James Franklin’s approach to a problem is to smother it with organization and work and enthusiasm and love.
Viruses aren’t subdued by any of that, but Franklin appears to have tried, mightily, to shield from the coronavirus his families, football and actual.
Franklin was driving through downtown State College one day last month and saw five of his players walking together, only four of them masked. He phoned the fifth, to ask where his mask was, and remind him where it should be. He phoned the kid’s parents, to enlist them in driving home the message.
As the program returned to workaday routine in August, Franklin said he, “felt like a mother hen. I spend the entire day walking around the office and telling people to cover their face up completely or they were going to be sent home.’’
As the Oct. 24 season opener with Indiana neared, Franklin said he realized he "drives everybody crazy,’’ and asked staff members for help in spearing the health-and-safety gospel.
At one practice that week, he "lost my stuff" and went on a tirade that lost some of its dramatic impact because his glasses became so fogged up he couldn’t see who he was yelling at.
"And I look like an idiot," he said.
There are 130 Football Bowl Subdivision Programs. It would surprise no one if some of them have cut corners in terms of the balance between football considerations and pandemic protocols.
It appears that Franklin hasn’t. Practices have been held in groups, rather than whole-squad. The team has used locker rooms in three separate campus buildings.
Franklin has gone home every night to an empty house, his family ensconced in Florida as a precaution in dealing with his daughter’s sickle cell disease.
Until this week, every team meeting has been held remotely, via Zoom. And the football team is off to an 0-3 start. All hopes of even a good season, given expectations, are gone. Penn State football has lost its mojo.
“We got to go play with some confidence,’’ running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider said Thursday. “We’ve got to - and I think this is huge - we got to go have fun.’’
So Franklin got the whole gang together Tuesday, before what is usually a game week’s first full-blown practice. In person, face-to-face, in the indoor practice facility.
Franklin said Wednesday that he had to explain to some of the freshmen, and a couple of the four first-year coaches on staff, how non-virtual meetings work. It was, by all accounts, worth the socially-distanced effort.
"I felt as connected with the team as I've felt in a while," Franklin said. "We just felt like that needed to change. I think they felt better, and I know I felt better. I know I felt better getting in front of them face to face."
Franklin called Tuesday’s practice the best of the year.
“I felt like, for the first time, I coached the way I was coaching (pre-pandemic),’’ Seider said. “I felt like now, I can take the training wheels off the kids.’’
Franklin’s vigilance appears to have paid off. Despite (or because of) daily testing, it appears that none of his players have lost practice or game time due to the virus. This despite last week’s opponent, Maryland, announcing it was shutting down activities and cancelling Saturday’s game with Ohio State, after eight Maryland players tested positive.
"I have spent a lot of time on non-football things,’’ Franklin said. "... We are staying vigilant. But during practice, I'm going to let the trainers and the doctors manage COVID, and I'm going to coach football. I know that sounds ridiculous.’’
It’s clear that Franklin is among the many of us who will not look back fondly on 2020.
"But the year is not over," he said. "And we have an opportunity to experience some joy on Saturday.’’