James Franklin Q&A Part 2

I got so much good material from Penn State coach James Franklin when we talked Tuesday that I didn’t want to cut anything out.

So I decided to run a question and answer story, but at over 2,000 words total I figured people probably weren’t going to read a 60-inch Q&A. Instead, I broke it down into two parts. Here’s Part 2 that ran in Friday’s Pocono Record after Part 1 ran Thursday.

Enjoy.

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James Franklin Q&A Part 1

Penn State coach James Franklin was kind enough to give me some time Tuesday … over the span of two phone calls.

I asked him first about speaking at East Stroudsburg University’s graduation Saturday and by the end of his response our connection was going in and out. By the next question I had totally lost him. I called him back and he asked me what was the last thing I heard. I told him not much because he was going in and out too much for me to really get anything. He said that was too bad because he was giving me some of the greatest quotes he’d ever given.

A few minutes later as he gave me a lengthy answer he asked if I was still there. “I’m here, I didn’t want to miss any of these great quotes and you’re on such a roll,” I responded. We both laughed. Fifteen minutes later I had so much good material (and great quotes) that I decided to run a pair of Q&As with the charismatic coach and former standout quarterback at East Stroudsburg University. Here’s a link to Part 1 with Part 2 to come Friday.

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James Franklin is a home-run hire for Penn State

I never posted the column I wrote in Monday’s paper about how good of a hire James Franklin is for Penn State. Well, here it is. Enjoy.

There are home-run hires and then there’s what Penn State got when it tabbed James Franklin as the 16th football of the Nittany Lions.

If you weren’t totally on board with the decision all you should have needed to do to get your full support was to watch Franklin’s hour-plus long introductory press conference Saturday.

From his promise to “dominate the state” in recruiting to acknowledging the what Joe Paterno did at Penn State, Franklin proved why he was so coveted by Penn State when Bill O’Brien bolted for the NFL’s Houston Texans.

I admittedly didn’t know a lot about Franklin. I knew of his success at Vanderbilt, where he had as many nine-win seasons the past two years as the Commodores had had in the previous 121 seasons, and of his local connection as an East Stroudsburg University graduate who was a candidate for the Harlon Hill Trophy in 1994.

I had no idea Franklin was such a charismatic, captivating character. He spoke clearly, with conviction and like a man who has no doubts about who he is, what he wants to accomplish and how he’s going to reach his goals.

That’s exactly what Penn State needs.

As irritated as I was by O’Brien’s departure I knew full well that if he returned to Happy Valley for a third season that rumors of his departure would again dominate the 2014 coaching hot stove. It was no secret that O’Brien had one eye on the Nittany Lions and the other on an NFL head coaching job from the time he arrived in State College.

Some were curious if Franklin would be in the same boat. The Washington Redskins were interested in him, but Franklin put those concerns to bed when he said Saturday that Penn State was his “dream job” and that he planned to be there for a very long time. O’Brien never said anything close to that. He wouldn’t even commit to being there after both of the past two seasons.

That’s not to say that NFL teams won’t chase after Franklin. If he has success at Penn State they’d be dumb not to, but hopefully he will stay true to his word. Everything I’ve read and heard about him leads me to believe Franklin is in this for the long haul and to help Penn State return to the top of the mountain.

It won’t be easy. Not by a long stretch.

While rumors have circulated that the NCAA may further decrease the sanctions it unjustly placed on Penn State it’s certainly not a sure thing. Getting scholarship back was a start, but at the present time the Nittany Lions are still ineligible for the postseason until 2016.

That’s where Franklin’s personality will help.

Get him in a recruit’s living room and I don’t see how a young man and his family could say no. To borrow a line from the movie Tommy Boy, “Franklin could sell a ketchup popsicle to a woman in white gloves.”

Happy Valley was anything but on New Year’s Eve when O’Brien left. There should only be smiles now that Franklin is on the job.


 

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My column on O’Brien leaving

I said I wouldn’t talk about it, but sports editor Mike Kuhns asked me to so here it is. Enjoy.

How should someone with close ties to Penn State react when the football coach lies his way out of town?

That’s exactly what Bill O’Brien did when he went back on his word to current players and those who were verbally committed to Penn State as part of the 2014 recruiting class to take the head coaching job with the Houston Texans.

Commitment, honor and loyalty — words that have always defined Penn State football — were torn up and tossed aside with no regard by O’Brien when news of his agreement with the Texans broke around 10:30 p.m. on New Year’s Eve.

I’ve made no secret about my allegiance to Penn State. I’ve been a fan since 1987 when I watched the Nittany Lions beat Miami to win their second national championship in four years. I’m a graduate of Penn State, doing my first two years at branch campuses before moving to University Park and earning a degree in journalism in 2002. I covered the Nittany Lions in 2007-2008, the last year resulting in a second Big Ten title in four seasons.

I have great memories of Penn State football — Craig Fayak’s late field goal in the upset of No. 1 Notre Dame in South Bend in 1990, Bobby Engram’s touchdown catch that beat Michigan in 1994, Ki-Jana Carter’s 83-yard TD run on the first play of the Rose Bowl in 1995, watching Joe Paterno earn his 300th victory in my first game at Beaver Stadium in 1998, the comeback victory against Ohio State that made Paterno the winningest coach in major college football in 2001, the 2005 Big Ten championship following four losing seasons in five years, and Paterno scolding me once for asking him a question about Mickey Shuler in 2008. There are plenty of bad memories, too — losing to Notre Dame in the snow in 1992, being in the stands as Minnesota kicked a field goal as time expired to beat No. 1 Penn State in 1999, losing 6-4 to Iowa in 2004, and falling to Iowa on another field goal as time expired when the Nittany Lions were No. 2 in the polls in 2008.

But it wasn’t just the success on the field that drew me in.

I was hooked on the nameless, plain uniforms that emphasized team over individual. I was won over by Paterno’s ‘success with honor’ mentality. I loved that Penn State players were expected to do as well in the classroom from Monday to Friday as they were on the football field come Saturday afternoon.

For two years I thought O’Brien was upholding the principles Paterno established during a 46-year exemplary career. When players like Bill Belton and Richy Anderson weren’t allowed to play or practice because they needed to focus on the “academic side of things” I figured that O’Brien was exactly the man Penn State needed.

When the NCAA leveled Penn State with unprecedented sanctions in July 2012, thanks to the shoddy work of Louis Freeh and laziness of Mark Emmert, it was O’Brien — with a huge assist from the likes of Michael Mauti and Michael Zordich — who helped the Nittany Lions from falling apart. Penn State lost only 11 players to transfer and kept most of its top-notch recruits, including quarterback Christian Hackenberg and tight end Adam Breneman, on board because O’Brien said if they stuck with Penn State through the tough times then so would he.

Fast forward 18 months and O’Brien did the exact opposite. His lies to recruits like five-star defensive tackle Thomas Holley, who O’Brien told that talks of a deal with Houston weren’t true and that he’d be there when Holley arrived at Penn State, was a kick to the Penn State community while they were down.

There are no sour grapes. There’s no point. O’Brien did what he thought was best for himself and his family and that’s fine. What he didn’t do was uphold the ideals of Penn State, ones that were firmly in place when he arrived and made it more than just a football program.

 

 

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Next man up

I’m focusing on the future of Penn State.

Dwelling on the past, which includes Bill O’Brien bolting in the dead of night on New Year’s Eve for the Houston Texans despite telling recruits that reports of him leaving Penn State “were not true” and that he’d be at Penn State “when they got there,” is pointless and unproductive.

If there is one lesson those in charge of finding Penn State’s next coach it’s that they better find someone who will stay loyal, committed and genuine. There is no room for annual flirtation with other jobs and no place for the outgoing coach to rip those who had become used the previous coach practicing those same three words (loyal, committed and genuine) over and over and over again for 46 years.

Penn State got the first part of the post-O’Brien era (can we call two years an era?) right when it made defensive line coach Larry Johnson the Nittany Lions interim coach. Johnson, who coached under Joe Paterno starting in 1996, is Penn State’s best recruiter and can provide a calming voice to both the current players and recruits verbally committed for the class of 2014. There will be a push for Penn State to make Johnson the coach for good, but he has never even been a coordinator at the college level. I don’t think the sell would be tough, but Penn State fans who see past the shiny vernier would understand there are better men with head coaching experience out there. But make no mistake, Johnson must be kept on staff. That is not a question at all.

Whether it’s former East Stroudsburg University quarterback James Franklin, former Penn State player and assistant coach Al Golden or ex-PSU assistant coach Greg Schiano, Penn State must find a new coach who will commit to the task at hand, be loyal to his players, the community and the school and genuine with his actions and words. Without ALL of those, Penn State risks going through this situation again and again.

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JUCO defensive tackle signs with Penn State

Junior college defensive tackle Tarow Barney signed a letter of intent Wednesday to continue his football career at Penn State.

Barney, who verbally committed to the Nittany Lions last month, also had offers from Arizona State, Illinois and Kansas State among others. He will enroll at Penn State in January and have three years to play two.

Here’s the release from Penn State:

Penn State has received a national letter of intent from Tarow Barney, a defensive tackle who played the last two seasons at Northwest Mississippi Community College. He plans to enroll in the University in January and will be eligible to play for coach Bill O’Brien’s squad during the 2014 season.

The 6-foot-3, 285-pound Barney led the Rangers with 9.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks during the 2013 season. He started all nine games, recording 36 tackles, forced one fumble and had five quarterback hurries. His 9.5 tackles for loss ranked No. 15 in NJCAA Region 23.

As a freshman in 2012, Barney appeared in all 10 games and compiled 20 tackles (12 solo) and four quarterback hurries. He helped the Rangers to their first bowl victory in 20 years when they claimed the Brazos Valley Bowl, 47-36, over Kilgore College. Barney helped Northwest Mississippi Community College to an 8-2 overall record in 2012.

Barney was the No. 5 defensive lineman and 19th ranked player overall in the ESPN Junior College top 50 rankings.

Barney played one season at Bainbridge High School in Georgia, helping the Bearcats to an 8-2 record as a senior. He was an All-Region honorable-mention selection after posting 55 tackles, six sacks and two forced fumbles.

 

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Backup QB Ferguson will transfer

In a move that should surprise nobody, backup quarterback Tyler Ferguson has decided to transfer from Penn State.

Ferguson, who was 10-for-15 for 155 yards and a touchdown this season, lost a close battle with highly touted freshman Christian Hackenberg for the starting job in preseason camp. Hackenberg went on to throw for the third most yards in a single season at Penn State to go along with 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year.

Ferguson, a junior college transfer from the College of the Sequoias who arrived at Penn State in January, was a four-star prospect who had originally committed to Houston before switching to Penn State. He split reps in spring practice with Steven Bench, who eventually transferred to South Florida. Ferguson will have three years to play two at his next college.

Ferguson’s transfer leaves Hackenberg as the only scholarship quarterback currently on the roster. That will change when four-star prospect Michael O’Connor out of Florida enrolls for the spring semester. Walk-ons D.J. Crook, Austin Whipple and Jack Seymour are also on the roster.

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Two PSU assistants resign

Penn State linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden and quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher have both resigned.

Vanderlinden, who had been at Penn State since 2001, is a bit of a surprise because he’s one of the country’s best linebacker coaches, but head coach Bill O’Brien pretty much coaches the quarterback which made Fisher expendable. Perhaps O’Brien is ready to hire an offensive coordinator now that he has an opening on his staff.

Here’s the release from Penn State with a bit of editing:

UNIVERSITY PARK – Penn State Football coach Bill O’Brien announced today that quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher and linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden have resigned to pursue other opportunities.

“I appreciate all of Ron and Charlie’s hard work and thank them for their dedication and service to Penn State,” O’Brien said. “I wish them well in all their future endeavors.”

Vanderlinden was the Nittany Lions’ linebackers coach since 2001. Fisher was the quarterbacks coach the past two seasons.

“I’ve greatly enjoyed my 13 years at Penn State and all the student-athletes I had an opportunity to work with,” Vanderlinden said. “I wish Coach O’Brien and Penn State nothing but the best in the future.”

“I want to thank Penn State and Coach O’Brien for the opportunity to be a part of the program the past two seasons,” Fisher said. “It was a great experience and I am very proud of what we accomplished. Now I’m looking forward to the next chapter and making a positive impact on the next group of players I have the privilege of working with.”

O’Brien stated he will begin an immediate search to fill the two positions and will not comment on the status of the search until the positions have been filled.

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NCAA restores some scholarships to Penn State

When I got back from breakfast, much to my surprise, there was good news waiting for me about Penn State AND the NCAA.

While the NCAA won’t admit that it overstepped its bounds to begin with, it started that process Tuesday by restoring some scholarships to Penn State that it took away as part of unwarranted sanctions in the wake of the (fact) Freeh Report’s findings regarding Penn State’s handling of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.

Anyone who has actually read the entire Freeh Report (you might get 10 hands raised in a room full of 100 people) and not just the cliff notes version knows much of it relies on conjecture and speculation instead of evidence and facts. That the NCAA used Louis Freeh’s shoddy work (go ask Richard Jewell, Mohammad bin Hammam and Wen Ho Lee how credible Freeh is) to hammer Penn State with unprecedented sanctions instead of doing its own investigation was both lazy and irresponsible (also known as Mark Emmert Syndrome).

NCAA president Mark Emmert cited Penn State’s “continued progress towards ensuring athletic integrity” as one of the reasons for restoring some scholarships (Penn State will be at 75 scholarship players for 2014, 80 for 2015 and the full 85 by 2016), but that was never in question to begin with. The “culture” Freeh and Emmert alluded to when describing Penn State’s football program existed only in their minds and those of countless others who have ignored the facts of the Sandusky scandal and chose to run with a narrative that is starting to crumble.

Those who cling to that narrative will say Penn State doesn’t deserve to have its sanctions reduced. Those people are still furious the NCAA didn’t give the Nittany Lions at least a temporary death penalty if not a full execution. They’ll say Joe Paterno, along with school administrators Tim Curley, Gary Schultz and Graham Spanier, chose the reputation of the football program over the safety of children. You’ll hear how Mike McQueary’s eye-witness account of Sandusky in a shower with a boy (via a mirror for all of three seconds) on the Penn State campus was ignored. They claim a cover-up, initiated by Paterno, was carried out to protect Penn State instead of the most vulnerable of all people (nevermind that one of the prosecutors from Sanduksy’s trial said he found NO evidence of Paterno being involved AT ALL).

So if all of those are true, why is the NCAA reducing a penalty that was issued based on a report that alleged those acts? Paging Louis Freeh, you have some explaining to do. Better put on a few dozens pots of coffee … you’ll be waiting for a LOOOOOONG time to get any answers from Freeh (unless you’d like to show up at his speech in Dallas next month; after reading that release I thought calling Freeh “distinguished” was an insult to  the word distinguished).

When you look at what the scholarship restoration will do for Penn State, it’s simple. It means the Nittany Lions will be able to compete at a national level, both on the field and the recruiting trail, starting in 2014. Penn State will be able to recruit 22 players for this class (quarterback Michael O’Connor and defensive linemen Antoine White both plan to enroll for the spring semester in January which means they’ll count against Penn State’s last recruiting class that brought in 13 players – four of the 17 players who signed enrolled early and counted against the previous class) instead of the NCAA mandated 15 and 25 (the amount all schools are allowed although that doesn’t seem to apply to SEC schools for some reason) for the 2014-15 season. It also will end the days of relying too heavily on walk-ons (some of whom could be given scholarships) and deciding which players are good and which ones are worthy of  a scholarship offer.

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Thoughts on Bench transferring

While the news of Penn State sophomore quarterback Steven Bench’s decision to transfer caught me off guard at first, it makes more and more sense when you think about it.

Bench informed Bill O’Brien of his decision to transfer after O’Brien informed him that junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson will battle incoming freshman Christian Hackenberg, the nation’s top signal caller, this summer for the starting job. And with Ferguson having three years of eligibility left there was little to no chance of  Bench ever seeing meaningful playing time.

Bench’s decision to transfer was a smart one on his part because he will be able to go somewhere and play right away thanks to the ludicrous free agency rules the NCAA implemented when it handed down its ridiculous sanctions last summer in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. There will be no sitting out a year for Bench, who most likely will end up at a southern school.

The fact that Bench didn’t win the starting job coming out of spring practice, where he split first-team reps with Ferguson, wasn’t really surprising. O’Brien was going to give Hackenberg a shot to play this fall no matter how well Bench and/or Ferguson played this spring. The fact that Ferguson is ahead of Bench coming out of the spring is a bit surprising since Bench has been on campus since last June, but Ferguson is bigger, stronger and probably has a bit more natural ability as a thrower than Bench while Bench might hold a small edge in athleticism.

The biggest issue for Penn State is Bench’s transfer, which will happen at the end of the spring semester in early May, leaves the Nittany Lions with just two scholarship quarterbacks. Penn State played all last season with just two scholarship QBs, but just like at many positions the Lions didn’t suffer any injuries that forced an inexperienced player into action. Bench did see some time in the first half against Virginia when Matt McGloin banged his elbow, but McGloin returned in the second half.

What Bench’s departure does do is cement that the Nittany Lions will recruit a quarterback for their 2014 class.

The presence of Hackenberg, who I expect to beat Ferguson out for the starting gig, might scare off some prospects, but any incoming QB will be two years behind Hackeberg assuming that player redshirts as a true freshman. The only available quarterback who has an offer from pro-style prospect Michael O’Connor, a 6-foot-4, 233-pounder who also has offers from Michigan State, Rutgers and Vanderbilt among others. O’Connor is interested in Penn State and that only has to strengthen now there are just two scholarship QBs on the roster.

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