy, the other already at Penn State. One works with the media, the other handles internal comm, branding, marketing and messaging. They are trusted aides and smart. So they likely already know what I’m about to say: Franklin’s recent messages have been mixed, at best.

KISS WORKS

When he arrived at Penn State 1,737 days ago, Franklin spoke simply, forcefully and yes, in platitudes. But he was clear: Dominate the state. Balloons at birthdays. #107k. 1-0. #unrivaled. 4 core messages. (For my money, “We Are” has always been pretty damn good.)

As he wrested control of the team as more of his own recruits came in, those messages worked. With every single audience. Winning validated them in the locker room and across the Penn State and college football landscapes. It snowballed.

Fast-forward to today: So many messages, I’m confused. You must be, too.

The best environment — EVER! — in college football. The best practice — EVER! — on Tuesday. A clean locker room. Good, great, elite. 1% better. Unconditional love. Play like you practice.

And that’s in what, the last 20 minutes or so?

Last Tuesday, Franklin kicked off his weekly press conference talking about his team’s off-week practices and lifts, then migrated to an update on presentations on player development, then recounted in detail all the recruiting numbers he and his staff put in last week: As the head coach self-reported, Franklin himself went to 25 schools and eight states, while the staff made 108 stops in 20 states. Cool, inside stuff, which we all like to learn about. But not of the Michigan State, Michigan State, Michigan State variety.

Part of the message he sent — to the media, fans, and to current and future players — was that yeah, we’re trying to win now, but we are also beating the bushes and working on the future. An in-season message. Usually, when stuff like that has come up from the media in-season over the past five years, Franklin respectfully defers the questions and stays on point, with a, “I’m happy to talk about that after the season, but right now we’re focused on Akron.”

On Tuesday, before he turned his attention to Michigan State, he introduced the news that the Penn State lettermen were going to ride the busses over to the stadium before Saturday game. Cool idea, good messaging: History and tradition count.

Interesting, though (and shades of Rose Mary Woods):

Absent from the official transcript of the press conference that Penn State released on Tuesday afternoon were the first 2 minutes and 10 seconds of the presser. That was the part about the practices, development presentations — and especially — all the recruiting travel numbers. The transcript began with the busses. For whatever reason, the initial message disappeared, which is something we usually see in the White House, not in the Blue and White house.

A few weeks ago, Franklin made a true confession at his Tuesday presser:

It was before the Kent State game, and he said it was Super Bowl week. Then the coach said to the assembled media: “I know you guys, this is your job. I pretty much come in and say the same thing every week. And I apologize. You guys show up for it. But it hasn’t changed.”

Only, it has. 

ALL ATWITTER

Maybe we will see Franklin get back on point. Here is how he has hyperbolically veered: At 4:03 p.m. last Tuesday, he issued his weekly Tweet admonition:

“Mich St, Mich St, Mich St, Mich St, Mich St, Mich St, Mich St, Mich St, Mich St, Mich St, Mich St, Mich St, Mich St, Mich St, Mich St, Mich St, Mich St, Mich St, Mich St, Mich St, Mich St, Mich St, Mich St, Mich St, Mich St, Mich St, Mich St, Mich St, Mich St!”

That was 29 of ’em. A record, I think.

Three of them used to suffice. And while we’re at, #110k ain’t necessary; #107k is #awesome just as it is. So is a wild WhiteOut crowd, even if it is not the best since Princeton visited Rutgers back in 1869.

In some ways, it seems like Franklin is trying to top himself, message-wise.

Going 1-0 works. Stick with that.

And doing the little things right. That works too.

SAFETY DANCE

Garrett Taylor, who made a pair of big plays at safety on Saturday and has emerged as a consistent and quiet leader of the Penn State defense in 2018, is a really smart and insightful and mature kid, a good and honest quote. He’s been a real bright spot, on and off the field.

So, to me, in the post-game media scramble of five-minute interviews, he was the right player to ask after the game, “How do you keep all those messages straight?”

His answer was part Franklin, part Paterno, all common sense.

“I think it all kind of falls under the same umbrella in terms of just taking care of the little things,” Taylor replied.

“You hear 1% — that’s little things throughout the week, getting sleep, putting the right things in your body. We hear stuff translating from practice to the game — that’s another little thing. (So is) making sure you take everything you learn throughout the week and you come to Saturday and you get out on the field and you can execute that.

“It’s all the little things,” the 21-year-old concluded. “And obviously, we’re not doing that right now.”



Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for StateCollege.com since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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