Playing Through A Pandemic

In a sign of the times, running back Devyn Ford rushed for a touchdown in an empty stadium during Penn State’s 23-7 win at Rutgers last Saturday. It was the first game back for Ford since he missed a game after a death in his family, the latest example of how many players and coaches have made sacrifices and overcome adversity this season. (Photo by Penn State Athletics)

Everyone involved with Penn State football has made sacrifices to ensure this season could be played. Having that opportunity was (and is) critically important to all the players, especially the seniors.

After the fall season was postponed, and then restarted, defensive coordinator Brent Pry was asked if he could tell whether or not the uncertainty was taking an emotional toll on the players.

“Shoot, man, it was wearing on everyone,” he said, laughing a bit, perhaps out of relief that there’d be games. And there have been games. Penn State, in fact, is one of a handful of teams in the Big Ten that has played its entire abbreviated schedule, a testament to how well everyone in the program has adapted and adhered to the COVID-19 restrictions.

Beyond all the challenges that the team is dealing with that are somewhat typical across the country — and believe me, I know using the word “typical” in reference to 2020 sounds bizarre — the Nittany Lions have also dealt with players facing false positive tests during the week, not having all coaches available at each practice, and not enjoying the usual Senior Day recognitions.

At Penn State, families are allowed to be in the stadium but can’t be on the field to share the usual hugs with their sons before the game. It’s a moment that moms, dads, brothers, and sisters have looked forward to for four or five years, and now it’s not going to happen in the way they were hoping.

There has also been heartbreak, as emerging sophomore running back Devyn Ford missed the game against Michigan because of a death in his family. He returned last weekend to help Penn State earn a 23-7 victory at Rutgers, rushing for 65 yards and a touchdown.

“I mean, it’s just like family,” Ford said Saturday after the game, describing what it was like returning to the Penn State football program and receiving feedback from his teammates and coaches.

“They were around me, just consoling me, giving me that love, and I definitely needed it at that time. Everyone faces adversity, so you’ve just got to keep pushing. But it was definitely helpful for them to put their arm around me and be the brothers that they are and be the coaches and the men that they are, actually care for somebody else. It was good.”

Other players have seen COVID-19 hit their families, with running back Noah Cain sharing earlier this fall that multiple family members contracted and overcame the virus. James Franklin said there are other examples of players and people in the program going through adversity behind the scenes. He’s understandably reluctant about sharing details, deferring instead to the players themselves to share what they’re comfortable with. The main point being that what happens on the field each Saturday is usually the result of a lot of unseen work and overcoming challenges that don’t always become common knowledge.

Add in Journey Brown medically retiring for a health-related issue separate from COVID, Cain and Pat Freiermuth suffering season-ending injuries, other players getting hurt, knowing every week that your game might be canceled, and it’s been a lot. And it’s been a lot to endure under once-in-a-lifetime circumstances, faced now with the rest of the student body having already returned home in time for the Thanksgiving holiday and upcoming winter break.

James Franklin has coached this season without the in-person support of his wife, Fumi, and their two daughters, Shola and Addison, as his family is staying out of town because Addison has sickle cell disease, which has her more susceptible to COVID-19. This week, Franklin said: “I can’t tell you what I would do for a hug from my wife and daughters.” (Photo by Steve Manuel)

“A lot of these families and a lot of these young men are having to do this on their own without the normal support that they normally would be able to get or provide,” Franklin said Tuesday during his weekly press conference. “The team’s been really good about it. All the way back to the beginning of the season with us losing players, there’s been a lot of emotional swings that the team has had to handle, and in a lot of ways, I’m really proud of them.”

Later on, Franklin was asked if all the sacrifices made by everyone have been worth it to play this season. It was a simple and straight-forward inquiry. And also complicated. And ultimately, perhaps impossible to answer.

“That’s a good question,” Franklin said, hesitating a bit before beginning his response.

Sometimes, a moment or two of silence says a lot.

“Right now, in the heat of it all, it’s hard to answer that,” Franklin said. “Because to me, I’m not just looking at football, I’m looking at the whole picture. When all these decisions were made, it was hard to predict on how this was going to play out. I mean, you look at the Big Ten in general, you look at the records in the Big Ten, there’s been a few programs who have been able to do it, but I don’t know if there’s ever been a year like this in the Big Ten from a competitive standpoint, pretty much across the board.”

“It’s hard to predict, and to be honest with you, I think we’re still in a position where it’s hard to predict what the future holds, when this is going to end, when is this going to change, when are we going to get back to normal. … It’s been tough, I will tell you this, I can’t tell you what I would do for a hug from my wife and daughters.”

Franklin’s wife, Fumi, and their two daughters, Shola and Addison, are staying out of town during the season because Addison has sickle cell disease, a blood disorder that has her more susceptible to COVID-19. Franklin would love to find a way to have his family visit him in State College, though as he said, that’s especially difficult because there isn’t a nearby medical center that can handle sickle cell.

That’s Franklin’s personal story, he said, and there are as many as 150 others in the program. His message was it’s not about him, it’s about the team. Sometimes fans hear about some of those other stories. Sometimes they don’t. Either way, the stories are still there. And they matter.

“Although we haven’t had the success on the field this year that we want … I also think there’s been some really good examples as well of this team sticking together, of this team battling back at a time when other programs aren’t; with guys opting out and those types of things and our guys haven’t done that, they’ve continued to battle,” Franklin said.

“There’s been some cracks that have been exposed through this pandemic, but there’s also been tremendous resiliency. I know this sounds strange, and I don’t want this to be misinterpreted, but I’m also proud of that. I’m also proud of how we have battled a lot of adversity and a lot of challenges.”

For more on The Football Letter, including online archives (requires Alumni Association member log-in), click here.

Not yet an Alumni Association member? Click here.

Giving Thanks

James Franklin takes a pregame lap before every game at Beaver Stadium, when he thanks stadium personnel and fans for their support. (Photo by Penn State Athletics, taken in 2018)

The game day atmosphere at Beaver Stadium for the team arrival is truly incredible. Thousands of fans, many of whom rose early and have been tailgating for hours, line Curtin Road and the adjacent areas to welcome James Franklin and the Nittany Lions to the stadium.

The team exits the Blue Buses outside Medlar Field at Lubrano Park and walk toward the tunnel, with fans facing them on both sides of Curtin. It’s similar to team arrival across the SEC, a new tradition that Franklin brought with him from Vanderbilt. It’s been a smash hit.

Music is booming. The Nittany Lion, Penn State Cheerleaders, and Lionettes preform. A stage is set up near the tunnel, and fans cover every inch of grass and pavement on the south size of the stadium.

But then the environment changes once Franklin walks through the tunnel and makes his way onto the field, where he embarks on one of his lesser-known traditions: He takes a pregame lap around Beaver Stadium, and along the way, he thanks stadium personnel and fans for their support. He’ll shake hands, share fist bumps, and give hugs. Occasionally, someone asks for an autograph, and Franklin usually obliges.

This hospitality also extends to the TV crews who are there prepping for the telecast, the Penn State Cheerleaders, and really anyone else he sees. Before last year’s game against Michigan, Franklin even welcomed two Wolverine fans dressed in maize and blue who somehow found their way into the stadium early.

His daughters, Shola and Addison, typically accompany their dad and join him in sharing thanks and gratitude. For the folks in the upper deck, the young girls will shout “We Are.”

Compared to outside, which sounded like a rock concert a few minutes before, the atmosphere on the field is markedly different. The stadium is nearly entirely empty. The PA system is silent. Once he arrives at the stadium, this might be the last few moments of anything resembling solitary and quiet for the head football coach on game day.

It’d be easy (and maybe even understandable) for Franklin to bypass everyone he sees. After all, there are only a certain number of game days each year, each a looming report card that assesses the team’s progress. There are probably hundreds of thoughts going through his mind on one of the biggest days of the year for his team, though taking the time to give a simple “thank you” is a point of emphasis for Franklin because of his upbringing, he said.

Franklin was raised by a single mother, who worked as both a hall aid and as a janitor at his high school in the suburbs of Philadelphia. And in recent weeks, as the team struggled through an 0-5 start, Franklin talked about recognizing the blessings that he has in his life.

In a way, Franklin was saying this: During a year when nothing is typical and everything has been unexpected, it’s important to remember who you are, what you’ve accomplished, and where you’ve come from.

Just this week, he said that this team is still the Cotton Bowl champs, Fiesta Bowl champs, and Big Ten champs.

This year doesn’t change any of that.

And while his pregame lap isn’t the same, either, that foundational belief in recognizing teamwork hasn’t changed, either.

“I think it was really, pretty much, how I was raised. I’ve just always been taught to treat people the way you would want to be treated and thank people and show appreciation and have manners and say, ‘Yes sir and no sir, and thank you and you’re welcome,’” Franklin said. “Whether it’s Penn State football or any other industry, it takes a lot of people to make the machine go, it takes a lot of people. So, when I walk around Beaver Stadium and I see all those people working there so that we can have a great game day environment and that the people can be safe and orderly and all those types of things, it’s an opportunity for me to do that. It’s an opportunity for me to thank them.”

“I’ve always taken a lap; it’s usually been with my daughters. Obviously, right now, that’s not an option, and it’s somewhat strange and somewhat surreal, walking around the stadium each week and there’s nobody in there. But again, this is what 2020 is, and (I) try to stick to my normal routine and still try to find some times to think about the blessings that we do have and thinking about the people in our lives and the impact that hopefully we’re making.”

For more on The Football Letter, including online archives (requires Alumni Association member log-in), click here.

Not yet an Alumni Association member? Click here.

Leading With Love

James Franklin’s coaching approach of leading with love has taken on extra significance during the 2020 season. (Photo by Penn State Athletics)

Success brings teams together. Struggles do, too.

James Franklin and Penn State have much more experience with the former, which spotlights the rare times when the latter occurs.

Franklin and his coaches and players acknowledge that adjustments need to be made, though there’s a time and place for them, something that Franklin has mentioned.

He’s said he’s learned that right after a game in the locker room isn’t the time to start critiquing anything. Whether it’s a win or a loss, emotions are raw. Everyone is either feeling the euphoria of a victory or the sting of a defeat, and that’s not the optimal time to process feedback that might require an analytical approach.

That’s an important insight that Franklin has shared over the years during his postgame press conference with the media, which take place approximately a half hour after the game ends. In those interactions, it’s interesting to note Franklin’s demeanor, since it’s not immediately following a game, yet still close enough to glean some of his more natural emotions, which provide insight into his coaching approach.  

For example:

Following Penn State’s last-second win at Iowa in 2017, Franklin was reflective in his postgame press conference, even more so than usual, a combination of appreciation and gratitude for the win while still not being satisfied.

After the team’s loss at Michigan State that same year, a defeat that came after a four-and-a-half-hour weather delay, Franklin was frustrated, even angry at times. He said the team had gotten away from what had made them successful, and there was a sense that the team was underachieving a bit, something that Franklin was determined to fix.

The next year, after another narrow loss to Ohio State, Franklin was defiant. Personally, defiance is a favorite trait of mine. And with the way Franklin spoke, he was defiant in the sense that he didn’t want to settle for 10-win seasons. Sure, that’s a good level, but he has aspirations to elevate Penn State into an elite program. He said as much in a press conference clip that’s been aired widely in the years since.

Last Saturday in Lincoln, Franklin embodied parts of everything above. Part of the point is that Franklin isn’t a robot and, in some ways, feels the joy of winning and the pain of losing more acutely than anyone else.

However, there’s a foundational aspect of his approach that’s always present: love. Love for the football program. Love for the University. Love for the community and alumni and fans and lettermen. And certainly, love for his players.

After the Nebraska game, Franklin said that he’s a guy who leads with love. That’s a real part of his coaching philosophy and is even more important when the team is struggling like this season.

Here’s what he said Tuesday during his weekly press conference, speaking to the balance he tries to find when coaching his guys on how they can improve without being overly negative:

“You have to balance that, always. And the reality is after wins, you can be harder on guys. We’ve talked about that for six years, that even when you win, there’s still things that need to get corrected and cleaned up that allow you to continue to win. And after losses, you’ve got to make the corrections, but you’ve got to do it in a way that that young man can hear it at the time and is going to grow and not be defensive. That’s all of us, I think that’s really important.”

Fifth-year senior Michal Menet is a standout center who’s been named to the watch list for the 2020 Rimington Award, which recognizes the top offensive center in the nation. There’s a strong sense that with Franklin, what you see is what you get, which is critically important for standout high school players trying to decide where they’re going to pursue their collegiate aspirations.

Everyone knows that the results will change week to week, season to season. Hopefully, things go your way more often than they don’t, though either way, there needs to be a baseline level of trust that goes both ways, and with Franklin, that’s in place. 

“I think the biggest thing with Coach Franklin is that he’s always been consistent, he always leads with love,” Menet said this week. “From the time I was recruited, coming up here watching practice, all the way throughout. He’s always been the same, whether we’re winning or losing. Obviously, the critique is going to sound a little bit different and his overall message will be different, but it’s always been from a place of love, and that’s the one thing that I’ve always respected him a ton for, is that he’s always been consistent. No matter how good or bad things are going, he’s going to show up for work every single day, giving us his best and lead with love, like he talks about.”

At some point after the season ends or during next spring, it’s likely someone will ask Franklin if he sees this as something of a lost season, or perhaps a season in which you can’t extrapolate too much because of all the seemingly once-in-a-lifetime circumstances that COVID-19 is placing on teams.

I’m guessing Franklin will say no, and he’d be right. Like every season, he’s learning about his team, in addition to acclimating four new coaches (including a new coordinator) into the program. Franklin constantly points to consistency as a major component of his program, and it’s also something that players (former and current) mention when discussing what it’s like to play for Franklin.

Additionally, consistency matters, as evident by Menet’s perspective. All that said, there’s a lot of football left for the Nittany Lions, who still aren’t halfway through their regular season. Plus, the upcoming bowl game, assuming Penn State accepts an invite and can play without COVID-19 disrupting anything further.

Either way, there should be lessons being learned, both for this year and future seasons, and they’ll be distilled in a way that encourages improvement.

As Franklin has said before: “It starts with ‘I love you,’ and it ends with ‘I love you,’” and indications are that won’t change.  

__

For more on the The Football Letter, including online archives (requires Alumni Association member log-in), click here.

Not yet an Alumni Association member? Click here.

Face of the Penn State Community

James Franklin leads Penn State onto the field for the 2019 Citrus Bowl. Franklin has guided the Nittany Lions to a winning record and a bowl appearance in each of his first six seasons, in addition to being a visible figure in the community. Photo by Steve Manuel.

You wouldn’t think that a nearly half-a-million dollar gift would go under the radar, though in 2020, nothing should surprise us.

That’s where we are, and it feels like that’s what happened, when James Franklin announced in July that he and his wife, Fumi, raised $462,500 for The Franklin Family Educational Equity Scholarship, which the couple established in fall 2019.

This was before the 2020 season seesawed between being on and off, and back on again, and you can read Franklin’s message he posted to Twitter below.

A college football coach and his family raising such an impressive amount of money for such a worthy cause is admirable, and perhaps one reason why there wasn’t more attention paid to this is because this overwhelming generosity is who Penn Staters are and it’s what we do. In many ways, the high standard is the norm.

Still, it’s worth pointing out the message this sends: Yes, Franklin is the football coach, and at Penn State, that’s an awfully big deal, though his title doesn’t describe Franklin’s entire contributions to the University. In terms of showing that he’s committed to Penn State and the legion of alumni and fans who follow his team, this is a crystal-clear sign that Franklin is all in, and has been for some time.

Many of the football student-athletes have been showing an incredible level of maturity and leadership off the field, and it shouldn’t be surprising when you look at the model that Franklin sets. Just this week, he emphasized the importance of voting — without advocating for anyone or any particular party, just that it’s important to have your voice heard — when discussing the voting PSAs that the team has shared on social media recently.

With Franklin, you get it all. It’s a lot to ask for in a coach, though when you get it, the result is a ton of on-field success, impact off the field, and an ongoing legacy that hits home with players and recruits.

“Coach Franklin does a great job in this program of being a leader,” standout tight end Pat Freiermuth said Friday during the team’s virtual media days. “I think that he gives everyone answers that sometimes you don’t really like to hear, but I think that he does a great job of demanding excellence and demanding perfection. At the end of the day, he’s always going to love you.”

“I think that’s what you want as a head coach — and a guy who is at such a prominent university and who loves their football — to lead the whole community really. He’s the face of the whole Penn State community, and I think that he does it in a really great way. If you’re a recruit, I just don’t get why you wouldn’t come to Penn State, especially if you’re from around this area, because it has everything a recruit wants or a college student needs or wants.”

__

For more on the The Football Letter, including online archives (requires Alumni Association member log-in), click here.

Not yet an Alumni Association member? Click here.

College Football Heaven

Penn State v. Michigan(Photo by Steve Manuel)

The Football Letter/Steve Manuel

This weekend, tens of thousands of alumni and fans will return to State College, rekindling a lifelong love affair with Penn State. If you’re among the many who are embarking upon the annual fall pilgrimage to Happy Valley, chances are you’ll notice some changes upon arrival.

Construction is ongoing at Willard Building for the state-of-the-art Donald P. Bellisario Media Center, and you can check out picturesque views of Sparks and West Halls from the newly renovated Collaboration Commons in Pattee Library. These remodeled areas have the aim to enhance the student experience, an admirable goal that’s always at the forefront of University administrators’ minds.

The Diner is gone — quite literally — as development has already begun on its replacement, a fast-casual restaurant chain. And if you’re looking to order some wings at The Darkhorse Tavern, well, you’ll have a surprise waiting for you.

These are just a few examples.

However, there’s one thing you can always count on when you come into town for the season opener.

As you stroll across campus or head downtown, the crisp fall-like weather smacks your senses and leaves no doubt: Penn State football has returned to Happy Valley.

That’s the beauty of September (or in this case, August) in Central Pennsylvania.

Penn State v. PITT (Photo by Steve Manuel)

The Football Letter/Steve Manuel

The town takes on a life of its own and the familiar energy swirls around State College, as the season’s first kickoff awaits on the horizon.

Football, of course, is the reason for alumni and fans descending upon University Park this weekend, as the chase for another 10-win campaign and Big Ten championship begins for James Franklin and the Nittany Lions.

The on-field success is one reason for so much excitement surrounding the upcoming season. Additionally, what makes Penn State football special for so many goes way beyond what happens on the gridiron.

Tailgating. The Blue Band. Stopping by the Nittany Lion Shrine for a photo with family and friends. Each home game weekend is a throwback to your college days, an opportunity to transport yourself back to a time when Dear Old State molded you when you stood at childhood’s gate.

We understand that passion, because we feel the same way.

With The Football Letter blog, we strive to deliver stories and photos that showcase the high level of devotion that Penn State graduates have for their alma mater. If you haven’t already, subscribe to the blog (enter your email address in the box in the lower right-hand corner) and follow us on Twitter, as we’ll highlight the many reasons that distinguish Penn State as one of the premier college football programs in the country.

Or, in Bill O’Brien’s words, why Penn State is “college football heaven.”

Penn State v. Ohio State (Photo by Steve Manuel)

The Football Letter/Steve Manuel

Throughout the season, we’ll feature lettermen, speak with players and coaches, and dig into our extensive archives. We’ll also talk with Steve Manuel ’84, ’92g, longtime distinguished photographer for The Football Letter, as he looks back on some of his most memorable photos.

There’s a lot to savor, and we’re looking forward to sharing another season with our readers.

So, if you’re in town this weekend, we invite you to take your time and soak up all the sights, sounds, and smells that elevate State College into the quintessential college town in America.

There really is no place in the world like Happy Valley in the fall.

For the Glory,

— John Patishnock ’05

 

For more on the The Football Letter, including online archives (requires Alumni Association member log-in), click here.

Not yet an Alumni Association member? Click here.

FBL Podcast: Georgia State Week

 

It’s Panthers on both sides on this week’s podcast, as we look back at a satisfying victory over old rival Pitt, and look ahead to this week’s visit from Georgia State.

We’ve got a great conversation with Anwar Phillips ’05, a standout in the secondary on the Nittany Lions’ mid-2000s teams, including that memorable run to the 2005 Big Ten championship, Continue reading

All in the Family

Organized, enthusiastic, and relentlessly dedicated, the Penn State Football Parents Association provides quiet but invaluable support for the Nittany Lions—and for each other.

*   *   *

The tradition started about a year ago, a few hours before last season’s game against Minnesota.

We’ll let Larry Buchholz tell the story:

“Before every game, my wife gives our son a hug before the team goes into the stadium. So we’re there by the south entrance, and there’s Coach Franklin. Usually he’ll high-five a few people and shake hands with recruits, and we happened to be standing right there. So I just reached out with open arms and said, ‘Hey, Coach,’ and we gave each other a big hug and a kiss.”

If you remember how things turned out, you’ll understand why Buchholz’s pregame smooch and embrace became a weekly necessity. Continue reading

A Legacy in Great Hands

It was hard to keep track of all the NFL Draft-related tweets in recent days, from the many messages celebrating Chris Godwin on his selection by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, to congrats for all the other Nittany Lions who signed free-agent deals, to the tweets anticipating the many talented Lions who will feature in the draft over the next few years.

But one tweet in particular caught our attention. Mostly because it was a draft tweet that wasn’t really about the draft.

The author, of course, is Penn State receivers coach Josh Gattis. And what struck us was the simplicity of the tweet: Congratulating the three members of the 2016 receiving corps who have recently started new jobs. It just so happens that one of those jobs is “professional football player.”

We’re as excited as anyone to see what Chris Godwin—@CGtwelve if you’re not up on your Twitter handles—does in the NFL. But for Gattis, the priority was clear: Let’s hear it for all of our guys, whether they’re succeeding on or off the field. The other guys, in this case, Continue reading

Sandy Barbour Meets the Fans

SandyB Caravan

We’re back on the bus for the Penn State Coaches Caravan, the fourth year of this very cool road trip, and the second with James Franklin leading the way. And it is about the coaches, of course—this week, Franklin is joined by women’s golf coach Denise St. Pierre and men’s hockey coach Guy Gadowsky, while Russ Rose, Cael Sanderson, and Patrick Chambers are set to join in Week 2. But this year, the Caravan is a chance for one former coach to share the spotlight.

Sandy Barbour was a field hockey and lacrosse assistant Continue reading