Twenty-three years ago, almost to the day, a member of the Penn State football staff was asked about the potential of the Nittany Lions’ just-signed recruiting class, which many analysts were calling the best in the nation. His answer?
“We’ve had classes in the past that weren’t that highly touted and did OK with them. Who knows if this class will be as good as people are predicting?”
That quote did not come from Joe Paterno, who was famously reluctant to discuss recruits, even—or maybe especially—when they were really good. On Wednesday, James Franklin held a press conference specifically to discuss—in great detail—his just-signed 2014 class; it was part of a day-long celebration of National Signing Day that culminated with the “Signature Event” at the BJC, and for long-time Nittany Lion fans, it’s hard to imagine a more extreme departure from the past.
Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad thing.
The hyper-modern, media-friendly, viral-ready approach is part of what helped Franklin transform Vanderbilt from SEC doormat to top-25 program almost overnight, and there’s no reason to think he’ll change it now. On Wednesday, the public manifestation of that philosophy took place at the BJC: A few thousand white-clad students and fans braved slick roads to enjoy a warm up by the cheerleaders and Blue Band before Franklin joined LaVar Arrington ’00 at center court. There, the Linebacker U. legend introduced the name of each recruit before Franklin expounded on their size and athleticism and shared anecdotes about the recruiting process, all while their high school highlights played on the scoreboard video screen. (The program’s five early enrollees, on campus since last month, were introduced in person; as you can see above, they got some time on the video board, too). It was like nothing Penn State fans were used to, and those in attendance seemed to love it.
As for recruiting: The idea that, as Franklin likes to say, “Good players make the plays work better,” is hardly a new one in college football. But the battle to beat your rivals to 4- and 5-star recruits has become a sport of its own, and Franklin clearly understands the value of not only recruiting well, but celebrating that success. On Wednesday, he addressed it as soon as he sat down for his press conference. “We finished 23rd overall nationally,” Franklin began, “and we finished third in the Big Ten, which I’m not really happy about. But we’ll get that figured out.”
The message was clear: No matter the game, Franklin isn’t playing for third place. Still, there was evident pride in pulling together a highly rated group—most recruiting services placed Penn State in the top 25 of their national rankings—especially given the quick turnaround required of the new staff, and the NCAA sanctions that still limit how many players Penn State can sign. “We still have holes in the roster, and we’re not gonna fill all our needs in one year,” Franklin said. Even so, the coach spoke proudly of signing recruits from 14 states, including Florida, California, and Alabama, and of inking a couple of kids who have yet to set foot on campus. It was a testament, he said, to the coaches’ work ethic and ability to build relationships, and to the total experience Penn State has to offer.
Near the end of his press conference, and not long before he made his way over to the BJC, Franklin was asked if he appreciated just how far removed the day’s events were from Penn State’s traditional approach to such things. “I know things have been done different here in the past,” he said. “We’re gonna stay true to who we are, while also being respectful of the past.”
That’s a smart approach, both because Franklin’s pretty good at it, and because—for all the differences—recruiting is something Penn State did well long before James Franklin came to town. That 1991 class, which one of Joe Paterno’s assistants wouldn’t try to predict an outcome for 23 years ago? Ten of the 22 players in that class ended up as NFL draft picks. You can bet that’s the sort of history Franklin respects. And hopes to emulate.
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