On Jan. 11, 2014, James Franklin sat down at the Beaver Stadium media room dais for the first time, wide-eyed, donning a suit, tie and a baby-blue pocket fold as he was introduced to the Penn State community.
One thousand twenty-five days later, Franklin found himself in the same spot in the Beaver Stadium media room.
But during his 35th weekly press conference as head coach, Franklin, relaxed wearing a blue Penn State hoodie, assessed the program he set up for excellence during that Jan. 11, 2014, address.
“We’ve been taking steps, positive steps, for three years ... It kind of keeps progressing,” Franklin said Tuesday. “I think we’re still kind of right on schedule.”
A month ago, others thought differently. After four games this season, Penn State sat at 2-2 with losses to Pittsburgh and Michigan fresh. Frustrations with Franklin and his tenure spread like wildfire across Penn State Twitter, and several — in and outside the community — called for and expected a coaching search come this offseason.
You never truly know what you’re getting yourself into when you take on a new responsibility, a new job. There were just some things that I didn’t completely understand until coming here.
James Franklin, Penn State head football coach
But these past four weeks have quieted those critical voices. The Nittany Lions rebounded against a sneaky Minnesota team, throttled Maryland, upset then-No. 2 Ohio State, and cleared the trap-game hurdle by embarrassing Purdue. Riding a four-game winning streak, ranked No. 20 in the AP Poll, and barreling toward a possible 9-3 or 10-2 record, the script has flipped on Franklin’s pivotal third year at the helm.
So what changed from the 49-10 drubbing at Michigan, to the second-half turnaround against Minnesota? What’s clicked with the Nittany Lions?
“I don’t think it’s one moment or one thing or one game,” Franklin said. “It’s just been kind of the process, sticking to our plan, believing in one another, building trust and relationships and an identity.”
Franklin’s ceaseless optimism, combined with Joe Moorhead’s offensive scheme, is unfamiliar territory. Never before has a Nittany Lion offense, for better or for worse, embodied what Moorhead has brought to the table.
That addition is only a part of what Franklin has tried to forge, and he understands it’s not what many are accustomed to around State College.
“Maybe it’s different than what it’s been in the past,” the head coach said. “That’s been our challenge for three years: building that identity, embracing it, and having fun with it.”
When Franklin first arrived at Penn State, among other things, he stressed winning football games in his introductory press conference.
Before this four-game winning streak, that aspect was often questioned. The Nittany Lions were 6-11 against Big Ten opponents in Franklin’s tenure prior to Penn State’s electric October.
He didn’t imply that those goals of winning would’ve changed, but the coach did admit on Tuesday that perhaps the difficulties he and his staff would later endure were greater than he ever expected.
“As much homework as you do, as many studies as you do, you never truly know what you’re getting yourself into when you take on a new responsibility, a new job,” Franklin said. “There were just some things that I didn’t completely understand until coming here.”
What exactly were those things?
“Whenever you take over a new program and you have a different philosophy, there’s a transition to that,” Franklin said about taking over the job from Bill O’Brien. “Whenever you have some of the challenges that we’ve had, there’s some challenges with that. Whenever you have a community and a fan base that has really high expectations because of the traditions and history that we have, when you combine all those things together, it can create some challenges.”
Both on and underneath the surface, it seems like those challenges are starting to vanquish. Penn State has had access to a full complement of scholarships, the Nittany Lions earned Franklin a signature win two weeks ago, and the team is ranked for the first time since 2011.
Between the tortoise and the hare, Franklin’s Nittany Lions have been the former. But more than 1,000 days into his tenure, the head coach is happy with the direction in which the program is going.
“We’re taking steps every single day, a lot of steps that I don’t think are necessarily seen by fans or the media,” Franklin said, “but we see it every day in our locker room, we see it every day out on the practice field, when it comes to community service, when grades come out, things like that.
“There’s been steady progress all along, maybe not as fast as some people would have liked, but it’s really been pretty steady.”