From smoothies to music, James Franklin is filling Penn State with high-octane fun

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From smoothies to music, James Franklin is filling Penn State with high-octane fun
From smoothies to music, James Franklin is filling Penn State with high-octane fun

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – There is a self-serve smoothie bar outside the head coach's office here at Penn State.

Obviously, this is new. It should not surprise that Joe Paterno did not have a smoothie bar during the 46 years he lead the Nittany Lions before being dismissed in 2011 following the indictment of Jerry Sandusky. Here's guessing it never even crossed his mind to install one. He might not have even known what a smoothie was.

Bill O'Brien didn't have one either, perhaps because Paterno's immediate successor arrived from the New England Patriots to take over a program already reeling from the scandal, only to see it unexpectedly leveled by unprecedented (and unfair, most say around here) sanctions from the NCAA.

O'Brien was the perfect man for an impossible moment – keeping the program on track with professionalism and stoicism as he held off transfers, lobbied the NCAA for a return of some scholarships and basically established a calm (and some victories) amidst the storm. Frozen treats didn't seem to fit into the moment, though.

James Franklin, 42, brought the smoothie bar to a campus known for its ice cream.

It's not like the Penn State staff is hanging around all day, relaxing and sipping fruit concoctions. There isn't a harder- or faster-working staff in the country. Franklin, after all, slept in the office for a long stretch before his family finally moved to town, and his inflatable mattress once blew out at 4 a.m., leaving him in a heap on the floor.

New Penn State coach James Franklin doesn't lack for energy. (AP)
New Penn State coach James Franklin doesn't lack for energy. (AP)

It doesn't mean you shouldn't be able to grab a smoothie amidst the slam of incessant recruiting and coaching. It fits the mood here, an unmistakable sense of positivity, passion and progress. Assistants walk fast with a bounce in their step. Music slips out of offices. Dress is casual and laughter is plentiful.

Soon, Franklin jokes with some staffers that a commitment to healthy snacks might allow him the confidence of physique to freely hang out in public sans a shirt, the way South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier does.

Of course, Spurrier manages that because he doesn't care who photographs him, not because he's particularly buff. But that's not the point. The goal here is fun, and this allows Franklin to laugh about Spurrier and his antics – the "best" photo, everyone agrees, is the one of a shirtless Spurrier drinking a can of Coors at a NASCAR race. Then Franklin is telling old SEC meetings stories about Spurrier and LSU coach Les Miles and everyone is smiling along.

"Hysterical," Franklin said. "I used to try to sit between them at meetings just for the comedy."

This is still the Mildred and Louis Lasch Football Complex, home to arguably the most wretched and ugly crime scene in college football history courtesy of Sandusky.

Yet with a second successor to Paterno preparing for the third season since the scandal hit, featuring a roster with just 26 (of 121) players that were here when the indictments fell and with the Big Ten's best recruiting class verbally committed, it feels like a brand new day, dawn's light coming at the end of a terrible tunnel.

"No one asks about it," Franklin said of the Sandusky scandal. "Not like that. The sanctions get brought up. [Parents] want to know what's going on with the sanctions. 'How is that going to affect my son?' And I go through it and I answer it. But that's it.

"I think with the players in this building, I've talked to people who were here when it all went down and the effects were felt," Franklin continued. "But they never really viewed it as about them. In this building, we've kind of moved on.

"Now there is obviously still hurt and still healing that needs to take place outside this building, but it really isn't anything we discuss in here."

Franklin made a name for himself as a brilliant recruiter and a man of endless, engrossing energy. It's evident in everything he does and everything he demands others to do. In 2011, he took over a Vanderbilt program that went 4-20 with just one SEC victory the previous two seasons.

He simply overwhelmed everyone – players, administrators, fans, prospects – with the idea the Commodores could actually be good. Three bowl trips in three seasons, including consecutive 9-4 seasons, not to mention more four-star recruits than anyone could've dreamed, and it's clear an infectious personality can work.

This is a different challenge, a different place, but Franklin is going to do this with high-octane fun. He wants his staff buzzing about, smiling, enjoying themselves and being passionate about everything. His offensive line coach, Herb Hand, appeared on an episode of "Chopped" this summer, of all things.

"I have a youthful coaching staff," Franklin said. "I don't have a young coaching staff but a youthful one. I like people that are positive, enthusiastic and full of energy. I like people who are comfortable in their own skin.

"And I think people like to be in that environment. That's just the way we are going to be."

Bill O'Brien left Penn State to coach the NFL's Houston Texans. (AP)
Bill O'Brien left Penn State to coach the NFL's Houston Texans. (AP)

That doesn't mean the Sandusky scandal is over. A dragged out prosecution of three administrators keeps it in the peripheral news and there remains a faction of pro-Sandusky supporters who want to relive every detail, but that's mostly just a sorry background whisper from the far corners of the Internet.

Sandusky was never Penn State. Neither was Paterno, for that matter. The school is too big, too good, too powerful for any one thing or one person to define it. That's true even of this massive football program. Most everyone just wanted to get back to normal, to be proud of the team and enjoy the action, while being respectful of the crimes that occurred.

O'Brien was a brilliant coach whose efforts to bridge the eras can't be understated. No one wanted to see him leave for the Houston Texans last offseason. However, another staff even further removed from the dark days brings its own positives.

A bowl ban and scholarship limitations remain, but the latter was relaxed last year after intense NCAA lobbying by O'Brien. Both could further be reduced this fall.

Depth and a lack of great skill players to surround quarterback Christian Hackenberg should impact the Nittany Lions this fall. Remaining healthy is imperative. No one is predicting 10 wins. Help is on the way, though, as Franklin sells high school stars on possible early playing time.

"The sanctions are a negative, but from a recruiting perspective it's really been a positive because we've been able to say, 'Look, we've got 10 less scholarships than anyone else in the country and our depth chart shows it,' " Franklin said.

"We have good kids here, good players. We just don't have enough of them."

It's worked. ranks Penn State's recruiting class No. 6 nationally and No. 1 in the Big Ten. It contains an impressive 12 four-star recruits and is full of kids from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland, a reconnection with the program's long-time strongholds. Already, attention has turned to underclassmen, with two top juniors verbally committed and the belief many more will follow.

Penn State now recruits in a modern way, which is to say with unyielding focus and all the modern accoutrements – everything from a focus on social media to cool, metallic business cards. Franklin and the staff are obsessed with personalized attention to players and their families.

What he's pitching, though, it's Old School Penn State. Academics. Athletics. Family. Community. Life-long relationships. It's the same thing Paterno used to build this place into the Beast of the East, something Franklin watched growing up in Langhorne, Pa., outside Philadelphia.

"I tell them, if they want to go and play semi-pro football for a few years and go to the NFL, this isn't the place for you," Franklin said.

Franklin is trying to inject Penn State with the enthusiasm he brought to Vanderbilt. (AP)
Franklin is trying to inject Penn State with the enthusiasm he brought to Vanderbilt. (AP)

"The things we are selling really haven't changed," he continued. "You're talking about getting a great education … the chance to play big-time college football … and the opportunity to be in a town that is very supportive of this program, I'd say very similar to places [in the SEC] I just left."

"And that's kind of unique in this part of the country because there is so many things going on [the East Coast]," he said. "We had 72,000 at our spring game. How many get that for a home game in this region?"

Franklin living in the office became a popular story this offseason, the homeless coach. He says it wasn't intended that way.

"A lot of football coaches do it to be tough guys," Franklin said. "I've never slept in my office in my life. It just didn't make sense to go rent an apartment and go sit there by myself."

He has since bought a house. The problem was, it wasn't on the market. With an eye ever on recruiting, Franklin surmised that little State College didn't offer the plethora of entertainment options for hosting out-of-town visitors, particularly recruits, families, high school coaches or industry contacts. So he'd have to have people come back to his place … a big place.

"If we were just buying a house for our family, that was fine," he said. "But there are less places to take people, so we are going to use my house more in recruiting."

State College is surrounded by a seemingly endless supply of beautiful farmland and mountains. Big, for-sale houses … not so much.

"There were only like 12 houses here on the market, total," Franklin said. "So that made it tough. The real estate agent approached people that were rumored to be thinking of selling. Now you're screwed. 'Yeah, you can buy our house … for $500,000 more than its worth.' "

He shook his head and laughed at his disadvantaged bargaining position.

"It wasn't a great situation."

He shrugged. Eight months into the job and that might be the biggest complaint. Everything else is full throttle.

James Franklin is here and the flood of limitless optimism he brings with him has followed. On-field success isn't guaranteed, but for Penn State football, Jerry Sandusky, finally, is starting to feel a long way gone.

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