Bear Bryant is most famous for his days as Alabama's head coach, but he may have done his best coaching when he was in charge of the Texas A&M program from 1954 to 1957.
The Aggies were placed on probation after going 1-9 in Bryant's inaugural season at College Station, but his intense recruiting, legendary tough practice sessions at Junction and hyperaggressive approach to overcoming adversity led to an incredible turnaround. Over the next three seasons, Texas A&M went 24-5-2 while winning its first Southwest Conference title since 1941 and first road victory over archrival Texas since 1922.
It is certainly way too early to label what James Franklin is doing at Penn State as a Bryant/Texas A&M-caliber success, but it is hard to ignore some of the similarities to how Franklin is going about turning this program around. His early successes bode well for the Nittany Lions to continue their upward recovery trek and return to conference and national prominence sooner rather than later.
To get an idea of just how dynamic Franklin can be on the recruiting trail, consider that Penn State recently landed a top-25 recruiting class only a couple of years after the program went through a potential existential crisis.
ESPN Big Ten recruiting reporter Tom VanHaaren had some interesting comments when asked if Franklin will be able to keep up this level of recruiting performance.
"It's looking very likely that Franklin will be a huge force on the recruiting trail within the Big Ten and nationally," VanHaaren said. "Franklin already has 11 commitments in the 2015 class, six of which are ESPN Junior 300 prospects. The new coach said he wanted to dominate the state and the region, and he is already showing that wasn't lip service. All six of the ESPN Junior 300 commitments are from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia.
"This staff isn't afraid to go to battle for top prospects and has already beaten out Ohio State and Michigan within the conference for a few recruits, including offensive lineman Steven Gonzalez (Union City, N.J./Union City) and linebacker Josh Barajas (Merrillville, Ind./Andrean)."
One of the most important tools a coach can have in turning a program around is a topflight quarterback, and Franklin has that in Christian Hackenberg.
Hackenberg, whom ESPN Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg called "a once-in-a-generation type quarterback", won the Big Ten Freshman of the Year award last season in part by closing out strong. He finished third in the conference in Adjusted Total QBR (a metric that adjusts Total QBR by strength of schedule) from November through the end of the season (72.3). He saved his best for last when he posted one of the conference's best individual performances of the season in leading Penn State to a 31-24 road victory over a Wisconsin squad that was favored by 24 points.
A repeat of last season will be made more difficult due in part to the departure of leading wide receiver Allen Robinson, who made an early declaration for the NFL draft.
As meaningful as a loss of that caliber can be, the Nittany Lions do have a number of ways to potentially overcome it.