OUTBACK BOWL PREVIEW – DECEMBER 11
By Leo Haggerty
IT’S THE FREAKING OUTBACK BOWL
Had a chance to attend the Outback Bowl Signing Party today. I was joined by Publisher Jeffrey Neil Fox and our Photo Journalist Trace Crisp.
As usual, is was another stellar event hosted by CEO Jim McVay and orchestrated by Director of Communications Mike Schulze and his staff. Kudos to all involved for putting on another first class event.
Had a chance to catch up with both Penn State Head Coach James Franklin and Arkansas Head Honcho Sam Pittman. Below are their answers to my questions and I have to thank Coach Pittman for giving us the banner headline for my article..
LH : Every time a major college football head coaching opening occurs, your name pops up. It has to be flattering but your a Pennsylvania guy. You grew up and played in one of the greatest high school rivalries, Neshaminy and Pennsbury, in the Keystone State. You went to school in state at East Strousburg. Unless some institution throws lottery money at you, are you at your dream job?
JF : Obviously, growing up in the state of Pennsylvania like you were saying, I went to Neshaminy High School which is just outside of Philadelphia. Went to college in the state as well. Went to camp at Penn State. Thought I was good enough to play at Penn State. I was not but, still, had a great experience. Yeah, I’m at a great place. I’ve been here eight years and just signed a ten-year contract. I’m blessed and excited about where we’re at and where we’re going and what we’re doing. College football has changed dramatically in the last five years but I’m at a great place.
LH : You recruit the Philadelphia area and you recruit the WPIAL in Pennsylvania. Florida is a gem when it comes to recruiting. How much will playing in the Outback Bowl help your recruiting in Florida?
JF : I think it’s helpful. If you study the Northeast and you study Pennsylvania specifically, the population is reducing. The number of high school graduates in the state and the number of Division I prospects in the state of Pennsylvania. Obviously, that is critical for us to do a great job in our state and really in our region. Obviously, when you get to come to places like Florida and play in front of the fans and have a great experience. It’s all the interactions that you have at the hotel. How your players carry themselves and present themselves. Hopefully, people leave with a very strong and positive impression about Penn State. Hopefully, there’s a few players in the area, as well, that are say that may be an option for me and my family too.
LH : If you were asked to describe what a White Out at Happy Valley is to someone who has never been to Penn State, could you do it and is it bucket list?
JF : What I would say is you need to do it and it has to be. I think it’s one thing when it comes from me, but when most college analysists, when media members, when it comes from football coaches who are saying, that the Penn State White Out is the best environment in all of sports and not just football. I think it’s something you have to experience. I think we averaged 106,000 fans. When I got the job, we averaged about 91,000 and people were down and upset about that where, most places, would die for 91,000. We have a fantastic fan base and not just the White Out. Literally, week in and week out, it’s special but the White Out takes it to a whole another level.
LH : When people talk about The Outback Bowl, the most common description is the strength of the Big Ten versus the speed of the SEC. Is that too simplistic?
JF : I think, from a traditional perspective, I think that is probably fair. I think the leagues have looked more similar than ever before. I think the days of the Big Ten lining up in a Power I and running goal all the way down the field are long gone and really have been. You can make the same argument about the NFL. The NFL and college football have never looked more similar than they do right now. But, from a historical perspective, that’s fair but I don’t really feel that’s the case anymore. I can remember that we led the Big Ten in passing two out of three years a few years back. I can remember talking to a recruit’s dad and he said my son is a wide out and I want him to go to some school that’s going to throw it and I’m thinking what are you talking about. His memory, you know, is of the 1980s. Things have changed.
LH : You wait 36 years to get a head coaching job and you go to the SEC. In your first year, you not only have to fight LSU and Alabama but you have to fight COVID. How tough was it for you last year?
SP : It was hard because, I believe, to get anybody to anything is the relationship that you have with them. We were working on that early and we were at March 9th, I believe and I had gotten the job December 9th, and then everybody had to spread. You know how hard that is. It’s hard to get a relationship over Zoom and you’re well aware of that as well. I was a little bit concerned about that but, when we came back in mid-June, I believe it was, the kids really bought into what we were trying to sell and having, not a great year, but a year that we won three SEC games where they had won one in the previous three years. Feleipe Franks from Florida had a lot to do with that and help put us on the map. To be where we are today, in the Top 25, it’s a big deal. I’ve waited a long time but I don’t know if I’m doing anything right or not. I got a lot of good assistants, you know, are helping me and we’re just excited to be down here.
LH : Frank Broyles is an icon in the state of Arkansas. Did you have a chance to talk with him and what was it like?
SP : I did when I was there the first time. I was there in 13, 14, 15 for the first time and I did. I had an opportunity to meet him. Now, I know his daughter, you know, and his two sons. They came to practice but the man is an icon in our state. Obviously, there’s a statue, and a well-deserved statue, in front of our north end zone. In our north parking lot. He’s the one, you know, that started it all. Then there was Ken Hatfield and Houston Nutt and all these guys, Patrino, that had really good success there as well.
LH : I know this sounds simplistic but this game has been dubbed the SEC speed versus the Big Ten power. Arkansas could be the outlier on this. The Razorbacks have some people that can run you over too, right?
SP : You know, late last June, not late last June but early June, we lost our offensive line coach. I was ready for that because Coach Kennedy was a guy that I had just hired at tight ends. He and I were together at Georgia. He was my grad assistant and my good friend, Willie Fritz, who’s the head coach at Tulane, took him down there as an O-Line coach. We were ready for that so, whenever Cody got the job, I felt like we accelerated. We became a tighter unit and a better football team because of it. He’s done a really good job but he’s had everybody back as well. They handle movement better than any line that I ever coached and I coached 35 years of it. Movement doesn’t give them as big a trouble as it it did with mine. They’ve done a really good job and they’re talented. They got to 13th, top 13 in the Joe Moore Award, and I don’t know if we have the top 13 talent yet in there but they play together. You don’t always have to have the best players to win. You just have to have the best team and they play together well.
LH : You recruit Texas heavily. You’re playing in Florida on New Years Day and Florida is a very fertile recruiting area. How important is it to be here?
SP : It’s huge. I don’t think it’s because it’s my own personal first bowl game as a head coach. I don’t think it has anything to do with that. It has everything to do with bringing a team to Tampa, Florida. It’s the freaking Outback Bowl! It’s a big, big deal and it may allow us to jump into Florida a little bit more for recruiting. We’re getting ready to win the game. Our first practice is tomorrow. We have not practiced since the day after Thanksgiving. They have been lifting but we’re going to practice Friday and Saturday and kind of tie it into the recruiting weekend.
LH : After your first year, you were 3-7. Now, you’re 11-11. How important was it for you to get to 500?
SP : Yeah, that important but, at the time we played them, we played four ranked teams. To see your team name, Arkansas, at the bottom of the College Football Playoff when it comes through and it’s going to run for another three or four weeks before we play, it’s a big deal. It’s just a big deal.