Forget spring practice, because that’s a given.
In a typical year, Penn State would be in the thick of that right now. Every practice would be planned out to the second, every drill timed, every rep serving a distinct purpose. All of that goes without saying, from the biggest college football programs in the nation to the smallest.
James Franklin is a planner beyond the typical, though. He takes nothing for granted, even in March. So it probably isn’t a shock to learn that long before regular seasons start, he has bowl preparations mapped out. He knows what practice schedule they’ll be using if his Nittany Lions go to the Rose Bowl or the College Football Playoff, what area high school field they’ll be using to prepare if they wind up in Tampa for the Outback Bowl. It never hurts, he knows, to be as organized as possible.
“This,” Penn State’s head coach said Wednesday, “is not something we could be organized for.”
A month ago, it would have been difficult to project anything powerful enough to bring an end to an institution like spring football practice at Penn State, but COVID-19 and its formidable spread did that not just in Happy Valley, but almost everywhere.
There would have been an intriguing fight for playing time among Nittany Lions receivers to focus on in a different world. There’d have been new position coaches looking to build. There’d have been questions about a few intriguing quarterbacks and a potentially dominant defense and, for sure, national championship hopes. They’ll all have to wait, and they may be on the backburner for quite a while.
Instead of working through those 15 spring practices he has been planning out for months, instead of hosting recruits on campus and gauging the excitement of the fan base, he’s holding staff meetings over video conferencing. He’s orchestrating the occasional team meeting online. He’s hoping players keep up as best they can and as much as new social norms will allow with the workouts they were assigned. He’s worrying what some who aren’t as fortunate are eating, and where some are sleeping.
And, in a few ways, he knows he’s on the more fortunate side of a brutal situation. Colleagues have lost chances to play for championships. Penn State spring sports coaches barely got a chance to even start their seasons.
There’s still hope Franklin and the Nittany Lions can start the 2020 season on time — if health and safety can be assured by Sept. 5 when they’re scheduled to host Kent State. In the meantime, Franklin acknowledged that staying connected to the team and his staff has proven less complicated than he thought it might; he conducted his first press conference with beat reporters this spring Wednesday while spending time with family in Colorado.
But, for a rare period as a coach, he knows the most difficult part of proceeding is he doesn’t have the answers players want about the program’s immediate future.
“It’s one thing if we can say, OK, in two weeks or in a month, we know this is going to be over and allow everybody to plan,” Franklin said. “That’s probably the thing, to me, that’s the most challenging and probably uncomfortable. I want to be able to come up with a very specific plan that I can give our players and parents.
“When I talk to the players and parents, that’s probably the main question I get: ‘Coach, do you have any idea when this is going to end?’ And I don’t. I don’t have that answer. … Just the unknown of this has probably been a thing that’s most unsettling, because I can’t give people a specific plan.”
Franklin isn’t a robotic head coach, a guy who talks a lot and says nothing. It’s easy to determine how he’s feeling at a given moment, and he rarely gives you a sense he isn’t prepared for what is going on around him, that something he never foresaw caught him off guard.
But when you hear him describe the weeks since the sports world shut down and say “it has been a scramble, it really has,” it gives a stark glimpse into how confusing and unnerving this time is for coaches who have to both worry about their own families and players and maintain some kind of focus on the work that needed to be done months away from the scheduled start of their season.
In short, they’re doing the best they can. On Wednesday, Franklin met via video conference with his entire staff, then held a team meeting — 157 players, coaches and staffers logged in. He meets with coordinators and assistants, and he logs in to their position meetings that are being held far more regularly, again with the help of the internet. The use of technology, he said, has been what he called “a hidden gem” gleaned from all of this.
It hasn’t been easy. Nor has it been impossible. There are bigger things to worry about in the world, he acknowledged, but Franklin knows he has to treat a horrible situation the same way he does comparatively minor challenges in his own small world of football. He, and his team, have to do what they set out to do this spring: Get better, even in the face of the unprecedented.
“Right now, we’re in a challenging situation,” he said. “The reality is, the most successful people, the most successful organizations and the most successful teams are going to handle this challenge the best and come out of it the best. Are we going to be where we were before? No. But nobody else will be, either.
“We’re still competing with all the other top programs in the country. The best programs and the best individuals are going to handle this adversity the best. Embracing the technology, and all these things we have to do, hopefully we come out of this thing stronger and use this as an opportunity to learn and grow as a program.”
It seems like a formidable challenge. Penn State has no choice but to be up for it.
DONNIE COLLINS is a sports columnist for The Times-Tribune. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @DonnieCollinsTT.