LOS ANGELES — It’s been a long time since Penn State played in a football game as big as the Rose Bowl.
Sure, the upset of Ohio State and the Big Ten championship were important games this season, but the Rose Bowl reaches beyond the sport’s typical viewers.
What’s most important as the excitement and attention around the program has increased, is that coach James Franklin has kept his players focused on the task at hand. Franklin’s approach to rebuilding the program has not only helped his players find success on the field, but they all have also represented the university well along the way.
This will be the first time Penn State has played a game of this magnitude since the details of former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky’s serial sexual abuse of children were revealed late in the 2011 season and the severe NCAA sanctions that followed.
Penn State fans are ecstatic to see the program competing at this level again. The school sold 20,000 tickets to this game in about an hour. The contingent of white-clad Penn State fans at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game filled more than half of the stadium.
What are the casual fans going to think Monday when the Nittany Lions face USC in Pasadena? Some people around the country are never going to forgive the school and the program for what happened, or remain skeptical of what has changed in State College.
Penn State coach James Franklin knew when he took this job there would be challenges unlike anything he’s experienced in running a program. Franklin has done what he can to keep his team focused through a season that included an unpleasant start and then an enormous injection of outside expectations after beating Ohio State and returning to national prominence.
He’s also done what he can to keep the focus from the outside on his players and this 2016 team. At a place with the recent history Penn State possesses, that was probably the only way he could help his team and his program move forward.
“I think Coach Franklin has done a great job since he got here,” Penn State junior wide receiver Chris Godwin said. “He and the other coaches have always preached that we can help make a better future. What happened in the past, we can’t control that. We weren’t here for that. All we can do is take what we have control of and do the best we can to help move forward.”
Talking about the past at Penn State is a complicated thing for anyone, but especially for the 18-to-22-year-old kids who play football there. There are two separate entities: One is the scandal, and the other is the NCAA sanctions that followed.
Franklin’s message to his players about control is echoed by many of them when the past comes up in conversation. At least with the media, it doesn’t come up very often.
“I still get asked questions from people back home, people in town,” fifth-year senior Malik Golden said. “Why did I come here? How do I like it?”
There was a celebration for past football achievements before and during halftime of a game this season against Temple. It could have been a big distraction for the team. People from around the country didn’t see it as a good look for the school or the program.
Franklin steered everything directed at him away from the event and back to this team and his players. Throughout the week, he said those decisions were made by people above him and he was focused on Temple.
It was what he could do to help his players not get distracted by the situation. He practiced what he preached.
“We’ve taken the approach that you control what you can control,” fifth-year senior center Brian Gaia said. “We can’t control what the media says or any of the sanctions that we had to deal with. We could control how hard we try, and how we prepare and how we act.
“We have been focused on the present and the future. Controlling what we can do now to make things better in the future. That has been the approach. Making Penn State what it is going to be, not what it is or what it was.”
There’s nothing this team or these players can do to erase what happened, and no amount of success on the field will, either. The players on this team can just continue to do what they can. Stay out of trouble, and represent the university and the program both on and off the football field to the best of their abilities.
Since Franklin arrived at Penn State — and for Bill O’Brien before him — the players have done just that. Franklin spoke about the core values Penn State’s players are expected to adhere to at a Rose Bowl news conference on Saturday.
Those values allow players to have success on the football field, but also beyond it. And they’re simple.
- Have a positive attitude.
- Have a great work ethic.
- Be willing to sacrifice.
When it comes to the playing football part, this Penn State team obviously has bought into his message. When a group of 100-plus young people are involved, it is always a fluid situation, but to this point in Franklin’s tenure, they are also heeding it off the field as well.
“He’s just been such a good coach at developing us as young men,” fifth-year senior defensive end Evan Schwan said. “That has been a huge part of why we are developing this legacy. Coach Franklin always talks about representing yourself and Penn State.
“Everywhere we go, we try to leave there with people having a positive impression of us. We get that. We got good feedback from staff at the stadiums we play at, and especially the staff at the hotels we stay at, complementing our manners. I have a lot of pride in that, because as a senior and being on my way out, I know Penn State is in good hands.”
The football team has withstood the disadvantages of NCAA sanctions and returned to having great success on the field in 2016. Franklin and his staff have continued to recruit players at a high level, which will likely help ensure future success as well.
Moving past the sanctions is one part of the deal. There is no level of success achievable off the field to fully move past the scandal, no finish line or end date to that process.
Future players and coaches will face the same scrutiny and expectations. To this point, the players on the 2016 team have done their part. They have focused on controlling what they can control.
And that’s good.
“Unfortunately I’ve been part of some teams where we’ve been very, very good but they didn’t always show as the best representatives off the field,” assistant coach Tim Banks said. “That’s not been the case here. We have a close-knit team. These kids understand our core values. We respect everyone within the community, and I think everyone takes it heart that we are part of a family here. Not just with football, but academically and socially.”