UNIVERSITY PARK — Steve Porter is a senior at Penn State majoring in political science. He’s also part of a special senior class: one that has seen five football coaches in Happy Valley.
Porter views it as an honor.
“I feel like it’s part of history to be here while something like this happened,” Porter said. “To think that my brother went here, and I thought the same coach would have been here when my brother was here — would have been cool.
“Under the circumstances, these changes weren’t exactly the best,” he said, “but it feels like a part of Penn State history is going on.”
Porter’s brother graduated in 2007 and only saw one head football coach, the late Joe Paterno, who led the team for more than 40 years.
For decades, Penn State was a model of stability in college football. From 1918 through 2011, the program had five head coaches, and all but one of them spent at least a decade at the helm.
Since the events surrounding the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Penn State has had five football coaches, either full-time or interim: Paterno, Tom Bradley, Bill O’Brien, Larry Johnson and the just-hired James Franklin.
For some students, such as senior biobehavioral health major Maddie Rae, Penn State’s history and the number of coaches it has been through doesn’t really matter.
What matters is the future, she said.
“I didn’t grow up watching Penn State football, so for me, whether it was JoePa or someone else didn’t matter,” Rae said. “The way it happened was a bit upsetting. But in the end, I think we have a really good guy who is coming in, who is a class act and invested in the program.”
For others, the turnover has given them a new perspective on the football program.
“I’ve been a fan my entire life so, for me, it was really unexpected because the constant change has been so far from the norm,” said Megan Carr, a senior labor studies and employment relations major. “What it made me realize most is that Penn State football isn’t just a sport here, it’s a huge part of the culture.”
The university’s board of trustees fired Paterno on Nov. 9, 2011. Bradley finished the 2011 season as interim coach, then was passed over for O’Brien, who was hired Jan. 7, 2012.
O’Brien coached the Lions for two seasons and left for the NFL on Dec. 31. Johnson stepped down last week to join the Ohio State staff.
Now Franklin has the job.
Brian Prewitt, a senior crime, law, and justice major and a drummer in the Penn State Blue Band, said some students are worried that Franklin will be at the helm for a short time and that the university will be searching for yet another head coach in the next few years.
“I’m very concerned about him leaving in the next five to seven years,” Prewitt said. “If you think about it, I would actually say that Bill O’Brien put it best when he said the NFL is the highest level of coaching in the football world, and that every human being has an intrinsic drive to be the best at their job that they can be.
“If James Franklin gets a chance to coach at the highest level of football, I think it’s probably going to be hard for anyone to turn it down,” Prewitt said. “I mean, Joe Paterno came within minutes of not turning it down (in the early 1970s). Anyone has the weakness for the NFL.”
Eric Sion is a senior majoring in print journalism and an organizational officer with Nittanyville, Penn State’s student organization that camps out before every home football game.
Sion is optimistic that Franklin won’t use his time in Happy Valley to make himself more appealing to other places.
“I don’t think Franklin will use Penn State as a steppingstone, not as much as O’Brien did,” Sion said. “Maybe a little bit later, in the future, depending on if he has a lot of success, maybe. But it’s a lot different from O’Brien.
“O’Brien made it clear that he wanted to be an NFL head coach. Franklin, he’s been at Maryland, and the job that he did at Vanderbilt was amazing. He’s more outgoing, more transparent than O’Brien, more available, so I think that bodes better for a college coach.”
Franklin has said he wants to be in Happy Valley for more than a few seasons.
“We’re coming here with the mindset that we’re going to build this program,” Franklin told reporters at his introductory press conference on Jan. 11. “...Wearing these colors, representing this state, representing these high school coaches and the people of the fine state of Pennsylvania is what I want to do for a very, very long time.”
Penn State may lose Franklin one day, and the university will go through the process of finding its next football coach. If the next search is anything like its past two, Prewitt said, he thinks that students in the future will enjoy the experience.
“It’s definitely the most exciting time to be here as far as the football program goes,” he said, “outside of winning a national championship.”
Bill DiFilippo is a Penn State journalism student.