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June 17, 2014

Grosz: Recruiting effort emulates Paterno's

* This publisher's column appears in the latest edition of Blue White Illustrated's magazine, on newsstands now and available for order here.

By Phil Grosz

Penn State hadn't had the need to hire a new head coach for decades on end until the end of fall 2011 when Joe Paterno was fired, Tom Bradley was named interim head coach, and the search for the program's successor went more than six weeks. Since, Bill O'Brien's hiring and subsequent departure, followed by the hiring of new head coach James Franklin, has shown a solid track record in Happy Valley of finding someone new to lead the school's flagship athletic program.

I truly believe Paterno was the right man in the right place at the right time for Penn State. He turned an agricultural college in rural central Pennsylvania into a college football juggernaut, and in so doing helped shape the university into one of the country's most prestigious public institutions. He understood the important role that college sports can play in keeping alumni engaged and in calling attention to academic successes.

Paterno's successor, O'Brien, was the perfect person to lead the program during a period of crisis. He was focused and knew what had to be done to keep Penn State from falling apart in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. He performed the public outreach that is a necessary part of the job, but his primary role was as a serious, detail-oriented teacher of the game. As it turned out, a lot of very good prospects wanted to play for that kind of a coach.

But O'Brien is gone, and the job has now passed to Franklin. From what I've seen of him during his first six months on the job, I believe he is the right person to help Penn State take the next step toward a stable and successful future.

While O'Brien was clearly most comfortable in his on-field role, Franklin has relished the more public aspects of the job. More than just a football coach, he wants to be an ambassador for Penn State. He has embraced every facet of the Nittany Lions' remarkable football heritage and has done so with a focus and passion I haven't seen at Penn State since Paterno turned the Lions into one of the country's premier Division I programs. Between 1968 and 1994, Paterno's teams won two national championships and posted five undefeated seasons. In his 46 seasons, he won 409 games. Those numbers are important, but just as important is the fact that he won those games by developing true student-athletes. Franklin understands this. His stated mission is to give his players the best college experience they can receive - on the field and in the classroom.

O'Brien had no choice but to sell the program as an avenue to the NFL. That approach played a role in helping Penn State land blue-chip prospects such as Christian Hackenberg despite the heavy sanctions the NCAA handed down in 2012.

Franklin's pitch to recruits is different. It's been broadened out in a way that calls to mind the approach Paterno took during his early years as head coach.

"The NFL is great, and we want that as an opportunity for our guys," he said during a Coaches Caravan stop in King of Prussia, Pa. "But it's not always the teams that send the most players to the NFL [that succeed]. It's the best college teams. We want to have a nice balance of both.

"We want guys to be able to go on and continue to play, but we also want to have the best college team. We don't want to have the best NFL team. We want to have the best college team."

In other words, after Penn State's postseason ban ends, Franklin wants it to once again reach for the stars. He wants to win Big Ten titles. He wants to qualify for the College Football Playoff. And considering the passion he has shown so far, it seems quite clear that he wants to win a national championship.

If a player has NFL potential, Franklin wants Penn State to give him the means of reaching that goal. But that will never be his primary objective ashead coach. It isn't Nick Saban's main objective at Alabama, nor was it Paterno's objective during his tenure at Penn State.

The way to sustain success over a long period of time is not just to recruit players with NFL potential but to incorporate that talent into a program that provides the complete college football experience. That's what Franklin wants to help create at Penn State. In many respects, it echoes what Paterno did when he led the program to national prominence in the late 1960s.

The passion that Franklin has brought to Penn State's recruiting efforts calls to mind the approach Paterno took when he became head coach in 1966. What's more, Franklin has taken the ideas and energy that characterized much of the Paterno era and ramped them up to a level that meets the needs of a 21st century team that aspires to compete for championships.

Franklin has talked often about the need to build good relationships throughout the Northeast, and that's exactly what Paterno did as head coach. One of his shrewdest moves was to lend his full support to the Big 33 program. He made Penn State's football facilities available to the Big 33 Coaches Committee and met regularly with high school coaches in Pennsylvania and bordering states. Paterno understood that the goodwill he built up in that community would help him connect with some of the Keystone State's best prospects.

With the success the program experienced and the relationships Paterno established with high school coaches up and down the East Coast, he created an aura surrounding himself and Penn State that was unmatched.

I remember vividly when Paterno went to Kempsville High School in Virginia Beach, Va., in January 1983, just after Penn State had won its first national championship. He was there to recruit prep All-America running back D.J. Dozier. When Paterno arrived, school officials canceled classes and led him into the auditorium, where he addressed the entire student body. By doing that, Paterno not only established a relationship with Dozier and his high school football coach, but also with the entire student body and community.

I'm not saying that Franklin is going to follow Paterno to the letter, but he appears determined to develop the relationships that are necessary to excel in recruiting.

"I believe in high school coaches in this state," he said at his introductory news conference in January. "I know how talented this state is, and I know how important football is here.

"So that is the first thing we are going to do. We're going to work very hard to put together all the ingredients that will help us dominate the state of Pennsylvania."

Following that news conference, Franklin met with Big 33 coaches at the Lasch Building. The coaches were on hand to select Pennsylvania's roster for their annual all-star game. In his short time on campus, Franklin has helped re-establish the connection between Penn State and the Pennsylvania High School Coaches Association - a connection that Paterno had fostered in the late 1960s and early '70s.

But Paterno didn't confine himself to the Northeast. By the late '70s, it was clear that if the Nittany Lions wanted to compete for national championships on a regular basis, they needed to do more than just recruit the best players from within a 300-mile radius of University Park. So Penn State began venturing well outside of its traditional recruiting territory, heading to Virginia, the Carolinas and Florida.

As part of that effort, Paterno worked to build relationships with a whole new group of high school coaches, just as he had done in the 1960s with the coaches from Pennsylvania and surrounding states. He and his assistants invited coaches to come work Penn State's summer football camps. By doing so, the Lions were able to make inroads with high school coaches up and down the East Coast.

"People don't understand that Penn State was the first school from north of the Mason-Dixon Line to have any real consistent recruiting success in Florida starting in the early 1980s," prep recruiting analyst Bill Buchalter said. "I believe it was one of the key reasons Paterno won his two national titles."

I agree with Buchalter. Between 1985 and 2000, 19 Penn State players from Virginia, North and South Carolina, Florida and states in Southeastern Conference territory ended up being drafted into the NFL. That list includes some of the better players of the Paterno era, such as Dozier, Bobby Engram, Courtney Brown, Tim Johnson, Leroy Thompson and Darren Perry.

What Franklin has done in his first few months on campus has been to expand on Paterno's plan and make it a legitimate force nationally in recruiting. After establishing relationships with high school coaches in Pennsylvania and bordering states, Franklin has used that same approach to connect with coaches and prospects in Florida, South Carolina and Virginia, as well as Georgia, Texas and California. He and his staff even secured spots as guest instructors at one-day coaching clinics in suburban Atlanta and central Florida last week.

"We will be holding a camp in every state this summer," Franklin said at the Coaches Caravan stop in Philadelphia. "We are going to do [all] 50 states."

Of course he was joking, but you could sense his passion, intensity, energy and confidence. I wouldn't call him a disciple of Paterno just because there are some similarities in their approach to recruiting, but I do believe Franklin learned his craft well and has created a detailed plan for success. He knows that Penn State's program continues to be respected and admired by players and coaches at the high school level even after all the negative press the program endured.

In the three decades that I've owned Blue White Illustrated, I've always believed Penn State had the potential to be a dominant team on the national recruiting scene. With Franklin in charge, that may prove to be the case in the not-too-distant future. He's already surpassed everyone's hopes in his first six months on the job.


The Year in Review

Blue White Illustrated is pleased to again present its annual 'Year in Review' magazine, a yearly look at the names and faces that made the biggest impact on Penn State athletics in the past year.

Along with our always in-depth recruiting coverage, this particular issue is jam-packed with an entire wrap-up of the year that was in Penn State sports before we turn our attention to the upcoming 2014 football season and beyond.

Take a look at the contents here:

Starting off

- BWI editor Matt Herb kicks off our coverage with a look forward instead of back, taking time to focus on the new effort and emphasis Penn State is putting into branding the football program.

- BWI publisher Phil Grosz examines the many ways in which James Franklin's approach to recruiting could pay dividends now and especially into the future.

- Recruiting writers Tim Owen and Ryan Snyder have the latest information on Penn State's recruiting efforts, plus player profiles on Amani Oruwariye, Noah Beh, Marcus Allen and Johnathan Thomas.

Year in Review

- BWI editor Matt Herb kicks off our look back at the 2013-14 Penn State season with the highlight, a profile of Micha Hancock and her help in taking Russ Rose and the women's volleyball program to yet another national championship.

- BWI's Tim Owen follows with an in-depth portrait of our Male Athlete of the Year, wrestling national champion David Taylor. Additional profiles include fencing coach Wes Glon, Male Freshman of the Year Christian Hackenberg, and Female Freshman athlete of the Year Kaliyah Mitchell.

- Herb also wraps up our special coverage with the moments to remember from Penn State's 2013-14 seasons.


- BWI's Tim Owen has a special Q&A from Penn State wrestling coach Cael Sanderson as the Nittany Lions gear up for another run at a national championship in 2014-15.


To order a subscription to BWI magazine, click here

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