James Franklin stood before a crowd of more than 200 on Monday afternoon, dressed in his trademark blue tie, and told them returning to 85 scholarships last season wasn’t the biggest difference-maker for his Nittany Lions.
It wasn’t the emergence of quarterback Trace McSorley. Or the way the front-seven came together, either.
“Probably the biggest difference, to be honest with you, was we owned our locker room for the first time,” he said during the first stop of the Penn State Coaches Caravan. “We had 100 percent buy-in to how we were doing things.
“And I know you’re probably saying, ‘Well, how come it wasn’t 100 percent buy-in the first two years?’ It’s hard; our program has been through a lot.”
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Franklin said at the time, back in 2014, that it took a few months to knock down the proverbial wall between himself and his players. But that wasn’t the entire truth. Some upperclassmen continued to resent his decisions to start “his” recruits over more-experienced players. Others weren’t fans of his coaching style.
But Franklin said Monday, inside the gymnasium at Penn State York, the atmosphere last season had changed for the better. That was evidenced by the Nittany Lions’ success — an epic comeback win over Wisconsin for the Big Ten championship, a berth in the Rose Bowl and some late Heisman chatter over Saquon Barkley.
“We probably weren’t the most talented team in the Big Ten this past year,” Franklin acknowledged. “But we played harder than everyone else. We played smarter.
“We played together as a family.”
Contract extension ‘moving along’
Athletic Director Sandy Barbour said Monday that a contract extension with Franklin is “moving along,” although the two have not yet come to terms on a revised deal.
Franklin is in the fourth year of a six-year deal, and he’s scheduled to make more than $4 million this season.
“Stay tuned,” Barbour said. “It’s moving along. ... There’s no pressure or hurry from either Penn State or from Coach Franklin.”
NFL draft and leaving early
Franklin has often said in the past that, unless a player is designated as a first- or second-round draft pick, that he should stay in school for his final season of eligibility. So does that mean that redshirt junior defensive end Garrett Sickels made the wrong decision since he went undrafted?
Well, Franklin said, that’s still not a simple answer.
“What all the data tells me is that you shouldn’t really leave early unless you’re going to be a first- or second-round draft choice,” he said. “But, again, that’s when everything is even and there are no other factors. But life is not like that. There are so many other variables that go into these things that people on the outside, a lot of people judge — and I’m not talking about Garrett, I’m talking general — a lot of people judge and make statements, but it’s impossible to do that because you don’t have all the information.
“You don’t know what’s going on personally, you don’t know what’s going on professionally, in these people’s lives, these kids’ lives, their families’ lives.”
Franklin fielded two questions from the audience, and one addressed whether the Nittany Lions could ever wear a different kind of uniform during Homecoming. Franklin laughed, saying he gets that question all the time.
Some think an homage to the first Penn State colors, pink and black, might make for an interesting breast-cancer awareness game.
“We have talked about doing some other things with our uniforms,” he said. “I do think we have some things in our history that are special. We have had a number on our helmet, we have had a stripe on our pants, we have worn different-color shoes, we’ve had different-color facemasks.
“So I think there’s a way, maybe sometime in the future, that we can do something with our history and with our past and put it all together. That’s something we’re still looking at.”