Blue White Illustrated

January 2022

Penn State Sports Magazine

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Page 48 of 67

J A N U A R Y 2 0 2 2 4 9 W W W . B L U E W H I T E O N L I N E . C O M E D I T O R I A L MATT HERB J ames Franklin likes to talk about the need for everyone to "pull the rope in the same direction." It's his aphorism for teamwork, the kind of synchronicity between coaches, athletes, administra- tors, boosters, students and fans that is necessary for any college athletics pro- gram to achieve greatness. He's been us- ing it at Penn State since his introductory news conference back in 2014 and has deployed it so often over the years that a recent Google search for "James Franklin + rope" yielded 7.36 million results. To an ambitious football coach, "pull- ing the rope in the same direction" means, essentially, "give me what I want." Throughout his tenure, Franklin has pushed Penn State for a bigger invest- ment in football, both for facilities and for the kind of salaries that will keep his staffers from making lateral moves. Those who've been paying attention to the national scene will no doubt note that coaches such as Lincoln Riley, Brian Kelly, Mel Tucker, Mario Cristobal and Franklin himself have signed extraordi- narily lucrative contracts in recent weeks. So, the notion that major-college football programs are in any way underfunded might ring a bit hollow at the moment. But in Franklin's defense, there is a cost to doing business, and the schools that aren't willing or able to pay it are likely to fall behind. The most important ques- tions for Penn State going forward are: How badly does it want to compete at the highest levels, and are all the key people internally in alignment about ensuring that the athletics department has the re- sources to achieve its goals? What makes those questions so inter- esting right now is that everyone at Penn State, including Franklin and athletics director Sandy Barbour, is getting a new boss. In December, the university an- nounced that Neeli Bendapudi would be its next president, succeeding Eric Bar- ron, who is set to step down in June. Bendapudi, who comes to PSU from Louisville, is "an incredibly thoughtful, strategic leader," said Penn State anthro- pology professor Nina Jablonski, a mem- ber of the search committee. Those leadership qualities were on full display just two months into her tenure at Louisville when she pulled the naming rights to the university's football stadium from Papa John's, announcing her deci- sion just two days after the news broke that the founder of the pizza chain had used a racial slur during a company con- ference call. "Bendapudi read the room fluently, recognized her responsibility to lead and seized her opportunity to set an unam- biguous, values-driven example," wrote Tim Sullivan, a columnist for the local Courier Journal newspaper in July 2018. Bendapudi had inherited an athletics department in disarray. Men's basketball coach Rick Pitino and athletics direc- tor Tom Jurich had been forced out, and football coach Bobby Petrino was soon to follow. Their full-time successors — football coach Scott Satterfield and men's basketball coach Chris Mack — have struggled in the years that followed, at least by Louisville standards, going 18-18 and 57-28, respectively, as of mid- December. Jurich's successor struggled, too. Vince Tyra, the son of a Louisville basketball All-American, hired both Satterfield and Mack, and like every athletics director, his fate was linked to the success of the two highest-profile programs on campus. After a 6-6 regular season this past fall, Tyra reportedly wanted to fire Sat- terfield. But Bendapudi was said to have nixed that plan, and Tyra subsequently emerged as a candidate for the open AD job at Florida State. On Dec. 9, it all came to a head: Benda- pudi was announced as Penn State's next president, Florida State hired the CEO of the Seminole Boosters to be its AD and Tyra reportedly was making plans to re- turn to the business world. So, to recap, the football coach who didn't have the support of his AD or the Louisville fan base was still on the job, and the people who had been mulling his future at the school were both gone. That, folks, is what it looks like when people aren't pulling the rope in the same direction. At Penn State, Bendapudi seems likely to face a more conventional set of problems involving the allocation of resources. How much does the football program need? How much will it get? Where is the money going to come from? What about the other programs like field hockey and swimming that are fighting for their own projects? Back in 2017, the university unveiled its ambitious Facilities Master Plan, which was aimed at upgrading athletic infrastructure throughout campus. The pandemic has changed the timeline of that plan, which was aspirational to begin with. But with any luck, some portion of it will come to fruition in the years ahead. After the contentious issues Bendapudi faced at Louisville, those must sound like good problems to have. There's always a balancing of interests that comes into play when you're in charge of a sprawling entity like Penn State. And some of these matters are primarily for Barbour and her successors to sort out. But the rope analogy holds. As long as a tug-of-war doesn't break out in the uni- versity's leadership, there's a lot that can be accomplished. ■ Neeli Bendapudi is set to become Penn State's 19th pres- ident when Eric Barron steps down this coming spring. PHOTO BY MICHAEL BIXBY/PENN STATE A Change At The Top VARSITY VIEWS

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