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The Women of Penn State Football, Part 3: Recruiting and Development

You hear a lot about head coaches, assistant coaches and the idea of ever-growing support staffs across college athletics. Football is as much an arms race to collect actual on-field talent as it is growing a small army behind that talent. Walk into Penn State’s Lasch Building and you’re just as likely to see someone who doesn’t play football as you are someone who does.

In most cases, when talking about the nuts and bolts of a football program the conversation steers toward men. That’s not anything nefarious; it’s how the demographics of the sport play out. But for Penn State football — like many college football programs across America — women are rising through the ranks to positions of more and more power. sat down with 10 women with key roles throughout the Nittany Lion program. From nutrition and recruiting to James Franklin’s right hand [wo]man, the fabric and success of Penn State football is woven as much by the women in the building as the men. Here are their stories. 

This is the third of a three part series covering women within the Penn State football program. The series features operations, strength/nutrition and now recruiting/development. Featured in part three are Lauren Geppert, assistant director of player development; Hunter Carson, recruiting coordinator for communication strategy; Catherine Kennedy, recruiting coordinator for operations and visits; and Shannon Wellman, assistant recruiting coordinator for operations and visits. Can you describe your role within the program?

Lauren Geppert: I am our director of player engagement. So my main duties are community service for either individuals, small groups, or the full team. Professional development for the entire team as well as some individual stuff for our guys and personal development, which is really the largest part of my job. That could be anywhere from educational seminars for freshmen. It could be guidance for our guys as they leave Penn State and look for jobs elsewhere and it’s all the little things like guiding guys through getting a new passport or getting their driver’s license. Helping them deal with all of the things that are going on in college, outside of football and outside of academics. I’m kind of their sounding board. So personal development is probably the largest part of my job, everyone needs something different. So I’m that person they come to when they need assistance off the field.

Hunter Carson: So I’m the recruiting coordinator for communication strategies and recruitment here. A little bit of what that entails is I spearhead the initial eligibility process. So evaluating prospects’ transcripts and helping set them up for success as they finish out high school, making sure they have all the core courses and a satisfactory GPA and things like that. I’m also the head of our student internship program. So we have roughly 60-65 interns. So I spearheaded that and then also a massive part of my job is just working one-on-one with each coach and honestly any staff member that is able to recruit, to come up with the most effective recruiting plan to attack each prospect in their own personalized way. So studying trends on their social media pages, interactions with them when they’re on campus, figuring out what they like, what they don’t like, who are the champions of their lives, what’s important to them in this process, and coming up with the most effective way to relate to them, connect with them.

Catherine Kennedy: I’m recruiting coordinator for operations and visits so I do the unofficial, unofficial visits and then I have Shannon who is my assistant so she helps too. So for official visits, I do all the itineraries,hotel rooms and travel. So car service, mileage reimbursement or flights, I do all the compliance paperwork, and then I do the meals. So game days and spring it’s all itineraries. And then just day-to-day when we don’t have kids on campus, it’s just trying to get everything organized for the next recruiting period. [In this case Wellman’s answer was left out due to the overarching similarities between her job and Kennedy’s]

Hunter Carson. Photo via Penn State Athletics.

SC: You don’t end up with a job like this by mistake, how did we get here?

Shannon Wellman: I was a Penn State student. I started in 2018 as a freshman and I started interning with the recruiting department as a sophomore. So for three years…as an intern and then I also interned in the marketing department for athletics, where I was a leadership intern, which means that I ran promos for football, I was the lead intern for men’s hockey, women’s hockey and men’s lacrosse. So I had the opportunity to run all marketing efforts for the Frozen Four for the women last season, which was really cool. And because of all that, I kind of threw my name in and applied for this job coming out of school. And right out of graduation, literally the next day, I started working here full time.

Geppert: I had a unique journey. I was a kinesiology major at Penn State and through different internships I figured out what I did and didn’t like. Coincidentally at coach Franklin’s first signing day, I happened to be here as a cheerleader and went up to the staff and was like, I’m looking for an internship for my last year, my last semester of college and I’m willing to do whatever you guys need. I landed myself an internship in player development with PJ Mullen at that point in time, and just learned a ton from PJ my last year in college, and really finally figured out what I wanted to do after you know, going through all these internships. I got lucky that coach Franklin kept me on as a volunteer intern for about six months after I had graduated from Penn State, and then I was hired into a recruiting role. Just to get my foot in the door, obviously, as a female in sports you take what you can get, especially when you’re going for your first job, so I was open to anything. I took a role as the recruiting staff assistant, which I had no clue what I was doing. I had never interned in recruiting and then about two years into that job, they created a second role in player development, which I then moved over to.  I’ve been in this director of player engagement role for just over a year now, so I’ve always been with Penn State football, but I’ve worn a couple of different hats.

Lauren Geppert. Photo via Penn State Athletics

Carson: I went to East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina. I had no idea I would end up where I am. I had my heart set on being a sideline reporter on ESPN. I initially wanted to be in communications to be a journalist. I was at my first East Carolina game with my dad beside me and I saw this girl beside coach Ruffin McNeil at the time, and I’ve always had a passion for football. It’s been in my family. I was always a tomboy growing up. I asked my dad hey, can I play football? He said, No, so I became a cheerleader just to be close to the game…I remember seeing her and tapping my dad on the shoulder like hey, like, how do you think she got there? And she’s holding what looks like the head coach’s call sheet. I made [my dad] a promise that day. I promise like, I’ll figure that out and I’ll get right there to where she was. Long story short, she was an equipment manager at the time. And that’s where I started. I got my foot in the door as an equipment manager at East Carolina. I studied there. And I watched how a football program was run. And I kind of observed all the different departments and I learned that I loved operations. I expressed interest to the director football ops at the time that when his student assistant graduates, can I be that? He said alright, let me watch you work for a couple of weeks and then when that time comes, I’ll let you know. He ended up promoting me to the assistant to the DFO. I worked in operations. When it was time for me to graduate. The staff created a brand new role graduate assistant for recruiting and football ops. I worked at East Carolina as a GA for about a year. Then I went to Liberty University as assistant director of on campus recruiting, which is in my hometown of Lynchburg, Virginia so that was awesome. Was only there for eight months before having a three and a half hour long zoom interview here and I’ve been here ever since. I started as assistant recruiting coordinator for personnel and recruitment. And then fortunately coach Franklin and Kevin Threlkel blessed me with the opportunity to be what I am now.

Kennedy: I went to Alabama for undergrad and grad school and I interned there starting my sophomore year in recruiting there. And then from there I went with Coach Huff, who was actually here at one point, when he got the head coaching job at Marshall. I became the Director of on Campus Recruiting there, and then I got here last March.

SC: Player development involves a lot of stuff away from football. Seeing kids grow into men has to be rewarding? Especially as you see them grow on the field as well.

Geppert: The ability to form those personal relationships and know these guys off the field makes what they do on Saturdays that much more rewarding for me. I will be the first one to tell you I really know nothing about football. I don’t know X’s and O’s. I’ve been here seven years and I still don’t really understand it. So the players know when they walk into my office that this is a safe space. They don’t have to worry about what’s going on on the field. I truly care about them as a person. I get to know them and their families, their parents, their siblings, or girlfriends, all of that whether it’s through the recruiting process, and it carries on here or you know, it’s a kid that we get at the last minute. It’s funny because I will take them to do things in the community or you know, I’m taking a guy to go get his his first bank account and people think that these guys are like superstars and I’m like, no, it’s just so, it doesn’t faze me, they’re they’re just a normal kid and being able to see them in that light, makes the things they do on the field – and when they get recognized it just it magnifies how proud I am of them. 

SC: Penn State recently expanded its player development program. Why is The Fifth Quarter something to be excited about?

Geppert: There are three of us within the Fifth Quarter department. It’s myself. Will Flaherty and Dana Kabala. We all kind of handled different areas of the player development realm…previously, we were upstairs, while all of the player centric stuff is downstairs in Lasch. So it made it challenging that there was a disconnect and the authenticity of guys just being able to walk in and check in and have organic conversations. So our office is now as soon as you come in the back door of Lasch, we’re right across from the nutrition bar. So our walls are all glass so we can see out to the players and the players can see into [the office]. At any given time there’s usually three to five guys in my office if I don’t have my door closed. It’s just a very organic, easy flowing environment. There’s a huge couch in here, the guys when they’re in between stuff they’ll just come in here and sit and relax…it’s not forced…people are constantly in here, which makes my life a lot easier. I don’t have to go chasing players down anymore.

SC: Why do you think player development away from football helps with the football part of things so much?

Geppert: I think it’s the fact that they know they’re supported, and that they know regardless of what their question is they have someone to pivot to and support them. And that takes so much stress off of them off of their parents. It’s funny, every single year we have transfers in and we always ask them, what’s the biggest difference and they’re like, there’s literally someone that can help us in anything. It’s not like oh, you just gotta figure it out on your own…it can be extremely time consuming to them in the minimal amount of time they have away from football and academics that relieving that pressure and stress and those outside distractions, I think is really what helps a football team. When you minimize distraction outside and the guys can really focus on what they’re here for which is academics and football and being the best they can possibly be.

Shannon Wellman. Photo provided.

SC: What’s the biggest challenge of this job?

Kennedy: I think just having to constantly stay organized. Things pop up at the last minute. We had last minute visits. It’s a kid added to Junior Days and stuff like that. So just constantly being on top of things to make sure that everything runs as smoothly as possible.

SC: It seems like high level recruiting involves some degree of trying to convince people that you’re being authentic. How do you manage that?

Carson: I think for me personally, care is my number one drive. I say a prayer every morning and it helps me to have a positive impact on any of the lives that I come across. So for me, I genuinely want to care. And I genuinely do care so I think that [I take it harder than I maybe should] when we don’t get a kid because I poured so much into them. I think that it’s not a matter of like, Hey, how can I make sure that I’m authentic today? It’s like that’s like within me like I want to care about these kids… we all get invested in these kids. So it’s not really difficult for us to be authentic or authentic because we do care. We really do care about their well being and their development on and off the field throughout the recruiting process and hopefully when they become a Nittany Lion as well.

SC: Good recruiting is?

Kennedy: I think relationship building. Every school has great facilities and everything but it comes down to the people. I think Penn State is really special at building those relationships, getting to know those kids. I also think it’s just being genuine. I think this staff is so special in the sense where we feel like a family and I think that really plays a key role in the recruiting process here.

Wellman: I like to say recruiting is definitely marketing. We’re trying to sell Penn State as a forever home for these recruits. And I think having that experience in marketing in general, really helps kind of not like my salesmen approach but how we view Penn State, what our higher morals are those kinds of things. Why is Penn State so special? And I think a lot of my marketing experience was able to directly correlate to recruiting and trying to sell Penn State to our recruits.

Catherine Kennedy. Photo via Penn State Athletics

SC: You spend a lot of time recruiting a kid, then he finally arrives on campus. What’s that like?

Carson: It’s the most rewarding part of this process by far. It’s like a blessing like Nick and I talk all the time – I give him a hard time, we remember when everyone was sweating because we couldn’t get you on the phone and you were nervous and then we talked about how the best in PA stay in PA. You were born to be here and now look at you and you’re accomplishing everything that you wanted to accomplish and just getting started. So it’s amazing and I love giving them a hard time. How’s class going? Are you doing your work? Holding them accountable. And I also love that I’ve had many of them say wow, you guys truly never changed from the recruiting process like you are exactly who you said you would be even when I got on campus. I love during the game seeing the mamas like Nick’s mom comes and gives me a hug every time and just seeing the families and just growing to be like an even closer family with their loved ones and just seeing them grow up. Physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritally, all the way around. It’s a surreal feeling, it’s awesome.

After we won the Rose Bowl and we stormed the field I saw [Nick Singleton] and he had this big smile on his face and I gave him a hug and he was like we did it. We did it and I’m like, yeah, just like a year and a half ago we could hardly get you on the phone and we were begging you to come to Penn State…and now look what we’ve done. A year and a half later, you did it and I’m so proud of you and he had tears in his eyes and it was just a really really good moment. It just came full circle. Not only that moment with him but just seeing all of the freshmen just so happy was a surreal moment. 

SC: It seems like the transfer portal makes things harder because things happen faster and not always as predictably. How does that impact your job? How quickly could you get me on campus?

Kennedy: I think that’s a great question, especially with this new transfer window like this past week it was less than 12 hours for some kids to have a turnaround to get them here. So there’s really no cut off. You just try to do your best and get them onto campus as soon as possible so they can have a good experience.

It’s not necessarily harder. It’s just a faster turnaround for when kids get into the portal versus how quick we can get them onto campus. And then there’s scheduling back-to-back visits. So that’s been really interesting and honestly fun for me is working with people in similar positions to me at other schools to kind of coordinate travel and work with them. Because sometimes instead of leaving their home, they’re leaving another school to come visit Penn State.

SC: You two are the only all-women department in the football program. Is there a kinship there, either because of that or just in general?

Wellman: Having such a strong relationship with [Catherine], who is such a direct coworker with me. It’s something that I’ve actually valued very much. It’s made my job definitely a lot easier to also have a friend you know, kind of as that partner in crime throughout our jobs. So being able to go to each other, no matter what it is, personal or professional and having that kind of person in your corner. It has made my job, I think a lot more manageable and more rewarding in that sense.

SC: You have a background in smaller sports on campus, how does that inform what you do with football?

Wellman: I think one of the biggest differences working with one of the smaller sports is just the size of that kind of bubble. When you’re doing marketing for men’s lacrosse you really only have to communicate the plans with the head coach, and maybe a few other people like their director of operations. When it comes to football there’s every single department is trying to work together so there’s a lot more to communicate. Also the size of the team in general, we’re recruiting at a much higher volume than all those other teams typically are. So a lot more people have to kind of be involved in that effort, rather than, you know, hockey where they’re trying to recruit maybe two or three players a year. And a lot of them are much older than our recruits. So it’s a very different landscape.

SC: How do you we continue to grow and elevate women in sports?

Wellman: I think being able to bring them into internship programs, and then also allowing women to really dive into stuff that they are interested in. I think in college athletics, a lot of females kind of get put in certain categories of skills and strengths that only females can have. And I do think that that’s evident in the fact that we both work in operations and Hunter kind of helps out in the operations lens as well. So I think there is value to us having that strength in operations, but I don’t think it means that women [shouldn’t be] allowed to get into coaching, equipment or training and all those other things. I think it’s important for programs to continue to grow in those areas [and allow women to explore what interests them].

Geppert: It’s kind of two sided. I think from the female stepping into sports perspective, you’ve got to understand who you are and be confident in who you are. And push yourself to try new things. Like I said, when I started this, I went into a job that I didn’t know anything. But I knew that if I worked hard at it and proved myself that I could take that next step. So I think a lot of times females are like, well, you know, this isn’t necessarily the job I really want. But it’s always going to be a stepping stone. So I think, you know, just being confident in your abilities and being able to prove yourself is huge. And I think from a leadership perspective and someone hiring I think it’s important to understand the different perspective that a female can bring. Coach Franklin says it all the time. He’s like, you guys view things very differently than the males in the office. You guys are able to connect with players on a different level than the males in the office. And I think from a leadership role, just kind of understanding that like females can bring different views. We can connect in a different way.

Kennedy: Yeah. So I think it’s super important to uplift women. And I think visual representation of females in sports is super important. but I also think we have to look at you know, we’re qualified, not because we’re female, but because of our background and our knowledge in the industry.

Carson: Well, for me, I think it starts with us. I think it starts with the women that are already in sports or specifically already in football, and I think it starts with us just doing a really good job at our jobs and holding the standard high and supporting one another as well and just paving the way for the women that come after us. So I think like we set the standard and it shows other administrators and coaches that we set the standard and provide this fresh perspective that we didn’t have and take care of these small details that we didn’t even think of before we had women involved. So I think it’s about us doing our best and supporting one another and then showing the value of having that female perspective and just having a strong woman in your program and on your team.