From the day Penn State finalized its nationally lauded 2018 recruiting class, the Nittany Lions had an eye on the 2020 season.
It was going to be the type of roster that James Franklin had worked more than 20 years in coaching toward building.
Now the Lions coach doesn’t know when the next time his team will be on the field. Or what it will look like when it happens.
It’s one of multiple reasons Franklin is still coping with the Big Ten’s decision to postpone fall sports with the hopes of the coronavirus pandemic subsiding enough to play football in the spring semester.
Even after top pro prospect Micah Parsons opted out of the season for health reasons and to prepare for a big payday from the 2021 draft, the Lions were still ranked No. 7 in the preseason coaches poll and poised to contend for a Big Ten title and a spot in the College Football Playoff.
“We had a chance to be pretty good. Top 10 on everybody’s chart,” Franklin said Wednesday on a video call with reporters. “Those first days of practice, I’m looking around and we got a good-looking team. Fast, athletic … difference-makers on both sides of the ball
“It had a chance to be a special season for Penn State. … Is that part of it, that it felt like this season had the chance to be a special season for Penn State? Yes. Yes. That’s part of the frustration.”
More than a week later, not much has changed for the Lions, who remain in limbo while the Big Ten plans for a potential 2020 season that starts in early 2021 and the NCAA tries to create exceptions to long-standing rules on the fly.
One of those exceptions is set to ensure that no Lions players will lose a year of eligibility no matter how many games they play or miss this school year.
All fall athletes across Division I would not have 2020-21 count toward their clock of playing four seasons in five years, pending approval of the recommendation by the NCAA on Friday.
Still, it’s small comfort to Franklin and his players, who are still grappling with the idea that there will be no Penn State football in the fall for the first time in 134 years.
Wednesday marked the first time Franklin spoke publicly since the postponement, and he opened with a lengthy prepared statement.
“The announcement to postpone football was extremely disappointing,” Franklin said. “Last week was gut-wrenching. It is my responsibility to help our guys chase their dreams, and delivering the news felt like I was doing the opposite.”
“While I appreciate the complexities and difficulties of this decision for the leaders of our conference, I’m extremely frustrated because we have very few answers to communicate to our young men.”
Franklin had spent the hours before the Big Ten’s decision lobbying publicly for a delay in order to talk through the situation more and figure out exactly how to move forward.
Big Ten athletic directors had done little to no planning for a potential spring semester season at the time, and officials from the conference and the NCAA couldn’t answer how thie unprecedented situation would affect players’ futures.
“I don’t necessarily have an issue with the decision (to postpone),” Franklin said. “But I have an issue with the process, and I’ve got an issue with the timing. It was challenging to keep getting up in front of my team and getting up in front of parents and not having answers to their questions.”
First-year Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren took particular heat for offering no details about the process to postpone. After giving interviews in the hours after the league’s announcement, Warren stayed largely quiet until Wednesday, when he released a statement detailing the conference’s public health concerns.
Those included rises in transmission rates of COVID-19, little hope that universities could control the spread of the virus with students returning to campus and the unknown long-term effects on those afflicted.
“We understand the disappointment and questions surrounding the timing of our decision to postpone fall sports, especially in light of releasing a football schedule only six days prior to that decision,” Warren wrote. “From the beginning, we consistently communicated our commitment to cautiously proceed one day at a time with the health, safety and wellness of our student-athletes at the center of our decision-making process.”
Warren also wrote that despite petitions from Big Ten players and letters from their parents seeking a reversal, “the vote by the Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors was overwhelmingly in support of postponing fall sports and will not be revisited.”
Hours earlier, Franklin said he didn’t expect the league to change its mind on playing in the fall. He himself drove overnight last week to see his wife and two daughters in Florida.
Franklin had planned to be separated from his family until the end of the year. His daughter, 12-year-old Addison, has sickle cell disease and is at increased risk for the effects of COVID-19.
Penn State had done a relatively good job of preventing the spread of the virus. The school released its latest testing numbers for athletes across all sports on campus on Wednesday, with just one positive case among 230 tests between Aug. 10-14, with four pending.
“When the decision was actually being made, it caught a lot of people off guard,” Franklin said. “We felt like things were going pretty good, we felt like we were going to be able to make this work, and things changed quickly.
“When things started to swing in the wrong direction, that’s when there wasn’t a whole lot of communication.”
Franklin is part of a conference committee that is discussing how to start the season later this school year, if possible.
“I think it needs to be more of a winter season than a spring season,” Franklin said. “The later you go into the year, the more it impacts the following season.”
If Penn State is playing again in the winter, odds aren’t great that the Lions would be able to play at Beaver Stadium, even if public health conditions improve to the point that fans would be allowed to attend.
The stadium’s age requires extensive winterizing to prevent pipes from bursting in cold temperatures, just one issue of many to deal with.
Last week Franklin had thrown out the idea of utilizing domes in the Midwest to host multiple games per weekend as one solution to be able to start the season earlier.
“We’re at a point right now where we have to do everything to save the 2020 season,” Franklin said. “In a perfect world, would you love to have games in Beaver Stadium this winter? Yes, without a doubt. But with the information we have right now, I don’t know how feasible that is.”