There it was, bouncing around social media in the first hour of Sunday morning, the new image of Penn State football: James Franklin in dreadlocks.
This was on the team charter out of Iowa, where the Nittany Lions had extracted, sweating and grunting, a road win out of Kinnick Stadium.
Franklin posed, arm-in-arm and grinning ear-to-ear, with his genuinely and famously dreadlocked safety, Jonathan Sutherland.
Franklin’s dreads, obviously, were a wig.
I’m not even going to ask you to imagine Joe Paterno or Bill O’Brien or Nick Saban or Bill Bellichick in fake dreads, .... ah, forget I said that. Picture it. It’s fun. Especially Joe.
The week that ended in Kinnick was particularly dense with high-profile noise but also typical of a headlong, gushingly emotional approach to almost everything. Franklin talks a lot about his program being a family.
It can be cloying, but it’s also exactly how the Nittany Lions feel, like a big, raucous, messy, passionate-to-the-point-of-blubbering family.
Franklin doesn’t solve problems so much as smother them to death. Some coaches pipe noise into practice to prepare for road games. Franklin blows out the stereo system. Can’t be in two places at once on a Friday night of high school football? Get me a helicopter.
Last week was a reality show.
It started with the reveal of a now-infamous letter from a Penn State alumnus to Sutherland, telling him how “awful,’’ his hair looks, and how shamefully short of the supposed Penn State standard his appearance fell.
Franklin responded with a prepared but emotional statement at his Tuesday press conference.
He called football, “the purest form of humanity we have.’’
“We don't judge. We embrace differences. We live, we learn, we grow, we support and we defend each other,’’ he said.
“This is my football. This is the game that I love and most importantly, my players that I love and will defend like sons.”
Then an HBO-produced behind-the-scenes look at the program, from the previous week’s run-up to and then game with Purdue, aired. And there were the Lions hugging and dancing and disco-balling on premium cable. Cameras in Franklin’s home at 5:30 a.m. Assistant coach Sean Spencer rumbling to the office on his Harley. Franklin and his assistants dropping more F-bombs than one would’ve expected.
Watch it, enjoy it, then flush it, Franklin advised. Iowa, Iowa, Iowa, ….
For pre-game warmups at Kinnick, many of the players wore pro-Sutherland t-shirts that read “Chains, Tattoos, Dreads & WE ARE.’’
Franklin didn’t know about it. He had the shorts confiscated, right there on the field.
“While we are supportive of our students expressing themselves in a thoughtful manner, they are expected to wear team-issued apparel on game day,’’ read a Penn State-issued statement.
Oh, by the way: The shirts displayed the logo of a State College sports bar, so the statement also said, “We asked our students to remove the shirts out of an abundance of caution for NCAA compliance."
Also: They played football. The Lions remain what they’ve been for a while now, erratic and flawed, athletic and deep, explosive and sputtering.
Are they good? Probably. Maybe. Certainly the defense is exceptional. The offense never sustains smooth, chain-moving precision, but there are those explosive plays, just often enough.
They’re ranked seventh in the country. The schedule gets real serious now, but it’s easy to envision them beating every team on it expect one. You know which one, if you’ve been paying attention.
Michigan isn’t it. The Wolverines are eight-point underdogs at the Beav Saturday, in prime time, at night, a White-Out.
The joint should rock, and the home-field advantage should be substantial.
That’s not enough, of course.
“We need that stadium, and that town, rocking like it’s never rocked before,’’ Franklin said after Iowa. “I’m talking about vibrating. I’m talking about it being a seismic event.’’
He seems to live for it.