Penn State players react to hiring of Franklin

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Penn State players react to hiring of Franklin

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- James Franklin is the third football coach in what for many Penn State football players will be four seasons and already has left a good first impression.

The 41-year-old Franklin, who spent three years resurrecting Vanderbilt's program and guided the Commodores to a 24-15 record, has been labeled a players' coach by a group of Nittany Lion players who have had an oversized dash of change and more than a pinch of adversity on their Penn State plate.

Franklin became Penn State's 16th coach on Saturday, replacing Bill O'Brien, who took over the NFL's Houston Texans after replacing the late Joe Paterno in 2012.

Franklin wasted no time getting acclimated. He lured in four recruits, glad-handed with fans at three Penn State winter sporting events and ultimately met his new football family on Sunday night.

"I'd be lying to you if I said it wasn't a little crazy, watching it on TV and being home over break," offensive guard Miles Dieffenbach said Tuesday. "There was nothing we could do about it and we knew (athletic director) Dave Joyner would pick someone great. Coach Franklin is a real players' coach. He cares a lot about the team. That's something I really look forward to, building a relationship with him."

Penn State's roster remains relatively young, but players have survived more than one passing storm.

They dealt with the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal from which came harsh NCAA sanctions, the firing and then death of the legendary Paterno, the coming and going of O'Brien and Monday's announcement by veteran defensive line coach Larry Johnson that, according to various news reports, he was going to go to work for Big Ten rival Ohio State.

"Looking back on it we really have been through a whole lot," Dieffenbach said. "It builds character and builds strength. We want to win some games and we think Coach Franklin is the coach to help us do that."

Franklin has yet to officially name a coaching staff or training personnel, something the players are waiting on.

"We have a good group of guys and should be able to transition pretty easily," linebacker Mike Hull said. "You have to take everything with a grain of salt and keep moving forward. We've been through a lot, we don't have to change who we are. The thing you really need to do is establish yourself as a hard worker and just let your coaches know you're 100 percent dedicated to the team."

Maintaining that strong work ethic was part of Franklin's initial speech, according to defensive back Jordan Lucas.

"He (Franklin) introduced himself and said what an honor it was to be the coach here at Penn State," Lucas said. "The message he gave us is that we're going to outwork everybody and everybody is on board with it. We see his vision and we're going to work really hard to make that happen."

Sunday's team meeting was a welcome reunion, according to Dieffenbach.

"We walked in there and it was really like nothing had changed," he said. "Guys were having a great time. We joked about it. We missed each other. We couldn't wait to get back and be together. It's the sign of a tight-knit team. Team morale has never been higher. You have to build new relationships. Your job as a team is to buy in completely, 100 percent as team, and that's what we're going to do."

Penn sweeps season series from Cornell for 5th straight win

Penn sweeps season series from Cornell for 5th straight win

BOX SCORE

ITHICA, N.Y. – Ryan Betley scored 21 points, Darnell Foreman made two crucial free throws in the closing seconds, and Pennsylvania held on to beat Cornell 69-66 on Friday night.

Penn (12-12, 5-6 Ivy League) opened up a 43-31 lead with 17:45 to go, but Cornell erased the gap over the proceeding seven minutes, taking a 53-51 lead on a Matt Morgan jumper.

The two teams remained virtually deadlocked the rest of the way, neither side held an advantage greater than four. A Wil Bathurst 3-pointer for Cornell cut its deficit to 67-66 in the final seconds. But after a Bathurst foul, Foreman sank two at the line to push it to 69-66. Morgan had a last shot to tie, but missed.

AJ Brodeur scored 13 points for the Quakers, who shot 50 percent overall.

Morgan led all scorers with 26 for Cornell (7-19, 3-8). The Big Red shot only 39.3 percent, but held advantages is 3-point shooting, free-throw shooting, and rebounding.

Villanova seniors reflect as winningest class in school history

Villanova seniors reflect as winningest class in school history

Senior Day is always one of the most anticipated days on the college basketball calendar. Second-ranked Villanova will honor its seniors prior to Friday's game against No. 23 Creighton at the Pavilion.

This year's ceremony takes on added importance. Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins and Darryl Reynolds have won more games than any class in Villanova history -- 123 wins, to be exact, compared to just 16 losses. The Wildcat seniors have won more than 88 percent of their games over the last four years. 

They have a 61-9 career record against Big East opponents and have won four straight regular season conference championships. They also won the 2015 Big East Tournament and of course, the 2016 NCAA Tournament. 

The list of accomplishments goes on. These Villanova seniors have a 45-1 record at the Pavilion and finished with a perfect 16-0 record against Big 5 competition. They are the first four-year class in Big 5 history to go undefeated against their city rivals.

They've accomplished plenty individually as well. Hart is the front-runner for Big East Player of the Year honors and will likely be a first team All-American. Jenkins authored arguably the most famous shot in college basketball history, knocking down a buzzer-beating three-pointer to beat North Carolina in last season's championship game. Then there's Reynolds, who blossomed from little-used reserve to a key starter on this year's national championship contender.

The mood, rightfully, will be celebratory for Senior Day on Saturday. Villanova is 26-3 on the season and is closing in on a top seed in the NCAA Tournament. But the Wildcats will also set out to atone for Wednesday's loss to Butler, the first ever loss at the Pavilion for the seniors.

I sat down with Hart, Jenkins and Reynolds to discuss their journey to this point as well as what still lies ahead.

A shared bond
Most college basketball classes are tight. But the bond between the Villanova seniors runs especially deep. It's evident listening to each of them discuss their shared friendship.

"Our relationship has grown over the years," Jenkins said. "It's continuing to grow now. We're just around each other all the time, we understand each other, we have a genuine love and we really care for each other and I think that spills onto the court."

"I don't like either of them," Reynolds joked before reflecting on the relationship he shares with his classmates. "It was something we were blessed to have, something that clicked. We found that we all had similar upbringings in many ways, which is something that contributed to it. Our parents have always taught us to realize that you're going to be a part of something bigger than you and that's OK."

The relationship between Jenkins and Hart dates back to their time as high school standouts in the Washington, D.C. area. 

"Me and Kris, being from the 301 (area code) we knew each other," Hart said. "And Darryl fit in well with us. After I committed (to play at Villanova), I remember texting Darryl during Sunday worship, I wasn't supposed to have my phone. But I wanted to know what his decision was. And he was like, 'Yeah, I'm coming'. And one of the first things he said, not to sound corny, was, 'Let's do this, I want to win.' We started from there."

The legacy
If Reynolds' goal was to win, consider it a success. In addition to being the winningest class in school history, the Villanova seniors have won more games than any class in the long and storied history of the Big East conference.

"That's definitely an honor, definitely humbling," Hart said. "The Big East is one of the best conferences in the country, not just right now but tradition-wise. You've seen all the battles, and to have that (record) is definitely cool. Something we can't really hang our hats on right now. Obviously, we have the rest of this year to keep working towards. But if we take a step back and look at that, that's something that's a great accomplishment. It's more so the hard work and everything that we put in on a day-to-day basis, it's not just the games. It's coming in, getting your shots up, working in the weight room, getting your body right. It's not just the games and that's something that means the most to us, just the grind. It's great to have it pay off in that kind of way."

In addition to the conference championships and the national title, one particular accomplishment stands out: Entering Saturday's game against Creighton, this group has yet to lose two games in a row during its college career. The seniors have never experienced a losing streak; they always bounce back following a loss.

"We have great coaches and we have players that want to learn and want to get better and want to improve," Jenkins said. "So when we lose, we learn from that just as if we won. When we win a game, we go back and watch film and come back and get better the next day. We do the same thing when we lose, nothing changes."

That approach is part of a winning culture that Reynolds believes is the root for all of Villanova's success over the past four years.

"The thing that I'm most proud of is the culture here," Reynolds explained. "There's a million programs out there and there's a million ways of doing it. Everybody has a different idea of how to do it. There's so many different ways to look at this game and approach this game. The fact that with all of our success, we've never bailed out on our culture, never bailed out on what this program is all about. The fact that we've stuck to our core values throughout these years is the thing you have to be most proud of because a million things can be thrown at you. There's different trials and tribulations throughout the year. The fact you can stick to what you do and still be successful through that is a blessing in itself."

And while outsiders tend to focus on all the wins and the national championship, the players themselves find deeper meaning in the bonds they've developed.

"It's been a lot of fun. Obviously, we've had some very successful years here," Hart said. "Winning always makes things a little more fun. The national championship, that's something no one can take away from us. But the thing we value more than that national championship is the relationships. That's something we're going to take for the next 20, 30, 40 years. The (championship) rings, those can be lost, those can turn up missing. But the relationships are what we really take pride in, that's something we're always going to have."

A Villanova senior
Rarely does Hart give an interview without mentioning the role of the Villanova seniors. Following games, he's quick to point out what the seniors did well, or in most cases what they could have done better.

"Your role (as a senior) isn't to be the leading scorer or the one that's always going to get to play," he said. "It's to make sure you teach the younger guys how to be a Villanova basketball player, how to be men, how to grow up and be successful in this program. That's day by day -- you bring it in practice, you bring it every game and they see that and say 'OK, this is what a Villanova senior is supposed to be like, this is someone who is not going to break no matter what adversity he faces.' That's something we want to pass down to the younger guys." 

Seniors have become a dying breed in big time college basketball. But not at Villanova, where four-year players are the backbone of Wright's program. Reynolds best sums up the unique mindset of a Villanova senior. 

"A Villanova senior is all about everything but himself," he said. "You hear about so many times guys become seniors in different places and they focus on themselves and their next step. Your job as a senior here is to make sure everyone else is OK, that this culture is staying alive. That this team is where it needs to be, that you and coach are on the same page. So it honestly is a role of selflessness in its purest form."

Jenkins expands on the importance of the leadership provided by the senior class.

"We all take a great deal of pride in it because when you get to this point a lot is expected of you," he said. "These younger guys look up to you, they believe in you. And the guys that were seniors before us set the standard real high and they expect nothing less. So we owe it to not only those guys but the younger guys and to ourselves to give it our best shot and make sure we continue to hold this program up high and be great Villanova seniors."

Finishing strong
The goal from here on out would appear to be obvious -- defending last year's national championship. It's a task this group realizes but doesn't emphasize. They prefer to stick with the mentality that has served them so well to this point.

"We're anxious to get to this last little stretch," Reynolds said. "As scared as we are of it, because we realize this our last stretch, we'll just approach it like we always have. Focus on what is at hand at the moment and over time it builds and builds and builds. We'll look up and hopefully it will be a month and some change later and we'll be where we want to be as a Villanova basketball team."

"We owe it to each other to finish this year out the right way," Hart said. "That might not be winning it all, but that's making sure we're all on the same page, making sure we're giving it up for each other. We're not going to judge this season on the last month. We're going to make sure we're the best Villanova basketball team at the end of the year and that's something we're going to judge ourselves on. 

"If we don't make it all the way but play the best we can, play the Villanova basketball way, we'll be able to look each other in the eye in the locker room. Obviously, we'll be sad, probably be some tears being shed, but we'll be able to look each other in the eye knowing we gave it up for each other. I think that's the biggest thing and the best feeling -- that we battled to the last second for our brothers."