Brian Fairchild was a lot like the other hundreds of alumni and fans who gathered at one of the seven stops on the Penn State Coaches Caravan last week. He’s a proud alum, and he was eager to celebrate the newfound success of the football program with coach James Franklin.
Fairchild is not entirely like most who were in attendance, though. He was a walk-on running back at Penn State who experienced the highs and lows of the Nittany Lions program in the early 2000s.
He is eager to see Penn State find more consistent success, but he’s also probably a little more practical than typical fans.
“My expectations this year are to be at least 10-2, but I also recognize that we aren’t where we will be,” Fairchild said. “I think the expectations for this year should be a showdown with Ohio State for the Big Ten East title. Going forward, ’18 might be a step back, but long-term, the program needs to be right there with Ohio State.
“I do recognize how hard that is. I don’t know if Ohio State has ever been this consistently good.”
Gauging expectations for the Penn State program has not been easy the past few seasons, especially with the scholarship reductions and other struggles in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
When the Nittany Lions stood at 2-2 to start the 2016 season following a loss to in-state rival Pitt and an embarrassing rout at Michigan, it looked like another year of just trying to win seven or eight games and reach a bowl game.
Then Penn State reeled off nine straight wins, toppling No. 2-ranked Ohio State, blitzing the second half of the Big Ten schedule and roaring back to beat Wisconsin after falling behind by three touchdowns in the conference championship game.
A memorable shootout with Southern Cal at the Rose Bowl closed a remarkable return to national relevance. Given the amount of talent and experience returning in 2017, Penn State quickly became one of the top contenders for a Big Ten title and possible College Football Playoff berth next season.
“Our biggest challenge that we have this year is how do we learn from our experiences last year?” Franklin told the crowd at one of the caravan stops. “Going to the Big Ten championship, winning the Big Ten championship, going to the Rose Bowl. How do we learn from those experiences and grow from them but not change who we are? How do we keep that blue-collar, hard-nosed, attention-to-detail [identity] and grow from it now that we’re walking around campus and everyone is patting us on the back and telling us how wonderful we are?
“I’d make the argument that a lot of times when you’re dealing with 18- to 22-year-old males, it is easier to handle adversity than it is to handle success.”
Losing wide receiver Chris Godwin and defensive end Garrett Sickels early to the NFL hurt, and potentially losing top cornerback John Reid for the season with reportedly a major left-knee injury was another blow. Still, the Nittany Lions return potential all-Big Ten players all over the field.
Penn State is second in the Big Ten (behind Indiana) and 27th nationally in returning production, a formula from SBNation’s Bill Connelly that better represents what teams have coming back than just listing returning starters.
Of the 26 teams in front of them, only one is a Power 5 school that won double-digit games last season. At No. 22 is Stanford, which finished 10-3 but might not have its starting quarterback at the start of next season because of a torn ACL.
Various projections for next season have placed Penn State inside the top 10. Land of 10’s latest poll had the Nittany Lions at No. 5. That’s squarely in playoff-contender territory.
“Last year I talked to them about how we didn’t have anyone in that room or on that team that had won a Big Ten championship before,” Franklin said. “So how we do achieve something that no one in this room has done before? OK, now we’ve done that. Well, the next thing is that next goal. And we don’t have anyone in the room that has done that before.
“Whatever we did last year isn’t good enough this year moving forward. It’s always going to be that approach.”
Franklin made it clear during the caravan stops that Penn State still has plenty of work left to do before the program is at the level of the elite ones in the nation. Improved facilities, more high-profile recruiting victories and seasons that show the Nittany Lions were not a one-hit wonder in 2016 are all part of making the success sustainable.
As Fairchild put it, the long-term goal is consistently competing with Ohio State. The Buckeyes have been a national title contender in every season with Urban Meyer, except for the first one when they went undefeated but were ineligible for postseason play.
Measuring up to Ohio State — and Michigan, now that Jim Harbaugh has revived the Wolverines — would put Penn State in a great place nationally. That would give the Nittany Lions chances to reach the ultimate goal.
Or, let’s not call a national championship a “goal.” The ultimate achievement, then.
“I don’t believe in setting goals, because once you reach that goal it is human nature to take a deep breath and say, ‘I’ve arrived.’ There’s no time for that,” Franklin said. “It’s not how I’m wired. It’s not how I came up in this profession. It’s not how I was raised, from my family as well as from coaches.
“It’s like, we’ll get a commitment and as soon as we do, it will feel great for 30 seconds and then I’m already on to the next objective. That’s just kind of how I’m wired. I do know that we were able to achieve some things this year, but I’m already thinking about the next thing we have to do. Where we need to go and where our shortcomings are and what we still have to overcome. I might drive my wife and our staff a little crazy, but I think that one of my greatest strengths is to be wired that way. I think you have to be in this role.”