CHICAGO — The anniversary passed quietly Sunday at Penn State, without any celebratory cake or too many we-told-you-so's, even from fourth-year football coach James Franklin.
Five years to the day that the Nittany Lions were hit with NCAA sanctions that many expected would cripple the once-dominant program for decades, if not permanently, Penn State is again, as their fans like to remind opposing teams at Beaver Stadium, Penn State.
While the penalties were gradually lightened — with the addition of scholarships, the reduction of the original four-year bowl ban and the restoration of the full 85-player limit a year ahead of schedule — few expected Franklin to get Penn State back into the national spotlight as quickly as he did.
Having taken over for Bill O'Brien midway through the sanctions that came in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal, Franklin went being a hot commodity at Vanderbilt to the hot seat after two straight 7-6 seasons to again becoming a hot name again after leading the Nittany Lions to an 11-3 record and a Big Ten championship last year.
The road he has taken has given the 45-year-old former Maryland assistant some perspective.
"I think you have a little bit different challenges," Franklin said Tuesday during the second of the two Big Ten Media Days. "Last year we were kind of trying to lay the foundation and build confidence and set the standards and the expectations. We were still doing all those things. And when you have some success, it kind of cements those things.
"They become ingrained in who you are and who you're organization is and things like that, and everybody buys in, which is the biggest difference from last year. For us now, it's the opposite. It's 'let's not be too confident, let's not be cocky, let's not take things for granted and be complacent. Confidence is a good thing, but it's a fine line."
Franklin's players seem to understand their coach's latest mantra.
"I completely agree with Coach, if Penn State is back, we have nothing else to work for, no reason to raise the bar," senior tight end Mike Gesicki said Tuesday. "Penn State is definitely on its way back, Penn State is back in the discussions that it should be. In order for to reach our expectations and our goals we set, we definitely still have room to improve."
Gesicki can appreciate how last season's success might have turned late in the fourth quarter of a Sept. 24 home game against Minnesota, and how different the year became in its aftermath.
Instead of falling to 2-3 with a loss to the Gophers a week after being demolished by Michigan, the Nittany Lions won in overtime to start what became a nine-game winning streak that included winning the Big Ten championship game before losing a 52-49 thriller to Southern California in the Rose Bowl.
"It would have been different if we lost that game [to Minnesota]" Gesicki said Tuesday. "Everyone talks about how the Ohio State game turned our season around, but I'll say it, without beating Minnesota two weeks prior to that, the Ohio State game is not nearly as important and not nearly as meaningful. That second half turned our season around."
Said Franklin: "I don't look at that specific game because I can also make the argument that our first year when Ohio State won the national championship we took 'em to double overtime. You could make make the argument that if we had won that game, it would have caught on faster. There's no doubt that Minnesota was a critical point in our season...We were able to find a way to win that game and gain some confidence and started to steamroll from there."
Not that Franklin believes the Nittany Lions are done rebuilding.
"We have to start from the ground up and rebuild this thing." Franklin said Tuesday. "And what we have to do is take all those experiences that we gained last year, playing on those stages, against the competition we played against, and how we learned and how we grew from those things, that we're going to take with us."
With the return of nine offensive starters, including quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley, as well as eight of the top 11 tacklers from last season, it could come down to an Oct. 28 meeting with the Buckeyes in Columbus. For now, Franklin and his players are only concerned with the season opener Sept. 2 against Akron.
While many expect Ohio State to regain its hold on the Big Ten East — the Buckeyes are overwhelming favorites in an informal Cleveland.com poll of Big Ten media, with Penn State a distant second — the Nittany Lions are still considered a legitimate contender for a College Football Playoff spot.
"The buzz is more national," Franklin said. "For me, internally and in our community, there's always been high expectations. It is a a little bit different right now. The best example of that is we've broken every record in season-ticket sales. It's been dramatic. We average over 100,000 a game; I wouldn't be shocked if we average 104,000 this year."
Senior safety Marcus Allen, who grew up in Upper Marlboro and committed to play for O'Brien and Penn State as the sanctions started being lifted, said having lived through some of the rough times has made he and others appreciate what they have now even more.
" Not too long ago, we weren't able to fight for a bowl game, we weren't able to have a real season like other teams have," Allen said Tuesday. "You got to carry that hunger with you to exceed your expectations in life. I definitely have that fire in my gut. I still remember those times when we were hungry. I'm still hungry to this day."