NEW YORK (AP) — Penn State coach James Franklin is fine as long as he keeps moving.
Only in those rare moments when he gets to take a break during the Nittany Lions’ coaches caravan, a 17-stop tour spanning most of May, is he in danger of crashing.
“I’m not really good with down time,” Franklin told reporters during stop No. 11 in New York on Wednesday, not far from the site of the Freedom Tower at 1 World Trade Center. “I kind of hit the wall. I think if we just would have come and moved, I would have been fine. But the down time wasn’t good.”
A triple-espresso and a Red Bull had Franklin back to his energetic and chatty self.
“I’m ready!” Franklin said, punctuating his recovery with a couple loud claps. “Watcha got?”
What Penn State’s new coach has is roster whittled down by crippling NCAA sanctions, expectations that might be out of whack after his predecessor’s surprising success, and a fanbase that in some corners is still trying to come to grips with massive changes after decades of stability.
While former Nittany Lions coach Bill O’Brien had a tough time dealing with all that goes into being the face of Penn State in the post-Joe Paterno era, Franklin seems more comfortable with the job.
“I’d love to just sit in a room and draw up plays and Xs and Os and recruit as well, but that’s not what being a college football coach is about,” he said. “It’s everything. It’s getting out and interacting with the fans and the media. It’s talking to alumni. It’s raising money. It’s recruiting. It’s developing the players. It’s reinforcing academics. It’s everything. And my thing is … if you’re going to do it you might as well embrace it. You might as well have fun with it.”
Franklin has been going pretty much nonstop since moving from Vanderbilt to Happy Valley in the middle of January.
The coaches’ caravan is Penn State’s way to connect with its alumni outside of central Pennsylvania, and an opportunity for Franklin to rally support from fans still scarred from the collapse of Paterno’s regime under the weight of the Jerry Sandusky child-sex abuse scandal in 2011.
O’Brien did a remarkable job navigating a tough situation. He became Penn State coach without knowing the school would get hammered by the NCAA with a four-year postseason ban and huge scholarship losses.
O’Brien held the team together, and guided it to 15 victories. Still, those loyal to Paterno made it tough for O’Brien to feel as if he had the full support of the Penn State community. And the many Penn State fans and alumni who did back O’Brien didn’t trust the leadership at the school above him.
After two years of trying to help heal Penn State, O’Brien left for the NFL.
Now the job is Franklin’s. Part of it is the caravan, where he is trying to inject Penn State with the enthusiasm he brought to Vanderbilt.
“At Vanderbilt you were trying to get people to become fans of the local team,” said Franklin, who went 24-15 at Vandy, the best winning percentage for a Commodores coach since the 1940s. “At Penn State, we’re trying to get people that maybe have fallen off the bandwagon to bring them back to being part of the family.”
Attendance at Penn State dipped after the Sandusky scandal. The Nittany Lions drew 96,587 per game last season, which ranks among the best figures in the country. The problem is Beaver Stadium holds more than 107,000. Selling those extra 10,000 tickets is important to the athletic department’s budget.
“(At Vanderbilt), we were trying to sell out a 40,000-seat stadium, which they’d never really sold out,” Franklin said. “Here we’re trying to go to from 95,000 to 107,000. I guess my point is the same message and the same beliefs and the same philosophies are still there. It’s just a little bit different.”
On the field, this is the season the sanctions will really start to sting Penn State. There is so little depth on the offensive line that two defensive linemen were converted and immediately moved to the top of the depth chart.
The presence of sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who threw for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns last season, should help, but Franklin acknowledges it will be a challenge for his staff to hide the team’s deficiencies.
Optimistic by nature, Franklin’s biggest challenge is to get people excited for Penn State football, while not driving up expectations that could already be unrealistic coming off O’Brien’s unexpected success.
He admits it’s difficult, but he is putting it on himself.
“I know this sounds funny,” Franklin said, “but we have 107,000 fans at the game, I want to have an intimate personal relationship with every single one of them.”
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