CHICAGO — The morning Penn State coach James Franklin arrived at Big Ten media day headquarters he noticed that a logo for each Big Ten team covered a given hotel elevator. He wanted to take the elevator with the Penn State logo to his room. Problem was the elevators don’t operate for every floor, and Franklin’s floor couldn’t be accessed by the Penn State elevator.
“It was panic mode,” he said. “I didn’t want somebody to see me getting onto the Nebraska elevator.”
He recounted that story as a joke during his introduction on the first day of media days. As Franklin said Tuesday morning, he rehearses very few set pieces for speaking appearances like these. The rest is improv. He promises he’s not just spouting some company line, but …
“I probably should,” he said.
It has been six months since Franklin took over the Nittany Lions, and the same enthusiasm he displayed in January was on display again the past two days as he prepares for the start of the season.
Franklin was telling the jokes (even if they didn’t land), making fun of his boring lifestyle (rehashing how his life is purely football and family) and explaining his penchant for always posing in photographs while motioning the No. 1 with his right index finger.
He said the No. 1 stems from his early days on the job.
At Vanderbilt, he had given a hand signal known as the “Anchor Down.” The practice of giving a hand signal during pictures had become so ingrained in him that he realized he needed to do the same at Penn State.
Shortly after he was hired, Franklin visited the all-sports museum on campus. He saw the statue of a Nittany Lion sporting a No. 1 with its index finger. He had his idea.
The No. 1 is now a part of his repertoire, one of the tell-tale signs of his enthusiasm, as well as a symbol of the goals he hopes to reach in having a No. 1 team in the Big Ten and nationally and a No. 1 team in academic records. His players insist it’s not a gimmick, either.
Kicker Sam Ficken mentioned how he can joke with and even push around Franklin between drills at practices. Running back Bill Belton said Franklin acts with the same joviality he routinely displays in public settings, but also injects some discipline.
Franklin’s staff, for instance, has instilled an old-school policy known as “Dawn Patrol.” Anytime a player commits a minor transgression, like not studying enough or staying out too late, he is ordered to awake early in the morning and participate in conditioning drills. The humor and showmanship are pushed to the background for instances like that.
“He’s serious, too,” Belton said, “because he’s trying to accomplish something.”
The time for accomplishment — at least on the football field — is finally here. Preseason camp begins Monday. Franklin insists Penn State will be ready.
“It’s just kind of cleaning up for a few things, having some discussions as a staff and getting the final pieces of the puzzle put together,” Franklin said. “Really, the preparation is in back. It’s behind us.”
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.