UNIVERSITY PARK - There may be no sporting event in which attendance is more closely tied to the weather than an annual spring football game, and when James Franklin awoke to a gorgeous blue and white sky Saturday morning, he knew his Penn State debut would be special.
And it was.
Fans tailgated and milled around Beaver Stadium early, and by the time Franklin came through the tunnel for the first time to a welcoming cheer, tears were welling, and he had to pinch himself.
"I've never been to a game here before so running out was an unbelievable emotional experience for me," Franklin said after the Blue defeated the White 37-0. "I can't tell you how appreciative I am."
Much of Franklin's staff came with him from Vanderbilt so his pre-game reaction didn't surprise his colleagues.
"We've been together four years. I saw that coming a mile away," defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said. "He's an emotional person, and he doesn't hide it. He's worked his entire career to get to a destination job like this so I'm happy for him and our staff."
"That's his style," offensive coordinator John Donovan said. "We knew he'd be touched by it. He's very happy to be here, as we all are. It's somewhat surreal because we're all going through something for the first time, and until you go through it, you don't know how you're going to react."
The announced crowd of 72,000 was the third largest for a Blue-White Game in Penn State history.
Franklin thanked the fans with an on-field microphone after the first quarter, then later, tongue half in his cheek, he wanted a recount.
"Great crowd - unbelievable support from this community," he said. "I'm not surprised, one bit. They said 72,000. But I had somebody count personally, and there were 82,000."
Whether it was 82,000, 72,000 or somewhere in between, it surely indicates the Nittany Lions' popularity.
Vandy drew 14,000 for last year's spring game, up 5,500 from 2012, according to the Mr.SEC.com website.
"I've never been at a place where you get 75,000 at the spring game," Shoop said. "That's incredible. What I saw out there today gave me chills. I can only imagine what a regular-season gameday is like. This really is Happy Valley, man."
Shoop and the staff started to get a flavor of the role football plays here at a Lettermen's Club reception Friday night at Damon's. Nearly 100 past Lions posted.
Franklin worked the crowd, shaking hands and taking pictures, and Donovan said he met "some guys I recruited while I was at other stops who ended up here."
Shoop, a Pittsburgh native, was equally wowed.
"Normally you go to bed the night before and you think about the spring game and you think, 'If I don't play well, my dad and my wife are going to get on me,''' he said, smiling. "Today, I'm thinking, Franco Harris is there last night, and Jack Ham is the color commentator. You can see how special football is to Penn State and the Penn State family."
Shoop said the Blue-White Game was a good opportunity for the new staff to experience how State College turns into a big city seven times per year.
"I'm glad we got to do our gameday routine," he said. "When we were part of the SEC, we played in some cool venues so this isn't our first rodeo, so to speak. But to walk into Beaver Stadium, with all the tradition and history here, and to meet all the alums last night - all the things we're playing for here, players past, players present and trying to take the program to the next level and compete for a Big Ten and a national championship - that was special."
While still dealing with the NCAA sanctions, for a myriad of reasons - for recruits, the current squad, for game-day atmosphere, for financial recovery - Franklin believes selling out each home game, which hasn't happened in several years, "is very important."
The process of stoking that enthusiasm, with 72,000 in the house - 82,000 using Franklin's math - resumed Saturday.
"I don't think there's any doubt we're special, and one of the big reasons is the support we get from the community," Franklin said. "I was very, very impressed."
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or email@example.com.