STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - James Franklin began his first media day as Penn State's head football coach by looking out at a room filled with hundreds of reporters, smiling big, and asking questions.
"How's everybody doing?"
"How was everybody's summer?"
Murmur, too short, murmur.
"You guys look shocked," Franklin said, "like it's unusual to start it this way."
It was. Franklin took 14 questions over the next 35 minutes Monday afternoon, and after each media member had taken the microphone and identified himself or herself, Franklin made sure to use the questioner's name in his answer, regardless of whether he'd ever met the person before.
No one enjoys having his or her ego stroked in a public setting more than a sports media member (Hey, the coach knows my name! I matter!), and there's a way to pull off such a trick so that it appears a natural, free-flowing part of the give-and-take between two people. This was different, or it felt different, anyway. There seemed a kind of forced, calculated cordiality by Franklin - a tone treading the line between enthusiasm and insincerity. He seemed to be trying to sell everyone something.
Truth be told, he is. After the blows that Penn State's program has suffered over the last three years - the Jerry Sandusky scandal, the dismissal and death of Joe Paterno, the withering sanctions levied by the NCAA, Bill O'Brien's decision to bolt for the NFL's Houston Texans after just two seasons - part of Franklin's charge is to get the program and the people who love it feeling good about themselves again.
He and his assistant coaches seem acutely aware of this fact. It has driven their interactions with players, with alumni, with fans - and, on Monday, with the media.
"I personally don't think you need to talk up Penn State," special-teams coordinator Charles Huff said in talking up Penn State. "That's something that's part of the beauty of this place. When you say 'Penn State,' people know."
That Franklin, who turned 42 in February, is an energetic young football coach - the sort who uses the word "attack" as a verb, with the requisite bite and accent on the consonants - is beyond dispute. How much of that energy bubbles up organically from his personality and how much of it he strategically uses as a coach, as a recruiter, as the program's primary spokesman is a matter of conjecture. The players don't appear to care one way or another. They are young men, and young men want to be inspired, and in today's world, sometimes all it takes is a football coach who fills his Twitter feed with exclamation points, short sentences typed entirely in capital letters, and photos in which he's forever flashing a we're-number-one gesture.
"I'd say he's a thermostat leader. When he steps in the room, the temperature rises," quarterback Christian Hackenberg said. "You feel the energy around him, and he has the ability to affect everybody else with that type of energy and get people excited for whatever it is he's trying to get you excited for. As our head football coach, it's a great quality to have. We love it."
Angelo Mangiro, a redshirt-junior offensive lineman, described the way that Franklin moves through the locker room, shaking the hand and patting the shoulder of every player he passes. "It lets us know he's thinking about us," Mangiro said.
The funny part is that, an hour earlier, Franklin had done virtually the same thing as the media ate lunch in a Beaver Stadium lounge. He stopped at a few tables to press the flesh, knowing that a hello and a handshake from the head coach will pull even the most experienced reporter away from his free roast-beef-and-smoked-cheddar wrap, knowing that a good first impression can only help him if the Nittany Lions struggle over his first season or two.
But then, that's part of Franklin's job here, at least early on. He has to continue rebuilding Penn State's reputation after the horrors of Sandusky and their reckoning, repairing the relationships that have been damaged during the turmoil and upheaval.
"There were some challenges there," he said. "For these redshirt seniors, I'm the fourth head coach that they've had. It's crazy and unheard of when you think about Penn State."
It is wild to consider, especially in light of the stability that Paterno brought, but these are different times, and this is a different coach. Maybe that's how we'll know that James Franklin really is starting to succeed at Penn State - when he doesn't feel the need to sell everyone so hard on his football program and himself.