After Penn State beat Pittsburgh, 33-14, last Saturday, getting even with the Panthers after a 42-39 loss last season when the schools’ rivalry was revived, Nittany Lions Coach James Franklin was clearly fired up.
After starting his news conference with the usual ‘we’re happy to go 1-0 this week,’ cliche, Franklin said this: “For their win last year, it was like the Super Bowl. For us, it’s like beating Akron.”
To most of the world it was clear that Franklin was taking a shot at Pitt, which at least in his mind overreacted to its victory last season. The comment wreaked of arrogance, even when Franklin, responding to a follow-up question from Dave Jones, the highly respected columnist for PennLive.com, claimed that he’d been saying this sort of thing since arriving at Penn State. “Each win is like the Super Bowl for us,” he said. When we beat Akron, it was a great win. Today was a great win. This win is no more significant than last week.”
So, according to Franklin’s logic, Pitt reacting as if it had “won the Super Bowl” was worthy of note, but his team treating every win like it had won the Super Bowl is not. And, putting the coach-speak aside, does anyone on the planet really believe that the Lions win over Kent State last season was exactly the same as the win over then-No. 2 Ohio State? Or the win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game?
During his three-year run at Vanderbilt, Franklin developed a reputation for being arrogant and condescending with the media. His coaching was clearly outstanding. His last two seasons the Commodores went 9-4, almost impossible to do at the least football-obsessed of the Southeastern Conference’s 14 schools. Many saw the Pitt comments as being arrogant and clearly part of an agenda to remind people that Penn State, six years after the Jerry Sandusky tragedy, is PENN STATE again. Pittsburgh, to Franklin and Penn State fans, is pittsburgh.
As soon as people started making that point, Penn State Nation fired back: Franklin’s opening comment was taken out of context (a reference to the “every game is a Super Bowl for us” nonsense); Pitt fans are just jealous; this is good for recruiting. They did everything but claim that Franklin had been a first responder in Houston in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.
Once again, Franklin proved that successful coaches — but especially successful college football coaches — are America’s last great dictators. Do you think anyone ever questions Nick Saban in Alabama? Urban Meyer in Ohio? Jim Harbaugh in Michigan? Brian Kelly at Notre Dame?
Okay, maybe not Kelly but that’s because he’s only averaged a little more than eight wins per season since arriving in South Bend in 2010 and went 4-8 a year ago, including losses to Navy and Duke. Seriously, Duke.
Saturday, after the Irish lost, 20-19 to Georgia, a reporter questioned Kelly about whether he was concerned about another one-possession loss after seven of last season’s defeats came by that margin.
Kelly turned snippy right away. Asked if he was afraid the close losses might snowball again, he said: “It’s not gonna snowball. Next question.”
When the reporter tried to follow up, nervously saying, “I was just asking because it was another one-possession loss,” Kelly snapped, “It wasn’t one possession, it was one point.”
Kelly’s meaningless distinction aside, clearly the point of the question was about losing close games.
A few years ago, when Notre Dame was 10-3, or the year it was 12-1 and lost to Alabama in the national title game, the reporter who asked the question would probably be subjected to ridicule from Notre Dame fans. Now, there’s mostly silence even though Kelly has been bashed in the media in much the same way Franklin was bashed.
The irony is that Franklin was pretty much in Kelly’s shoes a year ago. He had gone 7-6 in each of this first two seasons at Penn State and was 2-2 last September after the Pitt loss and a humiliating 49-10 rout at Michigan. Speculation was rampant that Franklin wouldn’t be around for his fourth season. Few among the Penn State faithful rushed to defend their coach.
Then, a funny thing happened: Penn State started to win again like Penn State circa Joe Paterno. The Lions won nine straight games and lost a classic Rose Bowl game, 52-49 to Southern Cal, rallying from way behind to lead before the Trojans pulled out the victory. Now Franklin can apparently do no wrong.
It is that way almost everywhere. Even at Maryland, hardly a football power, any signs of life can make the coach untouchable. After four mostly miserable seasons under Randy Edsall, the Terrapins hired DJ Durkin last season. Durkin won over many Maryland fans by not being Edsall and by starting 4-0 before the Big Ten brought Maryland back to earth and the Terrapins finished 6-7.
This season, they’re off to another good start — 2-0, including a win at Texas. Freshman quarterback Kasim Hill came off the bench at Texas to score the clinching touchdown after starter Tyrrell Pigrome was hurt, then played superbly in last Saturday’s rout of Towson. What did Hill think about taking over with Pigrome sidelined for the remainder of the season?
No way to know. Durkin doesn’t let freshmen talk to the media for the entire season. Even Durkin’s former bosses, noted control freaks Harbaugh and Meyer, let freshmen speak to the media once they’ve played. Not Durkin.
Then again, Harbaugh wouldn’t release his roster — not his starters, his entire roster — to anyone until three days before the season opener against Florida. Why did Harbaugh do it? Because he could.
Maryland fans could care less about hearing Hill’s voice as long as the team keeps winning. Nor do they or any fans of winning teams care that all in-season practices are closed to the media. The fact that the media can do its job much better, making their stories more thorough for readers, listeners and viewers, by talking to players and watching practice is irrelevant to fans. Winning is relevant.
So don’t expect Franklin to back away from his Pitt-bashing, subtle or not, any time in the future. Kelly can get snippy all he wants, but if Notre Dame doesn’t win a bunch of games this season, his attitude will no doubt be cited as part of the reason for his firing.
Win and you can do no wrong. Lose and, well, being a nice guy won’t help so you might as well speak your mind.
Remember, 10 years after trying to humiliate a reporter with his “I’m a man!” rant, Oklahoma State Coach Mike Gundy is still on the job. Since the start of 2008, the Cowboys are 88-31. Gundy makes just less than $4 million per year. You can bet if his record wasn’t that sterling, he’d still be a man — just one without a job. Instead, he’s an icon to most Oklahoma State fans. And will be. As long as he keeps winning.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.