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The Football Part of Penn State Football

by on November 14, 2019 8:00 PM

When it comes down to it, so very little of a college football season features the actual playing of football.

In 2019, Penn State will play 12 games in 91 days — and that’s with a rare two bye weeks. It’s only one quarter of the calendar year.

To the players and coaches, it’s all kind of a blur. Like Groundhog Day.

“During the season,” James Franklin said on Wednesday, Day 74 of the 91-day road to No. 1, “it’s like one long day with a couple of naps in between.”

(Insert Minnesota game nap joke here.)

No wonder it all blends together. Take this Saturday:

The Nittany Lions will be playing three games in 15 days — beginning with a noon game against Indiana, ranked in the Top 25 for the first time since Sept. 20, 1994; featuring a trip to The Horseshoe to play Ohio State for the Big Ten East crown (if PSU beats the Hoosiers); followed by Thanksgiving break on an empty campus; and capped by a senior day game against lowly Rutgers.

The actual games themselves come in chunks, divided into very small pieces. Thus far this season, the average Penn State contest has lasted 3 hours, 20 minutes and 26 seconds.

Each one of those games is only 60 minutes of running time, typically played in six second bursts. (The average yawn lasts just six seconds.)

That means, even during the 168 hours of a game week, the game itself encompasses only 1.9% of the clock. And within that time, plays happen quickly. Decisions must be made in split seconds. Hundreds of decisions. Most prominently by the head coach.

Franklin came under fire this past week for some of those decisions. Which happens when you make nearly $6 million a year and lose — even when it’s your first loss of the season, nine games and an unprecedented No. 4 spot in the College Football Playoff rankings in.

Especially then, actually. High expectations come with a heavy price.

Franklin wasn’t happy. Of course, neither were the fans. The professional media and social media made that loud and clear. 

TO BE FRANK(LIN) WITH YOU

 On Tuesday, Franklin pushed back with a venting session that lasted 4 minutes and 51 seconds, and 757 words. At 4:51, it was exceeded time-wise by only three of the Nittany Lions’ 53 scoring drives in 2019. 

“I appreciate you guys listening to me and letting me vent for a few minutes,” he concluded. “It’s on to Indiana. And I’ll look forward to not answering any more questions about last week and Minnesota.”

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And with that, he was done — literally and figuratively. In a mini-scrum with the media after Wednesday’s practice 30 hours later, Franklin seemed unperturbed. The nearly-always well-mannered head coach went to lengths to make nice with the local beat reporters, even extending the session a bit to squeeze in a Pittsburgh reporter’s final question.

Overall, it was all just a blip on the screen of the 2019 season — and calendar year — that has seen a veritable smorgasbord of potential distractions and irritations, challenges and opportunities.

Franklin & Co. have had a ton of potential distractions through 2019, which hits Day 319 on Saturday — with more to come, beyond Indiana, Indiana, Indiana — and Ohio State and Rutgers.

There’s the upcoming early signing date (Dec. 18), poll and CFP rankings, anticipated and real bowl landing spots — as well as potentially, some more Nittany Lions looking to leave. Not to mention a real or imagined job opportunity at the University of Southern California. 

THE YEAR THAT HAS BEEN

In some ways, it may seem like an extraordinary year for Penn State. And that’s beyond the high-water CFP rank of No. 4, which no one would have predicted a few months ago. 

Franklin, admittedly an OCD type who has a micro-manager style that has yielded a 39-10 mark since 2016, makes it a point to distinguish between things he and his program can control internally and those that happen externally. “Control the controllables,” he preaches to his players.

Thus far, the year has produced an interesting mix of internal and external occurrences. Some good, some bad. There have been numerous trips down and a few U-turns inside the transfer portal. There has been a major mash-up at the senior football administrative level, as well as a number of suspensions. And there has been the good aura of heady honors like an HBO feature and a rare in-season Renaissance dinner recognition of Franklin. 

Nevertheless, Franklin said this week it’s not all that different than previous years. 

“There have been some things outside the control of our program,” he said on Wednesday. “I would say probably those things happen every year; some have been more public than other years. 

“…Some are public, some aren't. I would say it's been similar, except for the 24/7 (program on HBO). The rest of it — some things probably became public because of social media.” 

That certainly includes the racist letter sent to Jonathan Sutherland earlier this season. The response of the team, Franklin and the Penn State community turned what began as a sad situation into a positive.

Sutherland himself, available to the media on Wednesday for the first time since the letter went public back in October, said he was gratified by the response: “It was really great knowing I had whole lot of support.”

Any college football season has its ups and downs. Through it all, as CEO and HC, Franklin is charged with managing every bit of it, on and off the field, internally and externally. 

And despite what he says, from Day One — a 27-24 loss to Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl, when Franklin was questioned on some calls — this calendar year seems to be full of more than the usual Lion"s share of challenges and opportunities for Penn State football. With plenty of room for second-guessing and recanting. (For example: As much as I’m a fan of Tommy Stevens as a player and person, Sean Clifford certainly seems to have worked out.)

THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY 

It’s been quite year for Penn State football so far, a few plays in Minneapolis last Saturday notwithstanding: 

There’s the good: The Renaissance Award dinner recognition of Franklin. HBO’s glowing 24/7 program. GameDay three years running. A Whiteout crowd of 110,669 for a win over No. 16 Michigan. A victory over No. 18 Iowa on the road. Thousands of hours of community service. The good works of the Wild Dogs. Academic honors. Eight victories and counting. 

The bad: Suspensions of Yetur Gross-Matos, Journey Brown, Donovan Johnson and Antonio Shelton. Micah Parson’s “behavior modification.” Tariq Castro-Fields and Henry Fessler being cited on for disorderly conduct resulting from a fight outside of Delta Chi fraternity in January.

The ugly: Former Penn State team physician Dr. Scott Lynch’s lawsuit. The racist letter sent to Sutherland.

And the portal and the turnover: There was a steady stream of good players and quality people headed out of town, like Stevens, Juwan Johnson, Jarvis Miller, Brandon Polk and Zech McPhearson, to name a few. The firing of David Corley, the departure of Phil Galiano and some very key football cogs in Phil Esten, Jemal Griffin, Dave Hamilton and Jeff Nelson. The arrival of Gerad Parker and Joe Lorig.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Yet, through it all Franklin and Penn State football have plowed forward. With great — but not elite — on-the-field success, at least not yet.

It’s no surprise then, that two weeks ago he publicly opined about folks not appreciating what’s been accomplished the past eight seasons — he included Bill O’Brien in that one — and this past week he let the media have it.

The challenges on and off the field that Franklin and Penn State face may seem more manageable than the sanction hurdles and pitfalls that awaited him when he first arrived from his previous institution. But they are still very real — time- and psyche-consuming. 

The skills required to run a major college football program 24/7/365 in 2019, in the $100-million-plus endeavor that is Penn State football, are sometimes disparate. They are all important: recruiting at home and on the road; promoting and doing media; managing over 100 coaches, staffers and interns, plus 100-plus more players; and game-planning and fourth-quarter decision-making.

Can one person be the best at each? Unlikely.

Granted, making decisions with 51,883 mostly hostile fans on-site and another 8.7 million watching on national TV — as was the case against a very well-prepared Minnesota squad (but perhaps less talented; its average recruiting class ranking from 2017-2020 is 43.25, compared to 10.25 for Penn State) — isn’t easy.

It comes with the territory. It is, I think, the toughest part of the job.

But of all the each and every 365 days in a year, it’s also the most important.

 



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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