I have a confession to make: At many points during the last football season, I found myself simply not caring about the games.
Sure, there were some fun moments. Beating Rutgers into a pulp will never not be fun. Watching Saquon Barkley burst onto the scene was definitely a pleasant surprise. Seeing Joe Paterno’s final class walk off the field for the final time and all that it represented was worth caring about. But, mostly, I didn’t care. The losses stopped bothering me, the wins ceased being fun, and sitting through the ugly, uninspiring football — without the Bill O’Brien-type frankness and Michael Mauti hangover to make up for a 7-6 season — just became a Saturday chore, lacking any sort of inspiration or enjoyment.
This pervasive apathy was a new feeling for me as a fan, even as someone who started going to games during the 2000-2004 era. Most of those seasons were undoubtedly more helpless than the last (I mean, Penn State lost to Toledo in 2000…by 18 points). But even then, we all convinced ourselves that we were just one player away, one play or two away from returning to our rightful place in the upper echelon of college football (feelings that were vindicated in 2005). Next year, we all agreed, was going to be the year. For whatever reason, those “Dark Era” seasons felt different — and more hopeful — than these last two. Chalk it up to youthful optimism, I guess.
But here’s the worst part: I don’t think I will truly care again about the result of a Penn State football game for at least 20 more months when the team trots out onto the field against Akron on September 2, 2017. At least, that’s the earliest date this fanbase will begin to know for sure whether James Franklin has the chops to make it at Penn State.
It is through this lens of apathy and uncertainty that I view this offseason of Penn State football. To recap: Bob Shoop is heading to Tennessee; Herb Hand took a job with Auburn; Akeel Lynch, Troy Reeder, Gary Wooten, Geno Lewis, and Daquan Worley transferred; Christian Hackenberg and Austin Johnson are leaving early for the NFL draft; Adam Brenneman “retired;” and Jim Harbaugh is having a sleepover with one of Penn State’s top high school commits.
The fanbase seems to have polarized into two distinct ideologies explaining the recent exodus:
1. All of these departures are completely normal and healthy for every program and there’s no reason for concern. Shoop just wanted a better chance at becoming a head coach and Hand left to help out his friend at Auburn and start fresh (and besides, our offensive line couldn’t get much worse). Lynch knew he wasn’t going to play behind Barkley; Reeder wanted to be closer to home and play with his brother; and Wooten, Worley, and Lewis weren’t going to get a lot of playing time next year anyway. All of these moves happen at every program — anyone who expects the same level of stability Penn State had under Paterno is just a delusional, 409-obsessed idiot — and losing our best assistant coach to a Tennessee team that has had two winning seasons out of the last six is just part of the business and no reason for alarm. Losing one of our best recruiters in Hand is no big deal, either, and no reflection of these coaches’ perspective on what the future of James Franklins’ program holds. As long as we keep putting up nationally ranked recruiting classes — Harbaugh creepy sleepover plans be damned — Penn State is going to be really good after the full scholarships kick in. All of the former players saying negative things about Franklin are just immature. Penn State’s shortfalls on the field can be directly attributed to the NCAA sanctions and we’re lucky to just be playing football at this point. Remember, things could be worse!
2. James Franklin is a complete fraud who clearly hasn’t won over the respect and trust of his team. Shoop and Hand left for lateral positions at schools in similar situations because they clearly know things aren’t looking bright at Penn State. We’ve already had five transfers in one week when only 11 total transferred in the entire year after the NCAA sanctions. Even if these players weren’t guaranteed playing time, they would definitely stay on the roster if they thought Penn State was a program on the rise or had any respect for Franklin’s program. Quinn Nordin is almost certainly going to decommit and Franklin’s 14th ranked recruiting class is likely to lose a few more along the way, too, after a disappointing season. There are all sorts of rumors swirling about how much Hackenberg hated Franklin; the quarterback and coach didn’t even speak to each other for weeks at a time, according to some. Aside from the personnel issues, a good coach should be able to win more than seven games against crummy opponents with a world class quarterback, a freshman phenom running back, a nationally ranked defense, and a decent wide receiving corps. Other coaches have won more with less. Besides, Franklin’s game management is awful — how many times was Hackenberg left in the game during garbage minutes for bullshit reasons, and who could forget the timeout/wildcat nonsense at Northwestern? These gameday blunders are unlikely to get better, even when Penn State is at full strength. Let’s not waste any more time with Franklin; it’s time to fire him, get a football coach instead of a salesman, and move on.
Here’s the thing: Anyone who says they’re absolutely certain about how the Franklin era will turn out — whether it’s #1 or #2 — is totally full of shit. And furthermore, until 2017, I simply don’t care.
This is, I fear, the crux of all the discontent about Penn State football since it lost to Temple in September for the first time since 1941. Not knowing what the future holds is, in some ways, worse for the fanbase’s psychological well-being than knowing the future is bad. Aside from those Penn State fans around in 1966 for Paterno’s inaugural 5-5 season, it’s a feeling of uncertainty and helplessness none of us have ever felt.
The immediate future, though, seems fairly clear. Penn State is breaking in a new quarterback next year — guaranteed to be a sophomore or younger — with a defense depleted significantly by graduation and Johnson’s NFL aspirations. With Pitt on the schedule replacing what is usually a guaranteed non-conference win, Penn State is likely to be favored in only 4 or 5 of the 12 games. A bowl bid in 2016 should be seen as a success — it would mean Penn State actually picked up an upset win, something Franklin has yet to accomplish in two seasons. The likelihood of the 2016 Nittany Lions having a better record than the 2015 team is small. It’s healthy for us to admit this.
But 2017 is a different story. Eighty percent of the team will be Franklin recruits, and the last two seasons of nationally ranked recruiting classes will be experienced upperclassmen. It’s fair to say, barring some disaster, that Franklin at least deserves to see that season through. Only then we will know what this unbreakably positive coach who boasts about “going 1-0” after a one point victory over a 3-9 Maryland team is made of. Until then, it is going to be a long 20 months.
As Tom Petty once put it, the waiting is the hardest part. Let’s not eat each other alive in the meantime.