Be careful what you wish for.
Yes, Penn State is pretty bad – this year. The Nittany Lions a product of many problems ranging from individual maturity to an ongoing global pandemic, all of these influenced by a confluence of circumstances spanning straightforward issues like new coaches joining the staff to the more unique logistical issues of social distancing.
Why Penn State is in this position and the how you find the solutions are tasks hindered by the arbitrary and complicated nature of sports coupled with our inability to access all the information known to only those within the Lasch Building. In the end, Saturday is simply a product of Sunday through Friday, those days unfolding in private on the practice field and in meeting rooms.
In short, everyone can see the results, but few can truly put their finger on the equation describing how Penn State got here.
Nevertheless, let’s consider Nebraska.
It’s fitting Penn State’s fourth loss of the season came at the hand of the Huskers. Nebraska football is basically Penn State football played in close proximity to corn instead of cows, both programs boasting a rich history of success that they are subsequently trying to repeat. Both programs were built by icons in the sport, both programs have seen the game nearly pass them by.
Now let’s consider a number 29-36, or rather, Nebraska’s record since moving on from former coach Bo Pelini.
Pelini, in spite of his abrasive demeanor, was by any reasonable standard fairly successful during his seven years in Lincoln. Under his watch the Huskers never won fewer than nine games, always in contention for a Big Ten title, always right there to bother Ohio State, Michigan or Wisconsin. The Huskers may have never gotten over the hump, but they were perpetually knocking on the door.
Why exactly Pelini was let go has as much to do with his personality as anything else, nevertheless he’s a great example of the fine balance between being beloved for your success and being disliked for coming up short of the success you nearly have had. Great isn’t elite, even if great is better than most everyone. A curse hidden within the blessing of success.
Of course there is something to be said for moving on to greener pastures, or trying to spark a program to find an extra gear and doing so by moving on to another coach. There’s nothing wrong about wanting a new face running the show, but it is inherently a gamble. You don’t know what awaits you on the other side of that call.
In turn, no reasonably minded person ought to think James Franklin leaving Penn State either by choice or by contractual termination for starting the season 0-4 and subsequently whatever comes next would be a net positive for the program. It’s hard to argue in defense of the record itself or even how it has come to pass, but one might pause and reconsider the assumption Franklin’s time at Penn State has been anything other than one of the most success spans in program history. The same could be said in general terms of defensive coordinator Brent Pry who has consistently put nationally relevant units on the field on a near annual basis.
It goes without saying the things plaguing Penn State in 2020 -poor defense, a confused offense and other general overall ineptitudes- aren’t compatible with the long term goals and overall health of the program. Subsequently during your Saturday evening fit of rage and depression, one might consider 29-36 and contrast that to 42-11, Penn State’s record since 2016 heading into this season.
None of this is to say Franklin should get a pass for an outlier season during an outlier year without having to pay back some of his stored up good will. That aside it seems pragmatic to assume there is a difference between Franklin and his staff coaching poorly in 2020, and the knee-jerk assumption they have become poor coaches. All of this coupled with the countless number of uncontrollable variables this season has thrown their way.
In many ways the next several weeks will determine much about the program’s immediate future. A well stocked 2022 class has the potential to right the ship, but an 0-4 start and whatever is to follow will do little to cement that into place in November. The threat of the pandemic continuing deep into 2021 only opens the door for more questions, especially as Franklin’s family continues to live states away from him. A mental tax he is paying in ways that appear to be leaking into the peripheral of the season.
And there’s the opening stanza of the 2021 season, a date at Wisconsin to start off the year and a meeting against Auburn at Beaver Stadium all within the first three weeks. If Franklin and Penn State want to run things back and throw 2020 out with the trash that seems like a reasonable request. How far that good will extends into 2021 will largely depend on Franklin’s ability to turn the shortcomings of 2020 into a bump in the road and not a pothole that sends the program back a few years for repairs.
How much this might ring true will become clearer in the coming weeks as the season unfolds. In the meanwhile it would be fair for Sandy Barbour to remind Franklin that 2016 and 2017 will only carry him so far, and to remind fans that it’s far better to have a bad year than a bad decade.
All of this is to say, be careful what you wish for. Just ask Nebraska.
(or ask Michigan State, which has gone 28-27 since making the playoffs in 2015)