Penn State's James Franklin is unique among college football coaches in that he admits to reading everything written about his program. He does so, as he has often explained, because he wants to keep tabs on perceptions of the Nittany Lions.
Reports were glowing after the first-year coach led PSU to a 4-0 start. But after two straight losses in which the effects of NCAA sanctions on the program's depth have become glaring, media and fan commentary has not been quite so positive.
I've read less the last two weeks, I'll admit that, Franklin said with a smile following practice at Holuba Hall Wednesday.
It was, by far, his longest weekly post-practice press conference of the season, stretching more than 16 minutes. And in it, Franklin was remarkably candid when addressing his public relations approach to the Nittany Lions' fan base as it continues to heal following the Sandusky scandal and the NCAA sanctions that followed.
Franklin was hired away from Vanderbilt in January, replacing Bill O'Brien. He inherited a roster that, due primarily to the sanctions, now includes only 64 initial scholarship players. Even with five walk-ons having been awarded grants, PSU is still 16 below the NCAA limit of 85 scholarships.
Though he never set specific goals for wins and losses or even predicted where the program will be in a few years, Franklin talked about things like selling out massive Beaver Stadium every game, repairing a fractured fan base and dominating in recruiting.
When he rolled out of the gate with four wins -- and the remaining NCAA sanctions were all but eliminated as that was happening -- the fan base began to see things turning around this year. Then came lackluster losses to Northwestern and Michigan. There was a bye sandwiched between.
And now the Lions are in another bye. So the Nittany Nation has had plenty of time to chew on the poor performances.
That's one of the biggest challenges that I've had since we arrived here, Franklin said. How do we get the fans and everybody engaged and back in the stadium and selling 107,000 (tickets) without setting up false expectations?
And when you have a fan base like us -- 'fan' is short for fanatical -- they're passionate about Penn State, which I love. When things are going well, there's nothing better than that. When you hit a rough spot, that can make it challenging.
“When you have a fan base like us — ‘fan’ is short for fanatical — they’re passionate about Penn State, which I love. When things are going well, there’s nothing better than that. When you hit a rough spot, that can make it challenging.”
Penn State took the occasion of the second bye week to quietly remind beat writers of the issues still facing the program. Such as:
Of those 64 initial scholarship players, four have yet to play this year due to injury. There are only six seniors among the 24 starters, and only one offensive tackle (junior Donovan Smith) is an upperclassman. PSU is the nation's second-youngest team, as 76 underclassmen were on the 105-man preseason roster. And so on.
But Franklin has been reluctant to be too overt in discussing those limitations.
You don't want to be talking about all these things before the season starts because you're tying to get people excited, he said. And then you don't want to be talking about these things after a loss because people think you're making excuses.
The offense was particularly poor in the two losses, owing primarily to a struggling line that included two redshirt freshmen and a converted defensive tackle among the starters. Special teams have been an issue, too. While the defense has generally played well, the lack of scoring (a total of 19 points in the two defeats) has made PSU painful to watch of late.
Franklin understands it's been frustrating for the fans and players. And he has tried to shield the Lions from the criticism, even though he admits that is next to impossible in the age of social media.
His message to everyone?
Focusing on that negative energy is not going to get us where we want to go, he said.
He also told the players he is as much to blame for the losses as anyone, because, I think that's important, that the players see that you're taking responsibility, as well.
There was some typical coach-speak in Wednesday's press conference, too. At one point, Franklin squeezed his fingers together and said, You watch the tape and you come out to practice, and we're that close. And he repeated a theme he began on the Big Ten conference call Tuesday when he said, We're just gonna stay positive. We couldn't be more excited about the direction of the program and where we're going.
But a little later, he added that he was excited about what we're going to be in the very near future.
As for reading less of what is written about his team, well, if Franklin really is cutting back, he still went above and beyond to include the press when talking about the future of the program.
We're all in this thing together. The fans, the media -- whether you guys like it or not -- the students, the community, the former players, the coaches, the current players, he said. Everybody.
As long as we all stay positive and keep working, we have a very bright future.