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February 11, 2014

Grosz: The right coach for Penn State, right now

It's never fair to compare someone to a legend, but after listening to James Franklin at his press conference introducing him as Penn State's 16th head football coach, I couldn't help but think I had heard this same exact message approximately 40-plus years ago when I was a student at Penn State from a man named Joe Paterno.

Paterno, back when I was a student at Penn State in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was in the beginning stages of formulating his football policies in Happy Valley.

It would eventually be labeled as the "Grand Experiment" by a sportswriter.

The ideals were simple. A combination of having a championship-caliber football team that had a yearly impact on the national scene, boosted by realistic expectations of two or three runs per decade toward a national championship without forgetting the academic side of college life.

Paterno was fully committed to the ideal of producing true student-athletes that were capable of winning Division I football national championships. His formula for accomplishing that was a high energy approach that immersed all of his effort into the total college experience at Penn State. He wanted to help produce fantastic football players that were leaders both on and off the field.

That's why Paterno embraced the many challenges of wearing all the varied hats that would be required of him to produce his so-called "Grand Experiment."

As I listened to Franklin speak at his introductory press conference, I realized that's what Penn State's fan base needs the most right now after what it's had to endure over the past 24-plus months: a football coach that believes in the ideals of the Grand Experiment and wants to immerse himself completely into the total Penn State community.

"Penn State is a special place," Franklin said. "There are only a handful of Penn States in this country. An opportunity to coach here is such a tremendous honor that I take so much pride in.

"We're going to wake up every single morning, do a back handspring out of bed, excited about the opportunity to represent this great institution."

To get that accomplished, Franklin understands that his role at Penn State as the Nittany Lions' head football coach makes him to a large degree part of the face of this University.

"The interesting thing with this job is you've got to wear a lot of hats, and every job is important, connecting with former players, recruiting, developing relationships on campus," Franklin said. "I think that's one of the best things that we did when we first got to Vanderbilt is that I went around and took every dean, the provost, vice chancellors out to lunch.

"And I plan on doing the same thing here. Taking everybody that I can on this campus out to lunch and getting to know them and asking them questions and what can we do better."

If you can believe what Franklin said at his introductory press conference, the same approach holds true to the Penn State community.

"Same thing in the community, reaching out as much as possible as you possibly can," Franklin said. "So me and my wife and my children will be out in this community. We'll not turn down a speaking engagement. We'll get out and interact with people. (If) people ask us to come speak at schools, we're going to be there. People ask us to speak at social events, we're going to be there.

"We'll do everything we can to bring this community back together and really take pride in this program and where we're going and how we're doing it, and you can't get more excited.

"As much as I love this press conference, I really can't wait for it to end so we can run out of here and get to work."

But most of all, Franklin seems to understand the heartache, trauma and depth of depression Penn State's fans, alumni, students, and University employees have had to endure the past two years since the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke and made national newspaper headlines.

"The healing process is why I'm here," Franklin declared. "It's why we're all here, to bring this great university back together and try to unite the former players, the current players, the alumni, all the people.

"Because what I think is the reality is everybody just takes great pride in this university and they want to see it great in everything - academically, athletically, socially, spiritually, the whole package."

If the powers that be at Penn State believe it's important for Penn State's Coaches Caravan to re-emerge this coming May for the third consecutive year, I got the full impression from what Franklin demonstrated at his introductory press conference that definitely would be something he would embrace and actually enjoy.

Now, it's time talk some football. For the past 30-plus years I've had the distinct pleasure of covering Penn State's nationally respected football program.

I grew up developing my passion for Penn State football when Paterno's "Grand Experiment" placed the program among the elite in the country. Between 1968 and 1994 Paterno's teams won two national championships (1982 and 1986) and posted five undefeated seasons (1968, 1969, 1973, 1986 and 1994). In 46 years, Paterno was able to win 409 games.

Those are all outstanding records, but what really created my hell-bent passion for Penn State football was the energy, drive and passion Paterno demonstrated in the formative years during the 1970s when he almost single-handedly turned the program into a Division I national football power.

From what I've witnessed from Franklin, he appears to have that same type of drive and bravado that Paterno possessed at the beginning of his head coaching tenure at Penn State.

Where that was most evident to me was when he shared with the media his recruiting philosophy and the confidence he showed getting the job done.

"I don't know if I've mentioned this before, but we're going to dominate the state (in recruiting)," Franklin confidently stated. "That is the first thing we're going to do. I believe in the high school coaches in this state. I know how well (players are) coached and developed. I know how talented this state is as well. I know how important football is here.

"So that is the first thing we're going to do. We're going to work very, very hard and put a staff together that will help us dominate the state of Pennsylvania."

It's apparent Franklin wants Penn State to dominate Pennsylvania in recruiting the way Ohio State dominates the Buckeye State.

"Then, obviously being able to recruit aggressively in this region (Northeast) as well," Franklin continued. "New Jersey, New York, New England, Virginia, Delaware, has been very good to Penn State traditionally."

Franklin believes you have to take care of that 300-mile radius recruiting base around Happy Valley first, but he also knows that, if he wants to win Big Ten Division East titles, play in the Big Ten Championship Game and eventually play in the new formatted NCAA playoff system he has to recruit on a national level.

"I think also we are going to take a national approach by position," Franklin explained. "We will do that as well.

"We need to recruit nationally as well because I think you sell yourself short when you don't do that. We could have a Penn State alum in California whose son always grew up wanting to go to Penn State. So having the ability to recruit nationally so that we're aware of where all the great players are in the country. I think that is important."
It didn't take long for Franklin to showcase what he meant when he said he plans to have a national recruiting philosophy.

Just 72 hours after being named head coach, Franklin verbally offered 2015 Rivals100 DE/LB Russell Ude (6-3 , 240) from Westminster High School in Atlanta, Ga. Ude is the seventh best overall rated strongside DE in the country according to Rivals and the 76th best overall rated prospect by Rivals for the Class of 2015.

When Ude landed his verbal offer from Penn State he tweeted the following: "I've been offered by Penn State, all glory to God."

That doesn't mean Penn State's in the driver's seat for Ude, but it does emphasize the fact Franklin believes Penn State can expect some success recruiting on a national level.

This is the same exact recruiting philosophy Paterno adopted throughout the 1980s and most of the 1990s when Penn State won two national championships ('82 and '86) and should have won a national championship ('94).

After losing the January 1, 1979 Sugar Bowl and national championship to Alabama (14-7), Paterno totally changed his approach to recruiting. He entered into somewhat of a national approach in recruiting going up and down the entire East Coast from Massachusetts to Florida, having remarkable recruiting success in Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia.

Players like D.J. Dozier, Tim Johnson, Ray Roundtree, Michael Timpson, Gary Wilkerson, David Daniels, Leroy Thompson (Tenn.), Keith Goganious, Darren Perry, Sam Gash, Richard McKenzie, Wally Richardson, Bobby Engram, Reggie Givens, Shelly Hammonds, Courtney Brown, David Macklin, Willie Smith, Bhwoh Jue, James Boyd, Michael Robinson, Shamar Finney, plus many more.

All these players from Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida played key roles in Penn State's success throughout the 1980s and 1990s and, believe it or not, all ended up being drafted and playing in the NFL.

Franklin, just like Paterno in his prime, knows that being able to recruit successfully at the highest level is the lifeblood for being an elite Division 1 (FBS) football program.

What also impressed me about Franklin's football presentation at his introductory press conference on Jan. 11 was his description of his offensive and defensive philosophies.

"I don't believe in one offense or one defense, or one special teams philosophy is the end-all/be-all," Franklin stated. "It's all about taking advantage of the assets that you have, and that's what we're going to do.

"We'll be pro-style, multiple pro-style offense-defense, and we'll be aggressive in everything we do.

"When we get off the bus, we'll be aggressive. The way we call the game, we'll be aggressive. I think that's very, very important. I think the fans want to see an exciting style of defense. I think the fans want to see an exciting style of offense and special teams.

"We'll take calculated risks. We're going to have fun. It always helps to have a quarterback. I don't care whether it's little league, high school, college or the NFL. If you have a quarterback, you've got a chance.

"We feel very, very good about the quarterback we have in our program right now."

Paterno was the right man, at the right place, at the right time for Penn State's football program. Bill O'Brien was the perfect bridge at a time when Penn State's football program was in crisis.

From what I heard and saw from Franklin at his press conference on Jan. 11, he appears to be exactly what Penn State's football program needs on board coming out of its NCAA sanctions.

A head coach who welcomes every facet of not only Penn State's remarkable football heritage, but also embraces any role he's asked to fulfill to represent Penn State.




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