Penn State coach James Franklin is a self-prescribed “germophobe.” Given that information, try to imagine how he once navigated being asked for an autograph in a public restroom.
That happened during a previous installment of the Penn State Coaches Caravan. Franklin did not encounter any autograph seekers in the restroom at any of the seven stops on the 2017 tour last week.
That doesn’t mean he didn’t have another unexpected exchange.
“I did get some advice in the bathroom,” Franklin said. “This year, while I was using the restroom, someone recommended running the zone read out of the power-I with both Saquon [Barkley] and Miles [Sanders] on the field. That was an interesting conversation. I understood what he was trying to say — to get Saquon and Miles on the field at the same time. Where it kind of became an interesting conversation is how you do that in the power-I.”
Penn State did not have a coaches caravan last year, but Franklin took part in 2014 and 2015. Those were larger, longer tours — Franklin’s first had 17 stops in four states and Washington, D.C.
Back then, Penn State’s football team was still mired in NCAA sanctions and the aftermath of the worst scandal in the history of college sports. There was so much uncertainty, and it was compounded when Bill O’Brien left after two seasons for the NFL.
Franklin needed this caravan to sell Penn State alumni and boosters on his vision for a way out, a path back to doing more than just surviving on the football field. After two years of pretty similar results to what O’Brien achieved despite increased challenges from roster restrictions and defections, some of the people who attend these caravans were getting restless.
When Penn State started the 2016 season 2-2 with losses to Pitt and Michigan, the restlessness appeared to be getting worse. Then came nine straight victories and a Big Ten championship. Then a wild night at the Rose Bowl in one of the most exciting bowl games in school history.
Now things have changed. Penn State is expected to challenge for the Big Ten title again next season. The crowds that flocked to the coaches caravan were boisterous and filled with pride.
“The message from us will still be the same,” Franklin said at the first stop. “I do think some of the things that went on this year probably got some people excited to come to these types of events. Ticket sales are way up right now. That’s a positive. I think there’s an excitement and an enthusiasm.”
When the Penn State football program was at its lowest point, O’Brien started the process of trying to rebuild credibility and hope for the fan base. His departure could have been the tipping point many people outside of State College expected was coming two years prior.
Had Penn State whiffed on the next hire after O’Brien, the program could have spent years drifting in college football mediocrity or worse.
Franklin and his staff have delivered a winning product on the football field. He’s also proven to be adept at winning over crowds at events like this.
‘I think he’s spectacular at it’
He’s been tasked with something many coaches would try desperately to avoid. Not only did Franklin need to win football games with a depleted roster, he had to help mend a fractured fan base. Winning games on the field is the most important component, but meeting hundreds of fans at various outposts around the region and delivering the message that Penn State is moving forward is also a valuable part of rebuilding the program.
“I think he’s spectacular at it,” Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour said when asked about Franklin’s work at events like this. “I think he’s as good as anyone I’ve seen at all of that. I’ve never met a really good and effective college coach that didn’t just love being around his kids and his guys. That’s what they love to do. The rest of it is all noise around that. But guys like James understand it is part of the job. And he says, ‘I’m going to do it, and I’m going to do it with a lot of enthusiasm,’ and that’s what you get with James Franklin.”
Franklin clearly did not want this caravan to be a victory lap. Sure, the Big Ten championship trophy was on display at all seven stops. There were highlights from throughout the season playing to rev up crowds that were already stoked to celebrate.
His message this year was about work left to do. That this isn’t a time to exhale. For everyone that experienced the scandal and the aftermath firsthand, it would be hard not to.
“That’s in our rearview mirror. We’re moving forward,” Barbour said. “We’re still moving through some sanctions-related practical matters, but those are getting less and less or more minimal every day.”
‘It’s about relationships’
Franklin made it clear that 2016 was just the first tangible step on the path he’s been talking about since he took the job. It also means the questions he fields from fans are a little different.
It’s less about, “How are you going to get good players and compete with Ohio State and Michigan?” and more, “How are you going to use these good players you have to compete?”
Like, for instance, getting Barkley and Sanders on the field together. Franklin is happy to talk about that, though maybe not in a public restroom next time.
“One of the strengths with Penn State is people come and they fall in love with it and never leave and they build relationships,” Franklin said. “With us still being somewhat of a new staff, we still have some work to do there.
“It’s about relationships. For us, the caravan allows us to build relationships that we’re going to need to have moving forward.”