When James Franklin ponders playing Pitt this week, probably during nearly every one of his waking moments, he’ll think of Kenny Pickett and Maurice Ffrench (who he unsuccessfully tried to recruit) and the best way to defeat the Panthers on Saturday at Beaver Stadium.
But Penn State’s coach also allowed himself Tuesday to think of Pitt in another way — as a place where he spent much of his childhood on the edge of campus.
His memories include spending holidays with family in the Hill District, the view of Pitt Stadium from inside the VA Hospital and the respect he still has for Pitt’s football history.
“I got a lot of ties to Pitt,” Franklin said during his weekly news conference. “My dad is from the Hill District. Every Thanksgiving, every Christmas, most of my summers were spent there. My grandfather drove a jitney and cleaned Crawford Grill (a famous Wylie Avenue jazz club, now closed) at night. My cousin Karen works at Pitt.”
But when he stands on the Penn State sideline Saturday, surrounded by perhaps 110,000 people, he’ll approach Pitt just like he does any opponent.
“I’m excited about the game from a historical perspective,” he said. “What this game has meant to this state and college football. From a geographical perspective, we get it as well.
“Do we understand that this is a big game for the media, the fans, the lettermen and college football? Yeah, we are not burying our heads in the sand. But our approach does not change. We are going to prepare the same, week-in and week-out. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’re doing and what the weather is going to be like.”
His players feel the same way.
“You are probably expecting this answer,” Penn State sophomore quarterback Sean Clifford said. “No matter where they’re from and who they have on their teams, each week we have to go 1-0.
“That’s the only goal in mind. I truly mean that each week we want to go 1-0. It’s up on our board (in the locker room).”
The answer was the same from senior middle linebacker Jan Johnson, a Pennsylvania native who attended Governor Mifflin in Mohnton.
“Just means another opportunity to go out in Beaver Stadium and get a ‘W,’ ” he said.
The game will be the 100th between the in-state rivals and the last of the current four-game series that began in 2016. Before that, the teams hadn’t met since 2000, meaning many players on both teams have no recollection of what the rivalry used to mean.
That’s just one of the reasons there are no plans to resume the series that already had one 15-year hiatus this century. Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour has indicated there might not be another before 2030. Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said he may not live to see the teams play each other after Saturday.
Franklin noted the complications involved in scheduling a nonconference game while Penn State must play nine Big Ten games. He suggested the schools can “get creative” in their planning and move future games to a neutral site in the state.
“You just want it to be an even exchange,” he said. “The best way to do that is a neutral site. I’m talking in terms of making it make sense for both schools. That’s an option, and it’s one of many.”
There is no denying the attraction of the game, which drew crowds of 69,983 and 68,400 to Heinz Field in 2016 and 2018. The ’16 crowd was the largest for any game (college or pro) in that venue.
“The games have been awesome,” said Franklin, whose teams have won the past two by a composite score of 84-20. “That first game (won by Pitt, 42-39, in 2016) was an unbelievable game.”
He downplayed the notion that the winner gets an edge in recruiting. Indeed, Penn State’s 2017 recruiting class was ranked 12th in the nation by Rivals.com, and Pitt was 38th, not even its best under Narduzzi.
“Obviously, winning helps. The environment helps,” Franklin said. “But I don’t think one game swings you. I don’t think kids are choosing Penn State because of one game.”
Said Penn State defensive tackle Antonio Shelton, who is from Columbus, Ohio: “An in-state game like this is cool.
But he added, “Some people will make this game a bigger deal than it is. Not to say we’re taking Pitt lightly. We treat everyone the same way.”
Meanwhile, Franklin is calling on his fans to make a statement Saturday at Beaver Stadium.
“We need that thing to be busting at the seams,” he said, noting attendance was only in the 104,000 range for Penn State’s first two home games this season. “We’ve had it as high as 110,000. We need that on Saturday.
“We need the players on the field to feel that 110,000. I want everybody in the state to feel that at 110,000.
“We need that stadium rocking like no stadium has rocked before.”