Penn State football is not “back.” Not according to James Franklin.
As he enters his fifth season at the helm of the Nittany Lions — with a Big Ten title and back-to-back top-10 finishes to his name — Franklin has a higher bar set.
“I’m driving everyone probably somewhat crazy around here — the administration, our alumni, the lettermen, our supporters, our staff,” Franklin said. “Because my concern is that I don’t want us to take a deep breath and feel like, ‘Whew. We’re back. We had a couple good years — we’re back.’ Because we’re not. We’ve still got a lot of work to do.
“We’ve done some really nice things. But we’ve got a lot of work to do to get where we want to be.”
So where is that exactly?
The Lions haven’t gone undefeated in 24 years. They haven’t won a national title in 32. And Franklin has told recruits of his dream to become the first African-American head coach to win that championship in the history of major college football.
Less than an hour after last year’s regular season ended Franklin began speaking of the big picture, his program having missed a shot at the Big Ten title and the College Football Playoff thanks to two losses by a combined four points.
“I’m proud of the progress we’re making. I really am,” Franklin said last November. “But I’m probably more excited that I really believe this is just the beginning for us. I really feel like we can just continue to get better. And that’s every aspect of the program. That’s the coaches, that’s the players, that’s the trainers, that’s the doctors — that’s everything.
“And that’s what we need to do to continue to build this program. Because at this level? It’s very, very difficult and it’s very, very challenging. We’ve just got to keep scraping and clawing and scratching for every little inch that we can find. Because to be honest with you, for where we want to go, it’s still going to need to be a slow, steady crawl to get there.
“I make the argument that it’s going to be harder — these next steps — than what we’ve already done.”
Yes, as tough as it was to resurrect the Lions from scandal and sanctions to reach the top 10, climbing that next rung into the top four to reach the College Football Playoff is even more difficult.
This season, that means facing four preseason top-15 teams in Big Ten play, as well as a return to Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, the site of the loss that kept the Lions out of the Playoff in 2016.
Along the way, Penn State must figure out how to replace record-breakers at running back, wide receiver and tight end — as well as the offensive coordinator directing them — on top of 10 players on defense who started multiple games a year ago.
Daunting. But Franklin has had a plan.
“I don’t believe really it’s ever one thing,” Franklin said. “It’s not just scheme. It’s not just development. It’s not just recruiting. Those top programs, they’re strong and they’re doing it in every area. That’s why they’re able to sustain it.
“There’s programs that you see spike and have a good run for a year or two. But typically, the top five programs are in the top five fairly consistently. So they’re doing it everywhere.”
With that common thread of consistency in mind, Franklin didn’t need to think twice when he promoted Brent Pry to defensive coordinator two years ago. Or when he did the same with Ricky Rahne this past winter to run his offense.
Both men have long ties to Franklin across multiple decades and multiple programs. And they could have only dreamed to be in this situation in 2018.
It was January 2006 that Rahne found himself walking through the lobby at the Anatole Hotel in Dallas next to the man who would eventually be his new boss, Ron Prince.
After two years spent at Holy Cross and his alma mater, Cornell, Rahne got his foot in the door of major college football as a grad assistant at Kansas State.
Prince had just been named the head coach of Wildcats a month earlier, and he was assembling his staff at the annual AFCA coaches convention. Prince introduced Rahne to his new offensive coordinator — Franklin — who was eager to return to the college ranks after a year in the NFL with the Green Bay Packers.
It wasn’t exactly a life-altering experience.
“I was just trying to get a job,” Rahne laughed, recalling his first time meeting Franklin. “My first impression of him was, ‘This guy’s got a job that I need.’ “
The lasting influence, that came later.
“Once I did get hired and came on board, my impression of (Franklin) was a guy who was very driven,” Rahne said. “Detail-oriented. Knew how to motivate people. And he was a really, really good football coach. Not only from X’s and O’s, but also from fundamentals and things like that.
“I was able to learn a lot from him throughout my time with him. And hopefully I’ve picked up on some things to use those on a day-to-day basis.”
Rahne left a lasting impression on Franklin as well. Five years later, when Franklin landed his first head coaching job at Vanderbilt, he reached out to Rahne to join his first staff as quarterbacks coach.
“Obviously he believed in me and gave me a shot to be a full-time coach at Kansas State (and Vanderbilt),” Rahne said. “And quite frankly, I’ll never be able to repay him for it.”
This will now be the eighth straight season — and 10th total — that Rahne and Franklin have worked together. Now it’s Rahne who is running the offense, inheriting the system from his predecessor, Joe Moorhead, who is now the head coach at Mississippi State.
“I knew the type of success that coach Franklin was going to have no matter where he was,” Rahne said.
Rahne has a tough act to follow in Moorhead, who had the Lions scoring a full two touchdowns more per game than before he arrived.
But the same was said before the 2016 season when defensive coordinator Bob Shoop left for Tennessee after years of leading a statistically dominant defense for Franklin at Vanderbilt and Penn State.
Pry stepped into the role and helped lead the Lions to consecutive 11 win seasons.
“There’s a real comfort level we all have together,” said Pry, who goes back even further with Franklin to his playing days at East Stroudsburg. “We’re all on the same page, and when you can keep that going over the years, you have a chance to do some special things.”