Penn State does signing day the right way

UNIVERSITY PARK – Penn State threw a fun, lively, informative, well-planned-out football party in the middle of winter Wednesday evening, attracting close to 4,000 fans to the Bryce Jordan Center and showing just how far the program has come with how it handles national signing day.

For the record, I am not a huge fan of signing day. It’s a wonderful life memory for the young athletes, but so many fans and media egregiously overhype high school football players who have never proven anything at the college level, in many cases further feeding their massive sense of entitlement.

It’s all just out of kilter. Usually a player has to become a star on the field to earn the type of praise he receives before he even steps on campus.

However, handled appropriately – as Penn State did – a signing day get-together can be a terrific opportunity to celebrate everything that’s good about a program while giving the fans a chance to take part in the fun.

Wednesday’s Signature Event served both purposes.

New coach James Franklin brought the idea from Vanderbilt to Penn State and has high hopes for it at a program with an enormous, passionate fan base.

“This is going to grow,” Franklin told the crowd, after receiving a standing ovation, at the BJC. “It’s going to be awesome.”

The event played out like a huge pep rally, with cheerleaders, dancers, music and the works. Penn State also added a great touch by bringing back star linebacker alums Michael Mauti and LaVar Arrington, both of whom received standing ovations when they were introduced.

“I’m excited for the future of Penn State football,” Mauti said.

Speaking of the new coach, Mauti said, “It’s just pure energy right now” with Franklin.

“I’ve got no doubt in my mind he’s bringing a national championship to Penn State,” Mauti continued, drawing a huge applause.

It was Arrington’s turn to speak after that, and the charismatic former player made one of the evening’s most poignant comments.

“We are a family that nothing or no one will ever break,” Arrington said.

The “family” theme remained throughout the event and was mentioned at least a dozen times.

Arrington then introduced Franklin, calling him “the lion king,” and the new coach walked onto the court with his two young daughters to a rousing welcome.

For 25 minutes, the Signature Event really wasn’t about national signing day at all. It was just a big ol’ party for fans who braved wintry conditions, showed up to welcome the new coach and rejoice in their football program.

The format for the actual recruiting aspect of the event featured Franklin and Arrington sitting next to each other at mid-court, with Arrington introducing the 25 members of the recruiting class one by one. A highlight reel of each player was shown on the video board while Franklin, without any notes, talked about each guy for 30-45 seconds.

People who follow recruiting closely eat up any information they can get about a kid, but coaches can’t talk about them during the process because of NCAA rules. So to actually hear the head coach speak about every player in detail had to be fantastic for the fans. And for Arrington.

“How awesome is it that we have our head coach explaining our recruiting class?” Arrington said to the crowd.

The current football team also was on hand for the event, and after the defensive recruits were introduced, quarterback Christian Hackenberg and cornerback Jordan Lucas came out to say a few words.

“Thanks for all the support and helping us welcome the 2014 class to Penn State,” Hackenberg said. “We’re really excited about the spring. I know that these guys are working really hard in the weight room every day. I know that once spring practice starts we’ll be ready to put on a show for you guys.”

“What a recruiting class,” Lucas said. “Give a hand to the coaches.”

Arrington mixed in some good jokes – and some awkward ones – throughout the 35-minute interview with Franklin. One of his better lines was aimed at Lucas, who walked out with his muscles all bowed up, according to Arrington, and then spoke much longer than Hackenberg did.

Arrington looked over at Lucas and joked, “Jordan came out with his muscles and his tattoos, and he got the mic and he lost his mind.”

The defensive recruits were introduced, then the offensive recruits, and Franklin didn’t miss a beat providing information about each player.

“I’m just blown away that you know this much about all these people,” Arrington joked.

He then asked Franklin about a random student in the stands, and Franklin played along, spouting off about the kid’s vertical leap and GPA.

All in all, the evening had something for everyone. Fans who can’t get enough recruiting certainly got their fill. But even those who don’t necessarily follow recruiting all that closely had enough to be entertained by to make it an enjoyable event.

And to think, it was just a few years ago that Penn State did nothing on signing day. Nothing. Things changed slowly with some coaches and players made available to the media at the end of the Joe Paterno era, and Bill O’Brien continued that.

Franklin, though, is proving to be much more of a showman than his predecessors. He’s not going to miss an opportunity to promote Penn State football in all sorts of new ways and get as many people as possible involved.

That’s Franklin putting his signature on the program, and he can only hope future endeavors turn out to be as successful as Wednesday’s event.

Cory Giger is the host of “Sports Central” from 4 to 6 p.m. daily on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM. Reach him at 949-7031 or @CoryGiger on Twitter.