The answer, as is often the case, was in James Franklin’s ever-present cellphone.
The question, posed Sunday afternoon — 10 days before Penn State opens spring practice on March 22 — was simple:
“What are your priorities and goals for spring practice?”
Franklin had just pulled up a chair for a few minutes of conversation prior to his appearance at the annual awards banquet of the Central PA Chapter of the National Football Foundation & College Football of Fame.
Franklin and his sidekick/daughter, Shola, had arrived early at The Penn Stater Conference Center, to meet and greet high school football coaches and myriad Keystone connections before the coach — along with former Nittany Lion Brandon Noble — spoke to a large crowd.
Before all that, he took a seat and a few minutes to look ahead to the official start of the 2017 season, just 79 days since his team capped an amazing 11-3 season with a dramatic 52-49 loss to USC. Not a long respite, actually. (Heck, Penn State went 21 days longer than that between losses last season, the run for the Roses gap between losses to Michigan and the Trojans covering 100 days. Exactly.)
Still, it’s time to look ahead. Hence, the query.
Franklin, in his fourth year as Penn State’s head coach, literally had the answer in hand.
DIALING UP THE MESSAGE
James pulled his cell out of the pocket of his dark blue pin-striped suit and started thumbing through some recent texts. He stopped at the one that he had sent not so-long-ago to defensive coordinator Brent Pry, offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead and director of football operations Michael Hazel.
Like most of his staff, Franklin may have been away last week during Penn State’s spring break. He was at a Nike coaches clinic in Virginia Beach, his third such session since signing day on Feb. 1 (other stops were in Connecticut and Wilkes-Barre), and some much-needed R&R with his family. But there’s one thing about Franklin that we’ve learned: He’s never really off-duty.
Trust the process? Trust that the process is 24/7/365.
His text message was a three-parter, with multiple bubbles, a missive that Pry and Moorhead would coordinate with their assistants and GA’s. And a 1-2-3 that Hazel, a key logistical cog of the Franklin team — who owns one bachelors degree (in corporate communications) and two masters (an MBA and another in organizational leadership) — will make sure is in Franklin’s PowerPoint for Penn State’s first all-squad meeting in Lasch Building over the next week.
Here’s the crux of that CJF text, sans emojis but replete with a 100%, although not the red one with the double underlines:
“Team spring objectives: No. 1 is 100% effort on every play. Every person in the program, from snap to whistle.
“No. 2 — the most competitive environment in college football. Every play is the Super Bowl.
“No. 3 — offensive ball security, defensive ball disruption. We were undefeated in the games where we won the turnover battle.
“Those are the three main deals.”
Then he finished with this reminder, respectful of the combined 44 years of coaching experience and success of Pry and Moorhead, but ever-mindful it his vision — and ultimate responsibility — for Penn State football:
“Everyone should be reinforcing this. Every meeting and practice should reflect this. Drill periods and practices should be built to reinforce these.”
Implicit in the message was this: 1.) No resting on our laurels. None of us. 2.) There’s depth. Lots of it. And remember, our Super Bowl is the College Football Playoffs. 3.) Turnovers win — and lose — ballgames, as the waning moments of two defeats iast season underscored.
Granted, Franklin’s message wasn’t all that sexy. Especially from the man who brought us “UNRIVALED” and “#107kstrong” and “We Are…Better.” You might have expected more. And you’d be wrong.
Those three Franklin Phrases now have a shelf-life of three years, believe it or not. They’ve been around for awhile. Don’t expect anything killer for 2017, either. Unless you’re talking about the product on the field. Franklin says there will not be a team slogan for 2017. Unless, maybe, “Just be consistent, baby.”
“I’m not a big theme guy,” he said Sunday. “Some people do that, where this is the theme of the year. Some people do that, with a new theme every single year.
“Our theme is going to be consistent. That means focusing and being present and making each day the best day you can possibly make it. Focus on all the things that are going to impact success.”
Franklin said he is constantly looking to differentiate his process, his program, his product — Penn State football had an excess (read: profit) of $39.8 million in FY 2015-16 — by finding an edge in the smallest of places. If that sounds the “take care of the little things and the big things will take care of themselves” axiom coined by his predecessor, once removed, you’re right. Just with a 21st century analytics/benchmarking edge to it.
“I try to think about what are we doing to differentiate ourselves,” Franklin said. “For example, everybody is doing morning workouts. So how are we different? For us to just think well, we’re working hard…so, well, if you just work hard that equals success? That’s not how life works, as we know. It does give you a chance. That’s the minimum ingredient, to work hard.”
A DISCIPLINED APPROACH
For example, Franklin is trying to use a new lens to measure discipline, performance and structure — and then quantify them. He gets why his players need to go to classes, contribute to the community and stay out of trouble. But what are the measurables in other ways?
“One of the things I want to look at is discipline and structure,” he said. “We try to tie the two things we preach all the time — discipline in terms of academics, in terms of social responsibility as it relates to our football program.
“In my six years of being a head coach, how many issues have we had when it comes to discipline — from missing to class to anything else? Let’s look at my first year as head coach, how many dawn patrols — where we’ve had to wake guys up at 5 o’clock in the morning for missing class or whatever — did we have in total in Year One? And how many in Year Two, Year Three and all the way through last year?
“We want to find out of there is a correlation between discipline off the field and discipline on the field. Let’s break it down by position as well. …Let’s come up with an objective for each (position) group, given that we know what the average number of discipline problems are per year. What can we do to cut that? What can we do to say, ‘I’m going to improve on that. I am going to have fewer discipline problems than I’ve had on average at my position over the past five years.’ “
Franklin says fewer such problems yield tangible results. For the players. And the coaches.
“My argument is, if the players aren’t having to wake up at 5 o’clock in the morning, they’re getting extra rest, more sleep and better nutrition,” Franklin said. “They’re not being distracted by drama in their lives. Does that make them more focused on school and football?
“Same thing with the coaches. If the coaches are spending less time dealing with issues and are instead spending more time developing their players — academically, socially, the whole package — instead of having to baby-sit, how much more efficient are we going to be with our time?”
A NUMBERS GAME
The bottom line could result in two numbers, postulates Franklin, who — if you recall — not-so-coincidentally has degrees in psychology and educational leadership. The numbers: a 10% improvement that translates into 1 victory.
“Let’s do a study,” says Franklin, talking a bit faster as he’s excited by the prospect of finding an edge that makes both the team and its players better, in a couple of ways. “Let’s see if there is a correlation and then let’s set objectives of what we are going to do.
“My argument is that if we can improve by 10%, with things that help us individually and collectively, then we’ve made some nice strides. I think that should be worth one more win this year. If we can take 10% off of dealing with sucvh issues, it will equate to one more win on the field.”
Ah, so here we go. Heading into spring drills, Franklin is admittedly aiming — publicly — for a dozen victories, one more than the 11 of 2016.
No, not really.
“Not one more win compared to what we had last year,” he explained. “One more win than whatever our record is supposed to be this year — one more win than that. Here’s why it’s not one more win than last year: We’re starting all over. Last year had nothing to do with this year.”
The sub-text: You can be sure that come March 22, text or no text, his players will get the same message.