James Franklin sat atop the stage for the postgame press conference seated next to Saquon Barkley and Malik Golden. Normally, coaches find it within themselves to muster up enough strength and keep their emotions at bay after tough losses. But tonight felt different; Franklin didn’t hold back, nor did his players coping with the toughest loss of their careers.
But these weren’t mere tears — this was proof of what this season meant to them. “I couldn’t be more proud.” Franklin said. “I know this probably sounds crazy, but I wouldn’t be any more proud sitting here tonight with a win. I couldn’t be any more proud of our guys.”
Of course it’d be easy to dissect the final two minutes of what might be the greatest Rose Bowl game ever played; the decision to take a gamble and roll the dice rather than play it safe will be discussed and debated for years to come, but that’s not what the focus should be on right now.
It should be on the seniors. It should be on what this team was able to accomplish in 2016. Most importantly, it should be on James Franklin and the job he’s done returning Penn State to not just relevancy, but title contention. Here’s a man who took one of the toughest jobs in sports — even after Bill O’Brien’s miraculous two-year stretch — and forged a new identity for his program. In three short years, he’s taken Penn State from a crippled, deteriorated state to the top of the toughest conference in college football. He did it his way with his guys, and this fanbase is indebted to him and his staff for the job they did.
But what these seniors mean to this program is tough to put into words. They weathered an unimaginable storm, and Franklin took some time during his postgame press conference to acknowledge their importance — specifically to Golden, who’d be wearing a Penn State jersey for the final time. “The thing I’m probably emotional about more than anything is this is the last time this 2016 football team will be together,” Franklin said. “These seniors like Malik, it’s his last time he’ll be in the locker room with those guys. That’s probably the thing that hurts me the most. Because Malik and his other seniors have been through so much in this program, and me specifically, and Penn State, will be indebted to you for a very long time. Thank you, Malik.”
Penn State wasn’t supposed to be here; not many teams are able to overcome such adversity like this team did in winning nine consecutive games after starting 2-2. Throw in the fact the Lions lost a handful of starting offensive linemen and linebackers to injury throughout the year, and you’ve got yourself something of a fairy tale. That’s what fans should think about when they look back on this magical season.
This all might sound cliche, but there’s no better way to say it. Sports have the ability to give people hope in a variety of ways. Maybe they’re a release from the rest of life, or maybe they’re a medium for people to invest themselves into a larger cause. That’s exactly what this Penn State team was able to do. They weren’t supposed to beat Ohio State. They weren’t supposed to run the table. They weren’t supposed to win the Big Ten.
Because that’s how things were supposed to go — but that’s the beauty of sports. Franklin and his program achieved the impossible, and inspired an entire fanbase in the process. So, when you reflect on the season that was, keep these thoughts at the forefront. Hindsight is 20/20; maybe the decisions made at the end of the game were unwise, but there’s no changing the miraculous run this team embarked on.
So thank you, coach Franklin. Thank you to the seniors. Thank you Penn State.