Penn State Football

How James Franklin’s longtime assistants view Penn State’s progress, future

Penn State DC Brent Pry talks continuity, change on staff

Brent Pry is one of four assistant coaches — joining Ricky Rahne, Sean Spencer and Terry Smith — who have been on Penn State’s staff all five years of James Franklin’s tenure.
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Brent Pry is one of four assistant coaches — joining Ricky Rahne, Sean Spencer and Terry Smith — who have been on Penn State’s staff all five years of James Franklin’s tenure.

Penn State defensive line coach Sean Spencer found himself checking the tags of his blue and white clothing last Tuesday, curious how old the day’s ensemble was. Turns out, it was from 2014 — the year Spencer followed James Franklin to Penn State.

“I was like, ‘Wow,’” Spencer said, eyebrows raising at the subtle reminder he’s been at Penn State for five years. “It really just hits you.”

Spencer, of course, isn’t alone. Two other assistant coaches, Brent Pry and Ricky Rahne, carried over from Vanderbilt onto Franklin’s first staff. Meanwhile, cornerbacks coach and defensive recruiting coordinator Terry Smith was hired away from Temple just 15 days after Franklin’s introductory press conference.

Those four are the only remaining assistants from Franklin’s initial gameday staff — the only ones who have seen Penn State’s evolution the past half-decade.

John Donovan? Fired after two seasons. In 2016, former defensive coordinator Bob Shoop left for Tennessee, leading to the promotion of Pry to playcaller. Offensive line coach Herb Hand left for the SEC a day later, and Josh Gattis and Charles Huff did the same in 2017, the latter linking up with Donovan’s successor and Rahne’s predecessor, Joe Moorhead, at Mississippi State.

On Dec. 12, 2015, Moorhead was the first non-2014 hire to join Franklin staff. Offensive line coach Matt Limegrover was hired on Jan. 13, 2016 and safeties coach Tim Banks left Illinois for Penn State five days later. Those three won a Big Ten title with Franklin, Pry, Rahne, Spencer and Smith in that season — but the new trio didn’t first endure the frustrations of back-to-back 7-6 seasons in 2014 and 2015.

Last offseason, Penn State added four new coaches — Tyler Bowen (tight ends), Ja’Juan Seider (running backs), David Corley (wide receivers) and Phil Galiano (special teams) — to its staff. And after the Citrus Bowl, Corley was let go, Galiano left for the NFL, and Gerad Parker and Joe Lorig were brought in to replace them.

In short, Penn State’s staff has undergone significant change over the past three seasons. Since December 2015, the program has experienced 17 hirings, firings and departures on the gameday staff alone. Through it all — as Penn State’s recruiting classes continued to rise from No. 24 nationally in 2014 to No. 6 in 2018, as the Nittany Lions nearly nabbed three consecutive New Year’s Six bowl appearances — Pry, Rahne, Spencer and Smith have been constants.

And when they all gathered on the Lasch Football Building field last week, flanked by fresh faces like Parker and Lorig, they were asked by the CDT about the past five years — and what’s to come for the Nittany Lions.

CDT: Have you had a chance this offseason to reflect on not just what you guys did on 2019, but over the past five years and where you’ve been able to take this program?

Brent Pry: “Not often. You really don’t. You don’t look back much. I think coach has done a good job on occasion, collectively reminding us that we’ve accomplished a lot. If we’re hitting a hurdle or working through adversity, he reminds us of everything we’ve done over five years with these guys, this team. ‘Cause there’s a lot to be proud of. When you lose sight of that, as competitive as we are as coaches, we’re not very patient. He does a good job, I guess, of making sure we do that. But for the most part, it’s day to day. It seems like you’re always competing.”

Terry Smith: “I always reflect, because we need to know where we come from and where we need to continue to grow.”

Ricky Rahne: “Not really. I know that probably sounds bad. But every day you’re trying to get better. You’re not really looking back. The only time you’re looking back is to see what you need to do to get better at, or what did we do back then that I need to re-introduce. Other than that, you don’t have time to look back on those sorts of things. As far as time to reflect, I’ll do that when I retire. Right now, when I have some down time, I’d rather play football, hockey or basketball with my kids, or have a nice dinner with my wife. I’m not going to sit there and self-reflect as much as self-assess sometimes during the season.”

Sean Spencer: “I think for us, this has been great, a great run. We believe in James. James believes in us. All three of us (Spencer, Pry and Rahne) have gotten a promotion since we’ve been here. I love this community. I love this school. I love what it’s all about. I’ve had plenty of opportunities to leave, and I’ve chosen to stay because I believe in what we’re doing. Our quest is to be the best team in the nation, and I think we can do that someday.”

CDT: What has changed from when you first walked through the Lasch Building doors in 2014?

Brent Pry: “We’re making strides to put this program in position to be one of the best in the country on an annual basis. It takes a lot from a development standpoint, from a resource standpoint, from a facility standpoint, growing these players, understanding the schemes, coaching continuity — it takes a lot. But we’re chipping away. We’re making strides. And everyone believes we’re heading in the right direction. It just takes a lot of work. It’s not easy to get into that next niche. We battle that on the recruiting front. You walk in any high school in the country, and you’re immediately in the conversation with the best players. ... There’s a change there.”

CDT: Sometimes veteran players call themselves “old heads” if they’ve been around for a while. Would you consider yourself an old head?

Ricky Rahne: “No, no, because the guys on the staff have coached so much ball. Ultimately, it’s all the same. We might have a few more years of experience with Coach Franklin — might clarify something Franklin says in a staff meeting. He may brush over something because he’s said it 100 times, and I recognize, ‘Oh we have a new guy in here. Let me explain to him what that meant.’ We’ve done camps together for a long time now. That doesn’t mean Gerad Parker has been doing camps with him for that long. Just things like that.”

Brent Pry: “No! No, no, no. That’s one thing: We have a great time. We keep it fresh. We have a lot of fun. Do we feel maybe a sense of closeness, the nine or 10 of us who have been with James since Vanderbilt? Since Day 1 there? Yeah, we’ve seen more and done more together. But it’s great. The new additions to the staff have been awesome. They’ve enhanced our staff, our recruiting, our ideas and our development of our guys. So sometimes change is good.”