UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — They were back together again Sunday. It had been three weeks, and back then the Penn State players were preparing for winter break and completing the offseason meetings they routinely held with then-coach Bill O’Brien.
So much had changed by Sunday, though. James Franklin was now their coach. He called a meeting, and so they waited in the locker room for him, some gathering as early as an hour ahead of time.
“It didn’t feel too different in the players’ eyes,” linebacker Mike Hull said Tuesday.
For Hull, a senior, and for nearly half the players on the roster, Franklin is the third full-time coach of their careers. Include interim coaches Tom Bradley and Larry Johnson, and they have dealt with five head coaches. As Hull said, the newness didn’t register with too much shock because the players are all still together, a bond for which they are proud.
When Franklin did address them, cornerback Jordan Lucas said he told them he was honored to be at Penn State and wanted the team to outwork the competition. The consistent message between the players made available to the media Tuesday — Lucas, Hull, offensive guard Miles Dieffenbach and wide receiver Geno Lewis — was satisfaction with Franklin, largely because of his energy and the belief that he will be a player’s coach.
“He really cares a lot about everyone on the team, and everyone has a role,” Dieffenbach said. “He seems really exciting and up-tempo, and that’s something we all like.”
That didn’t mean the last two weeks were easy. Lucas said former players such as Malcolm Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, along with himself and Bill Belton were instrumental in trying to relax the team as the coaching situation remained in limbo. Because most of them were out of town during break, they communicated via text message or phone call.
Lucas said Johnson helped by communicating with the team at least two or three times during winter break.
Johnson, however, is no longer with Penn State.
He announced to the team Monday he would be leaving, and he will reportedly end up at Ohio State.
“It’s a discussion that I had,” Johnson said Tuesday. “That’s what it is right now. I have not made a decision about my next step. I love coaching, and until the passion runs out of me I’d like to keep doing it.”
Sports Illustrated, though, reported Tuesday that it’s a done deal for him to become the Buckeyes defensive line coach, citing an unnamed Ohio State source.
Johnson coached Penn State for 18 seasons, mostly as the defensive line coach.
Some of his top players included Courtney Brown, Tamba Hali, Devon Still and Jordan Hill. He was known for his recruiting prowess, particularly in the mid-Atlantic region and in Pennsylvania.
Johnson said he had thought and prayed about the decision over the past couple of days and decided stepping down would be the right fit for him and Penn State.
“I felt with a new coach coming and a new staff coming in maybe it’s time to step away and allow Penn State to continue to move forward,” he said.
Johnson’s exit from Penn State could impact the team’s recruiting, particularly for star recruit Thomas Holley, a defensive tackle. Holley did not respond to a text message or phone call on Tuesday but last month said Johnson was one of his primary reasons for choosing Penn State.
Lucas and the other players said they wish Johnson the best — even if he ends up with Ohio State.
“If he is on the opposing sideline, more power to him,” Lucas said.
Galt likely to join staff
Winter workouts began in earnest for Penn State Monday. Lucas said the focus, like every winter, is on speed and strength. Though nothing has been made official regarding who will replace former strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald, Dieffenbach and Hull said they believed Vanderbilt strength coach Dwight Galt was going to come to Penn State. Galt has helped teach Fitzgerald in the past and has a similar program.
O’Brien’s media tour
Former Penn State coach Bill O’Brien was a guest on prominent radio shows “Mike & Mike” and “The Jim Rome Show” Tuesday.
He offered insight into why he left Penn State, saying family decisions and missing the NFL game were major factors. He said he regretted the conversation published in the Harrisburg Patriot-News in which he discussed the influence of the “Paterno people.”
“I know I had a ton of support there,” O’Brien said on “Mike & Mike.” “Penn State is a special place. I believe in what we did at Penn State.”
Variable ticket pricing
The sellouts that Franklin promised during his introductory news conference should be easier to come by, given a new policy released by the athletic department that creates variable costs for single-game football tickets.
Penn State announced that tickets could be as low as $40, and factors such as expected demand would cause the variables in pricing. Last year, all individual game tickets cost $70. The variable pricing means that tickets for worse opponents, such as Akron and Massachusetts, will be below $70, whereas the cheapest tickets for top opponents, such as Northwestern and Ohio State, will be greater than $70.
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.