Penn State had just won the Big Ten championship and James Franklin went straight for Joe Moorhead.
The Nittany Lions coach gave a big hug to his first-year offensive coordinator after Moorhead helped him engineer a surge back into the top 10.
Franklin has regularly credited Moorhead and his staff for the attention and honors he himself has received this season, the latest coming Tuesday with the Woody Hayes Award as coach of the year.
It’s the second national coach of the year nod for Franklin, who also received the recognition from the Sporting News in December. He was a finalist for a handful of others, including for the Bear Bryant Award, which will be announced on Wednesday.
“These are staff awards,” Franklin said last month when the media voted him as the Big Ten’s top coach. “We’ve got the best staff in the country. We’ve got the best players. I love our kids, our locker room.
“So we appreciate it. We’re humbled and honored. But it’s really about our team. We talk about all time with team success comes individual recognition, and that’s great, but it’s really about our staff.”
Franklin’s work in overhauling that staff last winter paid immediate dividends for 2016, as the Lions surprised the country by upsetting Ohio State and winning nine straight games to earn the Big Ten title and a trip to the Rose Bowl.
At the end of his second straight 7-6 season since arriving at Penn State, Franklin fired offensive coordinator John Donovan and saw defensive coordinator Bob Shoop and offensive line coach Herb Hand leave for the same jobs at Tennessee and Auburn, respectively.
He first hired Moorhead to replace Donovan and promoted linebackers coach Brent Pry into Shoop’s position. Later in January, he brought in Matt Limegrover to direct the offensive line and Tim Banks to coach the safeties, a job formerly held by Shoop.
Moorhead also worked directly with the quarterbacks, moving Ricky Rahne over to take over with the tight ends, which had been handled by Donovan.
With a new system, more depth and a little more experience, all of those changes led to marked improvement as the Lions marched to an 11-3 season.
“I think it’s one of the better stories in college football,” Franklin said before the Rose Bowl. “I mean, you think about all the different things we had on our plate that we had to overcome when we took the job, the situation that we walked into now and where we’re at in a fairly short period of time, it’s a credit to our players. It’s a credit to our coaches.”
Had Penn State held on to beat USC in Pasadena, the Lions very well might have finished No. 3 in the country behind Clemson and Alabama.
Instead it was the Trojans who were No. 3 while Penn State checked in at No. 7 in the final AP and coaches polls, which were released Tuesday.
It was the Lions’ highest final ranking since finishing third at the end of the 2005 season in which they won the Big Ten and outlasted Florida State in the Orange Bowl. It was also the 25th time the program earned a top-10 finish in the AP poll.
With the bulk of the team returning for next season, the Lions are also a constant in the first batch of pundits’ top-10 projections for 2017.
ESPN has Penn State at No. 4 while Sports Illustrated puts them at No. 6 and Pro Football Focus went with No. 7.