Most mornings go the same way for Penn State coach James Franklin as they do for so many other people who aren’t spending every day trying to chase a national championship in the most high-profile collegiate sport.
Franklin arrives at his office and hops on the internet before the rest of his workday begins. The difference is Franklin isn’t just checking for scores from late-night sporting events or new movie trailers. He’s doing reconnaissance that can shape the future of Penn State’s football program.
“I want to see what other people are doing,” Franklin said last week during the Penn State Coaches Caravan. “Typically, it is the other programs that I have the most respect for. What are they doing? How are they doing it? Does it make sense for Penn State? Is there things that we can learn from it?
“The internet is a tremendous resource, whether it is articles or videos. It can be statistics, analytics studies. Taking the top five teams, or the top four playoff teams — what were the statistics that were consistent with those teams and how do we align with that? I study facilities, ticket sales, attendance — everything. Everything matters, and I want to have an awareness of those things because I want to be an asset and of value to Sandy.”
Sandy is Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour. Franklin arrived in State College in January 2014. Barbour arrived six months later. Together, they are trying to modernize the Penn State football program.
While the Nittany Lions were often very successful on the field before recent NCAA sanctions, the program was not doing much to remain up to date in college football’s modern arms race. Other schools invested huge amounts of resources into facility upgrades, new technology and anything else to make them stand out.
Penn State did not. Franklin has been trying to play catch up.
“We’ve come a long ways,” Franklin said. “When Billy [O’Brien] got the job [in 2012], they were on VHS tapes. That’s true. That’s not an exaggeration. That’s probably the best illustration of how far behind we had fallen. The [football] building hadn’t been touched in 16 years. I’m talking about carpet, paint, wallpaper, the whole deal.”
‘There is a Penn State standard’
Traditions and past success are not enough in college football in 2017. The top programs in the country are constantly looking to up the ante.
There are ways to increase revenue, like stadium upgrades and new alternate uniforms to sell. Most of the plans are part of trying to both lure recruits and help current players maximize their development. Some programs are willing to include wild new amenities, but Barbour made it clear last week that some of that isn’t for Penn State.
“Fortunately, [Franklin] hasn’t asked for a spaceship yet,” Barbour said. “We’re really very much on the same page. We both want to make sure we understand what is out there. We want to understand competitive advantage/competitive disadvantage. There’s no difference there. I think James completely agrees and understands there is a Penn State way. There is a Penn State standard. We as a university have an incredible university, incredible tradition and history of success to use as a launching pad. We don’t need to necessarily have to do glitz to capture attention.
“I spent time at Oregon and in the Pac-12. Their uniforms and their association and relationship with Nike is their thing. Ours is the quality of our institution, the history, the tradition, the success and kind of the iconic nature of what we do backed by our people and the values. I take that as the ultimate compliment for Penn State and our community. That’s what makes us strong.”
There are plenty of other ways to improve the infrastructure of the program. That includes salaries for the assistant coaches. Franklin’s contract was a popular topic last week, but being competitive for assistants’ pay is equally important.
Barbour said “stay tuned” on a contract extension for Franklin. She said Penn State doesn’t need to be the highest-paid staff in the country, but it has to be competitive.
‘We’re looking to be national champions’
Penn State has also made improvements to the Lasch Football Building. There are plans to renovate Beaver Stadium, but that isn’t likely to start in the next five years. All of it is part of the long-term plan to keep Penn State on a competitive level with the top programs in the country.
“We did the lobby, which is beautiful,” Franklin said. “We did most of the auditorium, which is really nice. We did the locker room, which is really nice, and the nutrition part, which is really nice. The whole second floor hasn’t been touched. The meeting rooms. There’s stuff in the indoor facility that needs to be done. The turf outside was supposed to be redone 10 years ago. What you have when you walk through our facilities is stuff that has been redone and is really nice, but then you walk into areas that haven’t been touched in 16 years.
“When do I want these things done? Yesterday. Last year. But it’s a process, and I’m very appreciative of the progress we’ve made and the support we’ve received from our administration and the board and some of our boosters.”
Part of that process is Franklin’s morning research investigations. He said he also talks to other people he’s worked with before and other people “who monitor the business.” There are also visits to see what others are doing.
From that, it becomes an ongoing conversation with Barbour and deputy athletic director Phil Esten about what other programs are doing and what Penn State is, could and should be doing.
Barbour said that conversation can take many forms, from emails to direct messages on Twitter to long talks while hanging out at events like the coaches caravan.
“I appreciate it,” Barbour said. “It is important to understand what your competition (is doing). I think it is most important that we make sure where we are within the conference, but we’re looking to be national champions. National champions in football, national champions in all of our sports. That’s the goal.
“OK, what is Clemson doing? What is Alabama doing? That doesn’t mean we’re going to do it. It doesn’t mean it’s right for us. But there’s an awareness of, ‘OK, here’s what they’re doing. Do we need to combat it from a competitive standpoint or combat it from a recruiting standpoint. If so, is it do what they’re doing, or do something else from a counteractive standpoint?”
‘A very long journey’
Winning the Big Ten championship in 2016 will help. It is part of why Penn State has had a significant increase in season ticket sales. It should lead to more donations from boosters, which will help pay for the amenities and upgrades Franklin wants.
The team is also expected to be a Big Ten and national title contender in 2017. That’s all good for Franklin, the football coach. For Franklin the CEO of the football program, it is really just the beginning.
“There’s a sense of urgency there,” Franklin said. “If we had been pecking away at this for the last 20 years, then no. But the fact that we hadn’t done anything for 15 years, yeah. When we weren’t doing anything for 15 years, other people were. We had fallen behind. That’s why I was pounding the table so hard when I got here. I knew we had fallen behind.
“I feel like we’ve taken one step in a very long journey. For the programs that we want to compete with academically, athletically, socially, spiritually, we’ve still got a long ways to go. We’ve taken one really nice step. It’s going to be scratching, clawing and fighting to get where we want to go.”