UNIVERSITY PARK — Sean Spencer couldn’t sit down.
While his fellow assistant coaches parked behind the name tags at their assigned tables last Friday, the new Penn State defensive line coach wasn’t about to be caged.
What else would you expect from someone nicknamed Coach Chaos?
Spencer was one of eight assistant coaches named to new Nittany Lion head coach James Franklin’s staff and it didn’t take Spencer long to distinguish himself from the group.
The 33-year-old former Clarion player is boundless energy. That’s why he couldn’t sit down.
And that’s why Franklin brought Spencer with him from Vanderbilt.
“You're going to see the type of impact this guy has on the team as a whole in terms of bringing energy and relating really well with the players,” Franklin said to the assembled media.
Spencer isn’t bashful about what he brings to the practice field and locker room. His pregame pep talks were renowned for firing up the Commodores and can be seen on YouTube.
He already has a message for the Nittany Lion players.
“They can’t match my intensity,” said Spencer. “Every day I want them to go out on the practice field and try to match my intensity. It’s going to start in the meeting room when I start getting fired up talking about the game of football and about the plays for that week. And when we go out to practice, I’m going to expect by the end of practice for me to be exhausted and for them to be exhausted or we didn’t have a good practice.”
But that’s not the only message Spencer wants to send to the Nittany Lions. He wants them to know how much he cares.
“I really like to keep it loose with my guys,” said Spencer. “They’ll come in and tell me funny stories and some stories that I actually don’t want to hear. They’ll tell me things and will feel so comfortable coming to talk to me. I always tell them, ‘Let me know how your day was.’
“These guys got so many other things going on. You want them to be focused, but you better listen to them when they’ve got a problem. You might not want to get on that kid when something is going on at home. ... The whole thing is having the guys buy into who you are and letting them know they can trust you. It’s all about trust, man and developing a family atmosphere. We’re going to get after them. It’s easier to get after somebody you know than somebody you don’t. It’s not going to be patting them on the back all of the time.”
Spencer marvels at his status in the game. He was a three-year starter at safety for Clarion.
After graduation, he took a job as running backs coach at Shippensburg University. It was there where he first came across Franklin, who was shaking the bushes for recruits at East Stroudsburg.
“I looked at him the other day and said, ‘Hey, you’re the head coach at Penn State.’ And he goes, ‘Well yeah, you’re the D-line coach at Penn State,’” Spencer said. “We just kind of laughed it off, but it’s pretty powerful. It’s like surreal.”
Spencer has had eight more jobs since that two-year stint recruiting players in the PSAC, but the experience had a lasting effect. Being one of the have-nots makes you appreciate more what its like to be one of the haves.
“At Shippensburg, I didn’t have a cell phone,” Spencer says with a chuckle about his time there in 1996 and 1997. “What we would do was pull over and use your state calling card and dial up the high school coaches at pay phones at a Sheetz after you got your MTO. I would say, ‘I’m 10 minutes away. Where do I turn?’ I remember a guy at York High School said, ‘Turn down by June-June’s house.’ I was like like, ‘I don’t know who June-June is, so I don’t know if I can turn there.’”
“You learn to hustle. When it starts to get easier, the more resources you have. But you’ve still got the competition. Not only are you going after the guy, but Ohio State and Alabama is going after the guy. You’ve got to step your game up.
“I really think that made me what I am today as a recruiter. I didn’t mind the hustle. That’s what it is all about — to find the kid and then it’s all about relationships.”
His connection with Franklin manifested itself many years later. Franklin, then the offensive coordinator at Maryland, and Spencer, a defensive line coach at Bowling Green, were speaking at a coaches clinic in Pittsburgh. Spencer offered to give Franklin a ride to meet some family members.
The tone of the drive began to turn suddenly when Franklin turned down the radio and began to quiz Spencer.
“I think he was interviewing me in the car basically for the Vanderbilt job that he wasn’t going to get for another year,” said Spencer. “I was like, ‘These are some weird questions. I thought we were buddies, man. Why are you asking me about this?’”
But Spencer knew something significant happened that day.
“I think that day got us back to where we are now,” he said. “I said where one day when this guy becomes a head coach he better pick up the phone. I didn’t have to call him. He called me and it was awesome.”
At Vanderbilt, Spencer helped deliver a defensive line that was a part of the Commodores’ resurgence. In three seasons in the toughest league in the country, Vanderbilt racked up 86 sacks and finished among the nation’s Top 25 in total defense.
He hopes to have the same impact at Penn State and knows he will be under some scrutiny. Former Nittany Lion assistant Larry Johnson sent multiple players to the NFL and is now at Ohio State.
“Our focal point will be to be the best defensive line we can in this conference and the nation,” Spencer said.
Johnson was also known for being a heavy hitter on the recruiting front. Spencer can’t wait to wear his Nittany Lion gear on recruiting trips. He’s already seen the excitement in the program, having watched his Twitter account grow by more than 3,500 followers before his hiring was made official.
“We have a process,” Spencer said of recruiting. “We know where we want to go. We want to take this team to national prominence as it has been been before. We’re really just waking up the echoes because the infrastructure is here. We’re ready to go.
“I have tremendous respect for what this program has done,” he added. “It’s powerful. There are times it can get emotional. You look around and like, ‘I’m a coach at Penn State and that’s pretty cool.’”
Cool is one thing, but being Coach Chaos is another.
He got the nickname from new Nittany Lion strength coach Dwight Galt. He even has Chaos on his business cards and in his Twitter handle.
He’s admitted the nickname could be scary and even a little weird, but that’s not what he’s about.
“It’s just maximizing the energy every day,” Spencer explained. “I’m a fired up guy. I love the game of football. I love coaching kids and helping young men reach their goals. I never have a bad day. If I do, I pick myself up.
“There’s so many other things that go on in the world, I think there’s nothing wrong with being happy every day. It’s harder to have a bad day than it is to have a good day.”