Coaches, players working on mutual trust

UNIVERSITY PARK – It’s tough to imagine a more battled-scarred college football team in America than the one spread out by positions across the Beaver Stadium turf on a gorgeous Monday during Penn State’s annual media day.

James Franklin and his staff sensed those wounds in January after he became the Nittany Lions’ third head coach in 27 months – fifth if you count Tom Bradley and Larry Johnson, the interim selections.

Beyond the changes, Penn State’s fourth- and fifth-year seniors – each recruited by what was once the nation’s most stable program ever – endured the Sandusky scandal followed by the firing and death of Joe Paterno.

“They have been through a lot,” Franklin said.

“You have to be sympathetic,” cornerbacks coach Terry Smith, the former Lion receiver, said. “They’ve gone through arguably the two hardest years in the history of this university’s football program.”

The players initially did not greet the new staff with open arms. The upperclassmen were cynical and worn down, and the freshmen and sophomores were hurt, too, by Bill O’Brien’s departure.

“It’s just like anybody,” senior offensive tackle Donovan Smith said. “You’re not going to let people into your life right away.”

The upperclassmen signed with Penn State well after Paterno had already turned 80, but they sure didn’t envision his departure in the brutal way it unfolded. No one did.

“Even though (when recruited) you weren’t sure Joe would be there all four years, you still thought the core of that coaching staff would be,” redshirt senior Matt Zanellato said. “After that year, with all the turmoil, a new staff comes in with Coach O’Brien, then they’re there for two years, and after that second year, you build up a relationship and know what to expect going forward.

“Then the entire coaching staff moves on, and it’s a complete turnover. By the time coach Franklin’s staff got here, I think they sensed kind of a guard-up (attitude) throughout the locker room, especially among the older players.”

And yet, Zanellato thought Christian Hackenberg’s class had it even tougher.

“I think some of the older players might have been a little bit better off because the younger players came in under coach O’Brien hoping he’d be here for all four years,” he said.

Franklin quickly addressed the “challenges,” but it took time. Establishing a leadership council, something that was in place over the years but seldom used, helped bridge the gap.

“When they first came in, a lot of people were afraid to give them our trust,” senior linebacker Mike Hull said. “We were a team that played for each other only and didn’t really embrace new changes.”

Slowly, though, the team started warming up to its new regime.

“We said we really have to let them in,” Zanellato said. “We had to learn trust, and overall, throughout the spring and summer, we have built that trust.”

In addition to regular meetings of the leadership council, which includes all the seniors and representatives from the other classes, the players feel they have input into some of Franklin’s rules and have been consulted on issues such as conditioning sessions and team functions.

Just as the players want to impress the staff, the feeling is mutual.

“They’ve had some success here, and they’ve been through a lot,” offensive coordinator John Donovan said. “We have to prove to them we know what we’re doing. Hopefully that trust builds relationships.”

One of Franklin’s first comments Monday concerned intangibles, saying “chemistry and morale are as important or more important than Xs and Os.”

He believes much progress has been made in seven months.

“I’m so appreciative that they allowed us to enter their family because this is their family,” he said. “This program belongs to the players. This university belongs to the students and the alumni, and I’m so thankful that they allowed us to join and break into their circle of trust. They’ve been great.”

Time heals, and though or because “we’ve been through hell and back, a coaching change is not that hard to go through,” Zanellato said.

That resiliency, barring key injuries, could be a sign that the Lions are capable of matching or bettering last year’s 7-5 record or at least avoiding the sub-.500 mark many forecast when the NCAA sanctions hit.

Either way, Terry Smith said and he’s right, these players should be appreciated.

“They’ve stood by Penn State when they had a chance to leave,” he said. “They were shown the door, and they chose to stay. We have to honor and respect that. At the same time, we have to put the best 11 out there and win games.

“Because if we don’t win games,” he added with a smile, “we won’t be here much longer, either.”

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or