Penn State’s James Franklin has been coaching football for more than two decades, with most of that time spent at the college level. So the experience of the initial arrival day for true freshmen is nothing new to him.
But when most members of the Nittany Lions’ Class of 2016 arrive in Happy Valley for good this weekend, it will be something very new for them.
Some rolled into town Friday night. Some arrived Saturday morning. Parents will be on hand. High school girlfriends may be there, too.
Franklin will welcome them all in a special meeting in Penn State’s Lasch Building Squad Room Saturday morning. And he has a pretty good feeling of how things will go.
“That is one of my favorite days of the year,” Franklin said in a meeting with the media in the very same Squad Room Thursday afternoon. “You have kind of every extreme. You have guys that are excited. You have guys that are scared to death. You have moms that are excited to get ’em out of the house to stop paying the food bills. You have moms that are crying. And when the mom starts crying, the son starts crying — the dad tries not to cry.”
Then he dropped this gem.
“There will always be a percentage of them that will come with their girlfriends,” Franklin said. “I’ll always look at them and say, ‘I hope you enjoyed the last six months or three years or whatever, because your relationship has no chance of surviving.’ The parents laugh. The guy laughs. The girlfriend usually doesn’t laugh a whole lot.”
Though arrival day can indeed be stressful, over the long haul things usually work out for the young athletes. For Franklin, the initial meeting and first week on campus help set a solid foundation for the rookies.
“It’s an exciting day,” he said. “They’ve worked so hard to get here. I usually have a meeting in (the Squad Room) and go through all of the things that are important to me, things that I think are important to them and their families. And I go through all of the things that I think they should expect as freshmen — positives and challenges — and try to educate them on some of the mistakes others have made so hopefully they don’t go through that.”
After Franklin’s Saturday morning talk, the newcomers and their families spend part of the day meeting with a lot of the program’s support personnel, including strength coach Dwight Galt and the equipment staff. Then they get room and roommate assignments, and all move in their stuff at the same time.
Next, more bonding-type events, including group photos and head shots for the media guide. The group shots, as we’ve seen in the past, are taken at different areas around campus — such as the Nittany Lion Shrine and Beaver Stadium.
In the past, Saturday has typically ended with dinner at a local restaurant for the freshmen and their families. And after that, moms, dads, sisters, brothers and … yes … girlfriends said goodbye as the newbies headed back to their rooms for their first official night as Penn State football players.
We’re told campus life and academics are the primary focuses for the freshmen Sunday, including everything from talking to administrators to learning how to actually get to all of their classes.
“We have people come in and talk to our players about healthy relationships. We have people come and talk to our guys about drugs and alcohol. So we try to do all of these different things with them.”
“Most of them will take six credits,” Franklin said. Sure, the process of showing them where to go for a couple of classes is not overly complicated. But as large as the University Park campus is — and given the variety of backgrounds of the freshmen — getting them pointed in the right direction (literally) is important.
This happens when there are very few people on campus. Keep in mind that classes for PSU’s second summer semester do not start until Wednesday. With that in mind, there is a lot of time for the freshmen to hear from many speakers on many topics.
“Media training for the freshmen,” Franklin said, giving an example of what the freshmen will hear. “We have people come in and talk to our players about healthy relationships. We have people come and talk to our guys about drugs and alcohol. So we try to do all of these different things with them.”
This year, one of the highlighted speakers is a guy who knows a lot about being an outstanding football player and student at Penn State — current Baltimore Ravens’ offensive lineman John Urschel. During his playing days with the Nittany Lions, Urschel was a two-time Academic All-American and a Hall of Fame Scholar-Athlete.
But not even a brainiac like Urschel has the sort of feel for freshman orientation that a veteran like Franklin does. The coach has a pretty good idea of what he’ll see from the new players and their parents.
Not to mention the girlfriends. Franklin admits there have been a few times in which he has been proven wrong on that front.
“But over 22 years,” he said, “it usually doesn’t work out well.”