Penn State Football

Penn State football turns to old traditions with new heights in mind

CDT photo

At around 8:30 a.m. Thursday, a Penn State Athletics staff member sat behind a computer, or on a tablet, or maybe even on a cellphone, and changed a photo on the official Penn State football Twitter page.

It was a picture of a player in a No. 1 jersey — with no name on the back.

Two hours later, the announcement came: A 125-year tradition, halted in 2012 to honor players’ loyalty to a program gasping for air under immense scrutiny, would return.

This season, players will wear nameless jerseys.

“I’ve thought about this from day one,” said head coach James Franklin Thursday afternoon. “I just thought that year one (of his coaching tenure) wasn’t the right time to make this decision. There had been so much change and so much turnover in a short period of time.”

As the fifth head coach of the Nittany Lions in 27 months, he’s not wrong.

Things have changed outside the program, too. The race for flashier uniforms, or new helmet designs or custom cleats slowly trickles from the West Coast across the country. Social media has changed the way the games themselves are watched and how players are recruited. Things move fast, a snappy marketing platform emerges at a different university every day, and any speck of information gleaned by anybody about a team is released as fast as a set of thumbs can twiddle across a keypad.

So keeping this idea a secret, this goal of returning to the school a facet of deeply set tradition as the nameless jerseys are, as it slowly manifested itself behind Penn State’s sports marketing department, was important. Shockingly, it wasn’t leaked.

“I was amazed it stayed quiet,” Franklin said. He didn’t even tell the players it was officially a go until late Wednesday night, and even then, some knew before others.

He told a small group of seniors and a few others, namely the six who remain from 2011. These are players who proudly did not jump ship: Ben Kline, Kyle Carter, Matt Zanellato, Anthony Zettel, Carl Nassib and Angelo Mangiro. They were also a part of the group that first wore names on their jerseys in 2012, a method of loyalty recognition by then-head coach Bill O’Brien.

He also assembled a group of lettermen — he called eight, and they all dropped everything and showed up without Franklin giving them a reason, including Jack Ham, who drove three hours through the night — and told them Thursday morning.

And then, he brought the whole team in on the official change Thursday morning.

“We weren’t really too sure (what was going on), like maybe we were going to get in trouble,” said linebacker Jason Cabinda on Thursday night.

“Our staff found out at 7:30 this morning,” said Franklin. “Our players knew before some of our coaches.”

It wasn’t just an overnight decision, as Franklin did discuss his plan to revert the uniforms with program personnel, but after the announcement, the reaction was immediate.

Excitement swelled, first within State College and then beyond throughout the extensive Penn State network via social media. Franklin said he immediately saw a positive reaction online.

“The way I describe it is, a good portion of our fans dug their heels in and fought when times got tough, and there were some people that distanced themselves,” said Franklin. “And what you hope is that maybe this is another opportunity, another example to pull those people back in and bring our family back together that’s been fractured.”

Players were among the first to voice their thoughts, immediately after the official announcement was made.

“I felt the name on the back of my jersey was to honor the players and for my mother in the stands but, I have always played for the logo on the front,” wrote Mangiro on his Twitter page. Kline simply repeated part of the program’s refreshed mantra: “No names, all game.”

Many, like alumnus and former Big Ten Player of the Year Michael Robinson, expressed happiness with Penn State “going back to basics.”

All of the things Penn State holds dear, said Franklin, are rooted in tradition — “the basics” of Penn State to which Robinson referred. Change, though, he said, is imminent. College football is a changing game, as are the variables around it. The irony that the return of one of the oldest ideals in college football was publicized in part by an announcement on social media and a tech-savvy team of marketing professionals and designers, is inescapable. Penn State football itself has seen great change — rapid, sometimes stifling change, at that.

But, there are some things that will be kept the same. The basics. Black shoes. Basic blues. No names.

“I do think it’s another step in the healing process for us,” said Franklin. Restoring this tradition and history, he said, especially after getting through the scandal and the sanctions that once crippled Penn State, is another step in the right direction for the program.

“The fact that we have tradition to embrace,” he said, “the fact that we have history to embrace, to hold on to, I think is valuable.”