Blue White Illustrated

December 2021

Penn State Sports Magazine

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D E C E M B E R 2 0 2 1 5 W W W . B L U E W H I T E O N L I N E . C O M T he juxtaposition was pronounced. Surrounded by reporters just off the corner of Penn State's practice fields, head coach James Franklin fielded a question about how he was handling the latest intrigue regarding his future with the Nittany Lions. Directly to his right, just beyond a chain-link fence wrapped in blue tarps, the unformed future of Penn State foot- ball appeared ready to be molded. At the back entrance to PSU's football complex, the early stages of work were taking place as part of a $48.3 million renovation of the Lasch Football Building. The project will expand the weight room, and plans are also in place to upgrade performance-enhancement equipment, build a student-athlete de- velopment suite, and make sports medi- cine improvements. It is, in many ways, Franklin's most important contribution to the Penn State football program in his eight-year tenure. It may also be what stings the most when his motivations are questioned now that several high-profile schools are reportedly interested in his services. Franklin told reporters he was "fiercely loyal to Penn State," and there's no more obvious sign of his loyalty than that con- struction site. Franklin is the reason why the project exists. When he signed a six-year con- tract extension that runs through the 2025 season, he received a modest pay bump, sweetening the deal he signed in 2017. But considerably more important than those changes was the commit- ment Franklin received from Penn State to support the program. He insisted that the school's administration invest deeply in building a more nationally competitive program, one that was equipped to keep pace with the game's best. University of- ficials publicly supported his vision. "We wanted to make a strong pledge to James and this program with this new contract," athletics director Sandy Bar- bour said in a December 2019 press re- lease accompanying the announcement of his extension. "James came to Penn State with a very clear vision, and we have seen that grow and prosper. What he has done to bring success to our pro- gram, both on and off the field, has been nothing short of spectacular." That pledge was the catalyst behind the renovation project, but it wasn't the fulfillment of Franklin's vision. With the Nittany Lions' coach being mentioned as a candidate for the jobs at USC and LSU, and with public specula- tion swirling as a result, fans are asking the wrong questions. What would make either of those jobs more appealing than Penn State? In a September poll surveying 100 high-level individuals in the game, The Athletic ranked LSU's head coaching position fifth (and USC's sixth) on its list of the most desirable jobs in college foot- ball. "[LSU]is completely committed to competing at the highest level, and their program has excellent support, facilities, and a game-day atmosphere that's hard to beat," the story said. What is Penn State as an institution doing about that? Is PSU looking deeply at how it stacks up against its national peers? Is it creating a road map that will lead to the level of success that Franklin envisions? Is PSU willing to commit to that plan once it has been established? And, crucially, is the university match- ing the football investments that its peers are making in their programs? Penn State doesn't have to follow the exact same plan as other schools, but if the destination isn't the same — that being Big Ten division titles, conference championships, College Football Playoff appearances and national crowns — what's the point? The answers to these questions aren't necessarily simple, but they are choices. If Penn State isn't interested or ca- pable of answering affirmatively, so be it. Just make sure that those who support the program understand the challenges that will inevitably arise as a result of that approach. Conversely, if Penn State is all-in, that needs to be made clear — both through words and by taking the steps necessary to compete with a sense of urgency. Franklin, his staff, and the players under his charge will continue to play critical roles in shaping the future of the program with their on-field results. Success breeds success, after all, and without maintaining a consistently high standard of excellence on the field, it will be hard to earn the reciprocal commit- ment Franklin is seeking. But even with the Nittany Lions sport- ing a 10-9 record since the start of the 2020 season, Franklin has done what was asked of him when he was hired in 2014, returning the program to national prom- inence. Now, he's looking to take the next step, and his words and actions need to be assessed in that context. Rather than obsessing over viral video clips, those who care about Penn State's football fortunes should be paying attention to a torn-up parking lot just beyond a chain- link fence behind the Lasch Building. That's where the future is being built. ■ Throughout his eight-year tenure, coach James Franklin has sought commitments from the administration to improve Penn State's football facilities. PHOTO BY STEVE MANUEL O P I N I O N NATE BAUER HOT READ A Firm Commitment Is James Franklin's End Game

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