F&M is Showing Signs of Life Under Halloran
The uniform they wear is dark blue with white numbers. The helmet they wear is pure white with a blue stripe down the middle. The football program they represent has done a 180-degree turn from the pride developed in the '70s, '80s, and early '90s.
The football team we're talking about is not Penn State.
It's Franklin and Marshall.
It's almost eerie how similar both teams' roads have paralleled each other through the last few decades. Penn State won 81 percent of its games in the '70s, 76 percent of its games in the '80s. It won a conference championship in the mid-90s (1994). But it hasn't had a winning season in the last four years.
F&M won 82 percent of its games in the '70s, 73 percent of its games in the '80s. It won a conference championship in the mid-90s (1995). But it hasn't had a winning season in the last eight years.
Other than the size of the school, there's one unmistakable difference between the two. Penn State has yet to find the keys to turn around its football program. F&M's turnaround has already begun.
Just one-and-a-half seaons into Shawn Halloran's reign as coach, F&M is showing renewed life at Williamson Field.
Four weeks ago, F&M beat Hobart for the first time in eight years. Two weeks ago, F&M beat Muhlenberg, the defending Centennial Conference co-champion, for the first time in six years. Saturday, F&M stepped on the field with a team, Johns Hopkins, that had been ranked No. 20 in the NCAA Division III poll just two weeks ago.
F&M did not win, falling 20-14. But that fact alone should not lessen what Halloran and his staff have done.
"They're going in the right direction,'' Halloran said of his players. "They're believing in what we're doing. There's a trust factor that's being built ,slowly but surely.''
F&M is 4-2. It hasn't won more games since 1996. The Diplomats are tied with Muhlenberg, Johns Hopkins and Dickinson for second place in the Centennial, one game behind McDaniel, which is 2-0 in the conference.
The Diplomats have a bye Saturday and can rest up for a late October stretch in which they'll host Dickinson (23rd) and McDaniel (30th) back-to-back. McDaniel ends its season by playing all four contenders, beginning with Dickinson Saturday. Muhlenberg must still play at Johns Hopkins Saturday and at McDaniel Nov. 6. Hopkins hosts McDaniel Nov. 13.
That F&M is among the contenders halfway through the season is mind-boggling. Centennial Conference coaches picked the Diplomats 4th in a preseason poll.
"If you would've told me before the season that we would've been 4-1 coming into this game, I would've said, 'You're crazy','' said F&M sophomore quarterback Jeff Harner.
"I just thought we weren't at that stage yet, because we're young. There's a big sophomore class and a big freshman class. I just thought we were a year or two away. But we brought in some kids who can play.''
F&M has only nine seniors on its roster, which is now dominated by players recruited by Halloran. A former quarterback at Boston College who followed Doug Flutie, the Diplomats are not-surprisingly pass-oriented. Harner is the conference's pass-efficiency leader. F&M leads in passing and total offense.
Less than two years under Halloran's leadership, players can already see and feel the results.
"It's just a different mentality (now),'' says senior defensive lineman Matt Capone, one of the few who spent two seasons under former F&M coach Tom Gilburg, who retired after the 2002 season.
"I love Coach Gilburg, the two years I played under him. But our intensity and our mentality were nothing compared to what they've been the last two years.
"This year we're playing 30 times better than we were last year, and we're playing 100 times better than the last two years (before that.).''
Harner says the feeling from just last season to this season is like "night and day.''
"We're just hungrier right now,'' he says "We know we can play with the best teams in the league and beat them.''
There are some weak spots, however, the biggest being an inability to run the ball. F&M gained just 15 yards rushing against Hopkins, just 17 the week before against Muhlenberg. F&M has two 300-pounders on its offensive line in junior Rory Regan (6-3, 300) and sophomore Brian Rice (6-2, 310), but is still getting dominated in the trenches.
"Coming off last week, I thought we would've done better,'' said Harner. "Their defense wasn't anything like Muhlenberg had. Someone needs to kick the offense in the (butt).''
"I'm not sure it's so much that we're getting outsized,'' Halloran says. "We're not as physical as we need to be to run the football. That's a mentality. We're trying to instill it. That takes some time.''
The mentality is already changing. The Diplomats believe Saturday's loss won't break the season, it's just a bump in the road. They believe they'll be players in the conference race.
"I think we can play with any team in the league,'' Harner says. "I think we can beat any team in the league.
"We know, but I don't think anybody else knows. That's the big reason why I wanted this game, just to show people that we're up there with the elite in this conference. We'll have another chance.''
They can take solace in one thing. They're making a lot more progress than Penn State is.