James Franklin walked through the south tunnel of Beaver Stadium after his team’s loss to a Jim Harbaugh-less Michigan, and was nearly into the hallway when fans started yelling expletives and admonishing him for his team’s performance. Franklin did not turn around until one of his players defended him, yelling “F--- you!” back to the fan.
Franklin and athletic director Pat Kraft put their arms around the player and ushered him away and into the tunnel, but the jeering only continued from there. Boos from the fans lining the sides of his walk overtook shouts of “You suck!” and “Win the game!” until the head coach finally passed through the doors of his locker room.
The Nittany Lion fans reached a breaking point Saturday afternoon in Beaver Stadium, with frustration spilling over in ugly fashion, after seeing an all-too-familiar result. Once again, Penn State has watched its College Football Playoff hopes disappear with a whimper, with the Nittany Lions losing when they needed a win most.
The emotion of the game was apparent in the fourth quarter, as shouts of “James Franklin, you suck!” and “I hear there’s an opening at East Stroudsburg!” — there isn’t — rained down on the head coach.
Franklin, for his part, did not display much emotion in the postgame, looking more distant than frustrated. But some of his most veteran players openly felt the weight of the loss.
Tight end Theo Johnson was asked about the emotions of losing again in these big moments. He took a break, tears forming in his eyes, as his voice trembled.
“There’s a lot of people that are counting on not just me but this team,” Johnson said, his voice cracking more. “Just feel like I let a lot of people down. ... Could have played better. As a captain there’s a lot of people counting on you to make plays.”
He was then asked what he could have done better. Johnson kept his head down as he gathered himself, his 20 seconds of silence and streaming tears telling the story of a player who has felt this pain before.
Johnson is one of many who have felt it. Franklin and the Nittany Lions haven’t been able to overcome Michigan or Ohio State enough to make the program relevant in terms of the College Football Playoff race.
Players as talented as they are have not been able to meet the moment under Franklin. Right or wrong, the head coach will get plenty of blame for that from the fans.
But their reactions didn’t sit well with players like Curtis Jacobs.
“We couldn’t give a damn what the fans think,” he said. “We do this for the guys in the building.”
The same went for defensive end Dani Dennis-Sutton.
“I don’t pay attention to the fans,” he said. “I appreciate all the ones that do support. ... But when people boo us, half of them wouldn’t step on the field if they had the opportunity to, so it doesn’t affect me.”
It’s probably a good thing for Dennis-Sutton and Jacobs that they’re unconcerned with the fans, because what comes next from them will not be pretty. Franklin preaches not to take winning for granted, but the fans have yearned for more than those 10 wins per year — a mark the Nittany Lions will surely hit again this year with only Rutgers and Michigan State left on the regular-season schedule.
At this point, they have and will likely continue to take 10-win seasons for granted. The aspiration is to win championships — both conference and national — not to hit double digits but never break through.
Now we know the program will never break through in the four-team era of the playoff. Those dreams are over for this year, and next year the field expands to 12.
Perhaps no coach and program in the country will benefit more from that than Franklin and his Nittany Lions. They would have qualified in five of the last seven seasons if next year’s format was implemented during that time. And maybe by then fans will feel great and all will be forgiven when they get to watch a playoff game, potentially in Beaver Stadium.
But until this program knocks off one of the teams that consistently makes it — with Michigan and Ohio State staring at potential berths this year — then none of it will matter. Those 10-win years will be replaced by first- or second-round exits against the Ohio States, the Michigans, the Alabamas and the Georgias of the college football world.
Because, as Franklin said five years ago after a loss to Ohio State, this program has gone from average to good to great in his tenure — but it isn’t elite yet, much as it wasn’t then.
Now it has to move forward and figure out what went wrong, with Franklin laying out what that will look like.
“Be honest, be transparent with ourselves as a staff, and with the players, address it head on, then move on to the next opponent and get ready to get another win next week,” Franklin said. “We lost to the No. 1 and the No. 3 team in the country. That’s not good enough. We’ve gotta find a way to win those games. ... Get after it head on and then move on to the next opponent so we can find a way to get a win next week and finish this thing in a positive direction.”
So what does it take for Franklin and the Nittany Lions to stop fighting to win as David and become Goliath? What is the path to fighting for those championships?
Maybe there isn’t one.