This week’s press conference began with Head Coach James Franklin wearing a long red wig, slumped in a couch, strumming an acoustic guitar. He began singing plaintively, almost crying -
“Turn down the lights, turn down the bed,
Turn down these voices inside my head.
Lay down with me, tell me no lies,
Just hold me close, don’t patronize.
Don’t patronize me.
‘Cause I can’t make you love me if you don’t.
You can’t make your heart feel something that it won’t.”
The song wasn’t necessary. The issue was obvious enough to all present. The coach who “led with love” had been rejected by his 100 adopted sons, some portion of whom showed no more interest in football than they might show to quilting or calculus. Moreover, as this joke of a season dragged on, James couldn’t make them care.
Coach tried to choke back his sobs, though it was clear he couldn’t continue singing the Bonnie Raitt song (composed by Mike Reid). But, like every good coach, James from State College came prepared with a back up plan. As he turned his head into his elbow to cover his tears, he reached to the floor with his free arm and held up a white poster board, as if he was signaling an 11-man offense:
Ever the optimist, James tried to pretend that his squad had merely been drunk the first 5 games of the season. It was wishful thinking. Still in the bargaining phase of his grief, James couldn’t yet confess the real reason: this squad played football with all of the passion of a wet fart. Love/hate, pride/shame - somehow, the most emotional coach in America found himself leading a team of zombie nihilists, for whom existence itself was meaningless, let alone a mere foosball contest.
Twenty-twenty. What a year, huh?
And Then The Presser Started
Opening Statement: Like always, I want to thank everyone for coming on and covering Penn State football. I don’t have a lot to add on in terms of summarizing Iowa. The same summary I gave after the game still holds true. We have to protect the football on offense. That is going to be, obviously, emphasized all week long going into our Michigan game. Going on the road. Coach [Jim] Harbaugh and the University of Michigan football program. It’s going to be a tremendous challenge. I think the home team has won the last four games. If you look at the all-time record at Michigan Stadium since joining the Big Ten, I think we’re 3-8. So you know, we want to really find a way to swing that in our direction and find a way to get a win on the road at Michigan this year, which is something that’s been a challenge for us. Obviously, we know these people very well. Josh Gattis is their offensive coordinator. Josh was with me for a number of years at both Vanderbilt and Penn State and that’ll be a challenge. Don Brown, I’ve known for a long time. Don was the defensive coordinator when I was the offensive coordinator at University of Maryland. Don was the defensive coordinator. I think at UConn, when I was the head coach at Vanderbilt, we played them. And then, obviously, since joining the Big Ten, he’s done a really good job statistically since he’s been there. On special teams, they’ve got Jay Harbaugh. They have a dynamic returner in Giles Jackson, which is going to be something that we’re going to have to find a way to limit his impact in the game. On defense, guys that stand out to you are Cameron McGone, Daxton Hill and Carlo Kemp. Offensively, they’ve got a bunch of guys. Giles Jackson again, Cornelius Johnson, Ronnie Bell and Hassan Haskins. A number of guys that we have to be aware of. They run a very, very multiple defensive scheme. They always have. And then, they’ve obviously become a lot more multiple on offense recently with Coach Gattis coming. So, it will be a challenge, but our focus Is on getting better today. That’s what we have to do. Don’t need to look any further ahead than that. We can’t change the past, we just want to get better to today. So that’s our focus. Q: Do you think it’s possible as a coach that you have lost this football team? Do coaches concern themselves with those things when a team struggles?A: Well, I guess what I would say is, I just look at how we have played late in games. We’ve played and given ourselves a chance to win some games in the second half by how we have battled and competed. To be honest with you, I think that’s a little bit of the nature of college football now with programs, like a Penn state, are in terms of the playoffs. I remember hearing things and seeing things and having conversations about that. You lose a game and there’s a portion of the fan base that feels like you’re out of the playoff. It’s a different college football now than it was 10 years ago, because of the playoff system. But you know, I look at how we’ve been practicing. I look at us late in games. Obviously, there’s disappointment. Obviously, there’s frustration. But you know, I see how our guys are in the locker room after the game. I see how our guys are in practice. I see how our guys have competed late in games. Q: Can you let us know where the general mental health of your players is? They’re 0-5 n top of everything college students are facing in 2020. How tough is this for them from that perspective?A: It’s a challenging time in general, and not just at Penn State, across our country, across college football and in the NFL as well. You know, it’s a very different dynamic. It’s something that I know I’m aware of and I know it’s something that our staff is aware of. I’m going to have a call tonight with all the parents just to keep them informed of how our guys are doing. You know, we got into a pretty good routine for COVID-19 coming into the year. That was my number one priority to make sure we kept everybody as healthy and safe as we possibly could. But yeah, the whole thing has been very surreal and, obviously, challenging. You know, even this week, we’ve been fortunate to at least have the parents that were able to travel, be able to come to games, and this week in Michigan, their parents are now allowed to come. So you know, our family is the team and we’ve got Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday. We’ll practice Thursday morning and give thanks and focus n our blessings. This has been a tough year. Take football out of it, this has been a tough year on a lot of people and their families from a health perspective, from a financial perspective and then, obviously, their college experiences have been very, very different. So, you know, stay positive, keep working through and loving these guys. Keep supporting these guys and remind everyone why we do this. Also try to remind everybody who we’ve been over the previous four year. You know, try to keep everybody focused on the big picture. Q: How would you describe the confidence level of the players right now? If it’s lacking, how do you go about restoring it or improving it?A: I think it goes back to what I said earlier. We’ve just got to get better today. I think when you look in the past or you’re looking in the future, then that becomes a little more challenging and a little bit more difficult. So you know, just take it one step at a time and find things to get better at today. The more days you put together like that, then the results will take care of themselves. That’s easier said than done. There’s no doubt about it. That’s easier said than done and I think, you know, obviously the more success you have, the more confidence you have. The more challenges you have, the more difficult that is, there’s no doubt about it. Again, this program was built with love and family and that has been challenged through these times with the way we can interact with each other and the way we practice and the way we meet. It’s very different. I think maybe some programs are run more like a business. Then, you know, maybe it’s not as impactful. But the way we run our program as a family and very relational and interactive with each other, it’s been difficult. It’s been very, very difficult. Q: Through five games, how have you seen Kirk Ciarrocca work behind the scenes to put his quarterbacks in a position to be more successful? Where do you see the assessment right now with Will [Levis] and Sean [Clifford] based on what we saw on Saturday?A: What I do know is I get here pretty early in the morning and Kirk’s usually in here before me. He’s a vet and he’s working his tail off to get it fixed and make it better. You know, when it comes to Will and Sean, we’re going to need them both. I think the reality is the turnovers have been our issue, one of our issues or probably one of our bigger issues. The reality is we’ve had it with both of them. So, we need to protect the football, but we’re going to need to for those guys that are both very passionate. They work really hard, they both have skills. You know, we’re going to continue to grind and work through this to try to find a way to be successful today and then, you know, this Saturday against Michigan. Kirk’s a pro and a vet. He’s been doing this a long time. I think we’ve got two quarterbacks that are very passionate and very competitive and want to help the team win and be part of the solution. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Sean and I have a tremendous amount of respect for Will. I expect them to play well on Saturday and help give us a chance to be successful. Q: After Saturday’s game, Jahan [Dotson] talked about the need to start doing things with a winner’s mentality and the importance of winning each moment. Are there ways that mindset speaks to how Jahan has elevated himself into a team leader, both on and off the field?A: Jahan has done a nice job. He’s obviously been very productive in games. His growth and maturity as a player and as a teammate, it’s been gradual really ever since he arrived on campus and just continues to get better. He’s got a very steady approach. He doesn’t really get too high, doesn’t really get to low, he’s just very steady-Eddie. I remember talking to his family, as well as Jahan, last year and in the offseason, about the things he needed to do to keep growing. I see that from him. I’m also seeing him be more verbal, which is not something he had done a whole lot before that. I’m proud of him. I’m very proud of Jahan. The exciting thing is, I still think there’s a lot left for improvement within from a developmental standpoint. I do think he certainly is a pretty good example to the younger players in his approach and his discipline and how he’s gone about his career so far at Penn State. Q: On Saturday, you guys went for it early fourth down because you wanted to be aggressive and inject something into the offense. Down 13 in the fourth quarter, you decided to punt on fourth-and-17. What was the thought process behind that in a two-possession game?A: Obviously, we’ve gone for it a bunch this year on fourth down and trying to give our offense the best chance to be successful, to help our team win. Obviously, when you’re not picking up fourth-and-short’s, it doesn’t give you a whole lot of confidence to pick up a fourth-and-long. So, you know, we’d done a number of things to try to give ourselves a chance to win that game. We battled back and lost some opportunities there. Just felt like at that point in the game, it was the right thing to do, especially with the amount of fourth downs we’ve gone for this year and have not been successful. Q: It’s been a long time since we’ve heard you say pulling the rope in the same direction. Where are you in that department these days? How does pulling this rope compare to the rope you were pulling five or six years ago?A: Yeah, I think that probably makes sense for right now. I think really under challenging times, we’ve done a good job of that. I see it with the staff. I see it with the players. Don’t take this the wrong way, I’m not saying there’s not frustration and disappointment, but I see the guys really trying to do what we’ve asked and sticking together. One of the things to tell is the guys know that our structure, our system, works and has worked at a very, very high level. I think we need that to continue to do that.. You know, it’s more challenging right now than ever. But, you know, it’s going to be important that we do that. That’s as coaches. That’s as players. That’s as fans and alumni and lettermen and all of us. We’re going to have to stick together to work through this. We’re not the first program that has faced this. We won’t be the last program that has faced this. But we’re going to get it fixed. Q: Earlier today, Antonio Shelton said it’s always good to know that you have an open-door policy to talk to any of the players if they need to. Are there more kids coming into your office this year? What has your message been to them?A: That’s a good point. With everything, the interactions have just been different. You know, I usually would have players over to my house for dinner. Can’t do that. I usually have the freshmen over to my house multiple times to help them get adjusted. Can’t do those things. I’ve started on Mondays bringing in groups of players, especially the young guys, just checking in with them and making sure they’re doing okay. As I said earlier, I’m a relational leader and this COVID-19 and all the policies and procedures and all the things that we’re doing to stay healthy has made that more challenging and has been very different. As you guys know, we just started having team meetings in person a few weeks ago in Holuba Hall. I wouldn’t necessarily say that’s the most personal thing, in Holuba Hall, with everybody spread out six feet apart. But it’s just been very different, you know, that connection and the ability to interact. I think it’s so important, it’s such a big part of our program, that you’re able to spend some time away from football with the guys on a very personal level and that allows you to work through some of the challenging times and things like that. So, just very different. But yeah, I have players stop in. Again, I wouldn’t say it’s more this year, just the way our building is on lockdown. You know, it’s very different. Even the parents, usually I would get a lot of time with the parents on Friday before home games. I’d get time with the parents before the game and after the game. I get time with the parents during spring ball. They’d come up on the weekends. Summer camp, they’d come up on the weekends and be out at practice sitting in their lawn chairs and watching, I’d get the chance to interact with them. We haven’t gotten to do any of those things. Q: Based on your answer earlier, are you a fan of the playoffs? Would you rather do without it?A: I am a fan of the playoffs. I do think a playoff expansion, which has been discussed for a while is important so that every conference, every power five conference would get an automatic bid. I think that’s important. And then it also allows you to have someone from a non-power five conference to be able to get in as well. This was discussed a lot going into the playoff system. What that would do to the bowls and everything else and it’s had an impact. I do think there’s some positives and I do think there’s some challenges that have come from that. It’s been discussed a lot. There’s no doubt about it. But yeah, I think in theory, I’m supportive of it but I wouldn’t say it’s perfect. I think a lot of people would probably agree with me. Q: Coming into the season, your program was trending up. Bigger picture, how much do you think this start has set the program back, not only for this year, but looking beyond this year?A: Obviously, whenever you have challenges like this, you know, it creates things that you’re going to have to work through. To your point, I think coming into this season, before all the dynamics changed, I think everybody would agree that things were really going pretty well. Obviously, we’ve got a challenge right now. We’ve got adversity. Life is about handling adversity and sports is about handling adversity. That’s what we’re going to have to do. There’s no other option but to find a way to get better today and find a way to get back on track. Which, you know, our track was very well-thought of. Q: You’ve talked about growing through adversity and learning from the experiences this year. Where do you think people grow the most in these sort of adverse situations? What do you hope your team is learning through all of this?A: I think the biggest thing is understanding, you know, your why. What is the thing that gets you up in the morning and motivates you to be the best version of yourself? I think that’s something that we always talk about, but obviously, right now is really important. I think the other thing that you learn through adversity is, you know, winning is hard. Winning is really hard in major college football, but the opposite is harder or the opposite was harder. I think what happens is all the things that are important, this magnifies. It makes it very, very clear to everybody that those details and those lessons and those things that you pride yourself on are more important than ever. I think the other thing is, it shows you that you can get though almost anything together as a family. That’s the players, that’s the coaches, that’s the parents. That’s all of us. Times like this, keep your circle tight and keep moving. For me, like I mentioned earlier, we just want to get better today. Q: You’ve gotten some freshmen and younger players in the game out of necessity. How important is the rest of the season going to be for those guys, who don’t necessarily have to play, from a development standpoint? How important is it to get some younger guys going in these last couple weeks?A: I think we’ve got to do whatever we’ve got to do to beat Michigan. I think that has got to be our focus. We have to get better today and we have to find a way to win on Saturday, obviously based on a lot of different factors. You know, there’s going to be more guys that get to play, some of that our of necessity. But, it’s all about getting better today and it’s all about, what do we have to do to beat Michigan. Q: On Sundays, over the last few weeks, what have those sessions been like as far as getting into conversations that need to happen for improvement?A: Yeah, they’re obviously challenging. You come in, you work so hard, and you come in and don’t have the success you want to have. You’ve gotta sit in those meetings and have really good conversations and work through them. Work through what the issues are. So, you know, they’re not easy. Those Sundays after difficult games are not easy on any of us. They create some sleepless nights on Saturday and they create some challenging work days on Sunday. For me, you know, the thing that I want to make sure that these players know, they have my love, unconditionally. I think that is really important. You know, a lot of guys maybe have experienced relationships that are fair-weather, I know I have, but that’s not what I’m about. That’s not what we’re about. So I want to make sure Saturday night after the game, no matter what the result, and Sunday afternoon after games, no matter what the result is, that these guys know how much I love them and how much I care about them and that they don’t forget all the success that we’ve had together. For us to get back to that, we’re going to have to do it the same way, together. Q: You’ve talked about being a relational coach and the struggles with the virus and how being a family, that’s really hurt right now. What can you do with four games left to try to navigate that to make that one thing better?A: We’ve tried to be creative with that. I think, you know, this week is a good example. We’re going to Michigan and we can’t have meetings in the hotel. We can’t have meals in the hotel. We can’t do any of that. So, we’re going to have to have our meetings here before we go. Then the meals are just going to be grab-and-go there. So, it creates a very different dynamic at the hotel. To be honest with you, the Friday hotels, it’s usually really cool. It’s usually fun to do your meetings. The families are usually all there. At night, they get to spend some time with their families, which is always tremendous. And, obviously, it’s not going to be that as this thing continues to go, it becomes more strict. Here in Pennsylvania, specifically at Penn State, we’ve tried to push this as much as we can to get back to some normalcy and how we normally operate. But there’s not a whole lot of wiggle room, because, again, my number one goal and priority coming into the season was to keep everybody healthy and safe. We’ve done that, but we also have to find a way to be successful in football at the same time. Q: How much do you look at tape from previous weeks and doing everything you can to beat Michigan this week? How much of that is simply execution-based vs. things like scheme and players knowing the plan heading into the game?A: I think it’s all of it. I think we can do some things to put players in a better position to be successful. That’s always the case. I think we can do some things a little bit better when it comes to execution. That is always the case. The other thing is, having some fun and flying around and making some plays or playing with confidence and playing with a swagger. But you earn those things. You earn those things through your preparation and having success on Saturday’s. I think that’s going to be something that’s going to be really important in practice today. Find some ways to have some fun and have some energy out there and get better. Q: In the Spring, you had some challenges with strength and conditioning through the quarantine period. Are you seeing any ramifications of that today? Could you compare where they’re at physically to where they might be at during a typical season?A: I think to your point, it all adds up. A lot of the guys were home and didn’t have all the equipment or resources. Some guys did have gyms and places they could go to, and then, a lot of them ended up getting shut down or kicked out of those places. Some guys were at home with challenging circumstances. I think all these things factor in and each school is a little different in how they handle it. Each state is a little bit different in how they handle it. Regions of the country are very different in how they handle it. There’s a lot of things that factor into it. There’s personal decisions and personal choices. It’s all of it. I think, you know, the difference compared to our normal summer workouts, our normal spring training periods. You know, if you[‘re fortunate to have a year where you didn’t have a whole lot of turnover on your staff, this would be the year too, which was not the case for us.