After he took the Penn State head coaching job in 2014, it was easy to feel pity for James Franklin. What’s clear from the job he’s done since then, is that he never pitied himself.
Taking over a program just beginning to feel the full effect of NCAA sanctions handed down over the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal, Franklin would have been excused for a few slow years. When the NCAA handed down a 4-year bowl ban in 2012 (that was eventually rescinded in Franklin’s first year), not even the biggest Penn State homer would have predicted a Rose Bowl berth in 2016 to go along with a Big 10 title.
But what makes the rebuild undertaken by Franklin most impressive is that through the lost scholarships, multi-million dollar fines, mass exodus of players free to transfer away without sitting out a year and, above all, the tarnish and disgrace attached with the most gruesome scandal in the history of college sports, Penn State is here to stay — with as good a shot at winning a national title this year as any team in the country.
The Nittany Lions will defend their Big Ten title with 16 returning starters. Top-end talent drawing NFL attention is scattered up and down the roster, bolstered by impressive depth across the board. Nine of those 16 veterans return on offense, including the duo of quarterback Trace McSorely and star running back Saquon Barkley. Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel wrote a fantastic profile of Barkley earlier this month. Aside from highlighting the ridiculous weight (600 pound squat!) that Barkley throws around — giving him the sweetest calves in college football — the piece also gives insight into how Franklin has been able to recruit and build the powerhouse squad taking the field in 2017.
Much of the way Penn State’s 2016 success was treated illustrates the recruiting challenge faced by Franklin in the post-Sandusky era. The current team and administration is still an easy target for those justifiably outraged over Sandusky’s abuse and the subsequent cover up. But taking this line of argument is no more helpful for Sandusky’s victims than it is fair to current figures like Barkley and Franklin. For those who actually want to walk the walk, I might suggest checking out one of the many charities dedicated to helping victims of child sex abuse here, here or here.
Players like Barkley and McSorely would have every reason to shy away from Penn State, even with a new administration in place. Why risk your career committing to a school now unavoidably connected to a horrific scandal and have your on-field performance overshadowed in the media by half-baked takes meant to tear down anyone associated with the school? Barkley initially committed to Rutgers, a program clouded with embarrassment for completely different reasons. But by the time he flipped to Penn State, he was the 21st-ranked high school running-back in the country, a high enough pedigree to gain attention from any number of major programs.
Barkley’s story is hardly unique. Every key player on the roster had a similar decision to make regarding their future. But the common thread is Franklin, who built a successful program at Vanderbilt of all places and clearly has an unmatched knack for recruiting. It’s been among the most difficult jobs in college football this decade, and he’s already exceeded all reasonable expectations.
Some credit must go to Bill O’Brien as well, for both bridging the recruiting gap between Paterno and Franklin and keeping the program above water in the years immediately after the scandal. But in bolting for the Houston Texans after two years, O’Brien never felt the full wrath of the NCAA sanctions, and won with many of Paterno’s players who were brave enough to stick around. Franklin has, of course, never hinted one way or another about leaving for the NFL like O’Brien, although I’d think at least one team would find a job for him somewhere. If this season meets expectations, there won’t be a better college job for him to take.
Finally, Penn State has to do their part to avoid needlessly re-opening the wounds of the Sandusky scandal at the expense of the current players and coaches. Joe Paterno’s legacy will forever be a complicated one, and there will always be a divide between Penn State fans and everyone else in how he is viewed. Some will always believe Paterno is innocent, despite the conclusions of investigations to the contrary. Penn State whipped up controversy by honoring Paterno last season on the 50th anniversary of his first game at the school.
I’m not here to convince anyone who did or did not support such a ceremony. It’s such a polarizing issue that nobody is likely to change their mind. But Penn State must stop basking in the past glories under Paterno — which are now forever tainted whether fans like it or not. Give the new wave of talent, especially Franklin, a chance to write their own histories. 2016 was a great place to start and 2017 could very well mark the start of a post-Paterno era worth celebrating.