CHICAGO — Restoring Penn State’s reputation and returning its star near the top of the college football galaxy once again should have earned James Franklin some long-term job security. The fourth-year coach isn’t taking any chances.
Expectations are high in Happy Valley after the Nittany Lions went 11-3, won the Big Ten title and turned up in the Rose Bowl last season. That performance, coupled with the return of Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley — one of the best returning quarterback-running back tandems in the land — has Nittany Lions fans talking about a Top-10 or even Top-5 spot in the preseason ranking.
Like the Penn State faithful, Franklin can’t wait to see what comes next. But unlike the rest, he’s already casting one eye on the future.
In perhaps the funniest moment at the Big Ten media days — no small feat anytime Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh puts in an appearance — Franklin suggested Barkley’s parents get to work right away on producing another Heisman Trophy-caliber son.
“I’m actually trying to figure out if it’s legal, NCAA-wise,” he said. “I want to send mom and dad on a romantic vacation and try to convince them to have more children.
“The Saquon thing,” Franklin added, “worked out pretty well.”
In the meantime, Franklin will have to find a way to keep one of the most lethal offenses in the game — especially after intermission — running at top speed. He’ll also have to contend with a much-tougher road schedule, the biggest bump likely to come in Columbus, where the Buckeyes will be seeking revenge after Penn State’s quirky upset win last year.
“We’re not going to spend a whole lot of time at all talking about last year. We spent all offseason talking about last year. They understand it, they get it. We appreciate it,” Franklin said.
“I think what we all have to understand is none of those points, none of those wins are going to transfer over,” he added. “We have to start from the ground up and rebuild this thing.”
It’s almost always tougher to stay on top than getting there. But the program and the school have already managed a much more daunting climb out of the ditch dug by former coach Jerry Sandusky and the child sexual-abuse scandal of 2011.
“In totality, it’s maybe the most difficult set of circumstances I’ve ever been asked to participate in and assist with,” Commissioner Jim Delany recalled a day earlier. “I can look anybody in the eye and salute Penn State for the progress they’ve made, the seriousness with which they’ve treated this issue, the education that has been absorbed and the changes that have been made.”
Other developments from the final day of the Big Ten meetings:
Harbaugh hardly needs help signing players, but he appeared to be road-testing a new slogan for next season’s recruiting trail: “Come for the football, stay for the team-building trips.”
Michigan has fewer returning starters than any major college team and one of the youngest squads in the game. To help build chemistry, the coach took his young Wolverines squad in April to Rome, where he presented the pope with a Michigan helmet and a pair of Air Jordans. That was far from the only highlight.
“We’re at the Colosseum, at the Forum, and you learn so many things along the way,” Harbaugh marveled. “The Colosseum has been around for 600 years, it’s been active for 600 years. Around here, 30, 40 years as a stadium and they tear it down. Amazing, really.”
Next year’s itinerary: Paris. “Lot to do there,” he cracked.
Speaking of Harbaugh, though not directly, the Big Ten is warning coaches to cut out the Hamlet-styled acting on the sidelines.
Of the several rules changes in store for the 2017 season, stricter enforcement of the coach’s box may have the greatest impact of all. Violators are subject to a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalties.
“We wouldn’t take a tenth of what some coaches do and say from a player, and this is the adult in the game setting the example,” coordinator of officials Bill Carollo said Tuesday.
“That’s kind of our thinking — ‘Know what? We should enforce this, but we have to do it consistently,’” he added. “Big games, coaches, I don’t care who they are. It doesn’t matter.”
The subject came to light most notably in the Michigan-Ohio State game last November, when an irate Harbaugh slammed his headset to the ground and threw a play sheet so far it ended up in the middle of the field. He accused the sideline official of being too preoccupied with his whereabouts on the field, among his critical postgame comments that drew a $10,000 fine.
Illinois is set to become the second Big Ten school to ban participation by college athletes with a history of sexual or domestic abuse.
In April, Indiana said it would not accept athletes convicted of a felony involving sexual violence. The Illinois policy, expected to include similar wording, could go into effect for the coming academic year.
Athletic director Josh Whitman told the Chicago Tribune that while the school had few reservations about going forward with the new policy, officials wanted a review or appeals process in place for unique cases.
“That’s one of the primary reservations,” he told the newspaper. “I do believe in second chances.”
In April, Indiana athletic director Fred Glass announced the school would not accept “any prospective student-athlete — whether a transfer student, incoming freshman or other status — who has been convicted of or pleaded guilty or no contest to a felony involving sexual violence.”
It defined sexual violence as “dating violence, domestic violence, rape, sexual assault or sexual violence as defined by the Indiana University policy on sexual misconduct.”