Exclusive Q&A: Associate Head Coach Sean Spencer

Sean Spencer has always seen himself as a leader. Spend a few minutes with Penn State’s associate head coach, and it’s easy to see why. He’s knowledgeable and affable, warm and welcoming, and he loves football. Naturally, he gives off the vibe that he feels athome in Happy Valley.

In January, Spencer added the title of associate head coach to go along with his responsibilities of run game coordinator and defensive line coach, and his knowledge and skill is obvious; he’s overseen the defensive line at seven prior stops in his coaching career.

We sat down with Spencer this summer for an exclusive Q&A. Read on to learn how he views the promotion, why he calls coaching at Penn State “an honor” and how he connects with recruits and their families.

HappyValley.com: What’s the personal significance of having the associate head coach title, and in what ways does that add extra responsibility to your approach for this season? 

Sean Spencer: Well, I really appreciate Coach Franklin trusting me in that role. I think for me, professionally, it’s a huge step because my ultimate goal one day is to be a head coach, if the chips fall as they will. But, clearly, my main responsibility is making the D-line the best that it can be in the country. We all have professional goals, and I’m getting the opportunity to learn the administrative aspect of running a program… [it's] allowing the kids to see [me] in that light, because I think I can be a buffer between what’s going on with the kids and Coach—bring things to his attention, and also have the kids feel like they have another person they can come to. This is no different than what I’ve done in the past, but now I’ve got that title, so I’m ecstatic about being named the associate head coach here at Penn State. I don’t even think about it sometimes, but then Coach (Franklin) will introduce me as associate head coach, and it’s like, “Wow, that’s pretty cool.” 

HappyValley.com: With wanting to be a head coach someday, where does that motivation and drive to succeed originate from for you? 

Sean Spencer: I think I’ve always been a leader. I’ve always been a natural leader, and I think, really working for Coach Franklin, you have to embrace your position as if you’re the head coach of that position, really making decisions sometimes in that room that will effect the overall picture. Since I was young, I’ve always been the guy that people have gravitated to. Even on the staff, guys will come talk to me about things that they don’t necessarily talk to Coach Franklin about. I feel blessed that people feel that way about me, that they can feel confident that they’ll say something to me, and I can give them balance. I don’t always give you the answer that you want, either. I think that’s a very important quality in becoming a leader… you’re able to have tough conversations with people and tell them. If you keep things kind of black and white without grey areas, listen to what people say, digest it and then give them information back that can help them become successful and kind of help them through each one of their situations.

HappyValley.com: What's the best part about coaching football at Penn State?

Sean Spencer: The pride that you take when you walk in the building. You realize that you stand on the shoulders of giants every day. You know the tremendous coaches that have worked in this program and been a part of the greatness that is Penn State. It’s a respect thing that you have, and it’s also an honor. I talk to the guys all the time about destination places: “Now, you’ve been at Penn State five years.” I’m like, “You tell me a better place that I should be working at.” For a kid from the northeast that played college football in Pennsylvania—where my entire friend base is from my college years on—[who spent his] early coaching years … at Shippensburg and Villanova, you tell me a better place that I should work? That’s kind of how I view it. I have so much respect for the history and tradition here, and I have so much respect for the fan base and the people that just bleed blue and white. It’s an honor to be a football coach here at Penn State.

HappyValley.com: Looking at Coach Franklin, what stands out to you the most about the way he runs the program?

Sean Spencer: I think the consistency and the process are two of the more important things for our staff and for our kids. If you took off the blue and white and you put on the black and gold (Vanderbilt) or vice versa, it would be the same process. For the most part, it’s the same process. I liken it to when we won the conference championship two years ago; I remember there were about six or seven core guys from Vanderbilt standing on that field, and I said to myself, “That championship was won then.” And what I meant by that is that Coach put a process in front of us, and we all believed in the process because that process was so powerful. Then you institute it into a different institution, and you have, “Oh my God, we just won the championship,” but we won based on the process and the ideologies that we believed in going into it.

HappyValley.com: A video of Coach Franklin speaking to recruits last season recently surfaced, and he said that this wasn’t business, it was personal, in terms of how he views recruits joining the Penn State program. Does that message resonate with your approach and maybe even why you started coaching?

Sean Spencer: I grew up without a father, and I feel like sometimes what you don’t have sometimes becomes your biggest blessing. I think I’m able to connect with a lot of guys on our team who are in similar situations, but I also know the parental father figure that I wanted when I was a child and didn’t have. I think I see the kids as more than just football players; I see them as one of my own, and I think that’s the way Coach Franklin is also. He believes that beyond football, you have to prepare them for life, and if you invest in them and it becomes personal, then that investment in itself is more beneficial to you and to the kid.

Take for instance, when a kid graduates, and you know that kid came from the city, and many times kids that come from the city don't always have the opportunities that other kids have in different areas. When you watch that kid graduate and walk across the stage, and then he calls you back and he talks about he’s got a job with JP Morgan, or “I just got my first coaching job.” That, to me, has more of an effect on me than just winning football games, because you felt like you set the kid up beyond the four years. You felt like you took the kid from walking in as a freshman, not knowing anything, to becoming a man.

I got that letter right there from Chris Jones, who played for the Patriots when they won the championship (motions to signed photograph nearby). I coached him at Bowling Green, and he just signed with the Jets, going into his sixth or seventh year. What he said to me in that letter about how I believed in him in the recruiting process, and how he wouldn't be the man he is today if I didn't push him, getting something like that is like winning the national championship, because you don't realize the effect you have on that kid until he leaves. Then he comes back and he tells you here are some of the things that you’ve done for me.

I had another situation years ago, there was a kid,[and] I rode him to death. He played for me at Hofstra, which is now defunct in football, and he said that as hard as you were on me, I am who I am today because you prepared me for life. We’re going to teach life skills to these guys and hopefully we can have an attrition of having more of a percentage of guys becoming men. Bro, the NFL is awesome, right, and Carl Nassib and those guys getting drafted, that’s friggin’ great, but when that kid gets a degree and he can be successful in something other than just football, I mean, it’s powerful. The life expectancy in the NFL is Not For Long, as you know. But if you can give them something that is more beneficial to them in life, you’ve gotten more out of football than you put in as a coach.

HappyValley.com: Going into your fifth season at Penn State, what are the advantages of having some longevity here?

Sean Spencer: I think, clearly, it gives you an advantage. It gives you an advantage in recruiting, one, because you’ve shown stability. Clearly, you can just imagine that I’ve had job opportunities outside of Penn State. I believe in the process here. I believe in Coach Franklin, and I believe in the guys I go to war with every day. I think, also, you get to build your own room. A lot of times you take a job, right… and they've already built their recruiting base and you start coaching those guys you really didn't recruit. But, to go through five years and everyone in that room you've signed off on as a position coach and as a head coach, and you can watch the house be built and look around the room [and say,] “I’ve known this kid”—if it’s a kid who’s a fifth-year senior and you recruited him as a junior, you’ve known him for five or six years—and then that becomes a family. I’m very appreciative that I can call their families and talk to them about situations, that’s pretty powerful, too. Then just knowing the town and the people and the way it vibes, your investment becomes even more powerful when you’ve stayed at a place for five years.

HappyValley.com: The defense has had 40-plus sacks the last three seasons, and that hasn’t happened at Penn State for more than a decade. In the spring, Ryan Buchholz said it’s as much about your mentality and energy as technique, so how does your Chaos Theory transfer to the field?

Sean Spencer: I appreciate Ryan saying that; it’s some talent, too, you know what I’m saying (laughing). It’s not like it’s 5-foot-10, 200-pound guys getting these sacks. We believe that anytime the quarterback drops back, that we’ve got a shot to make the sack, and you’ve got to believe in that. They also believe in the mentality in the room that everybody in the room can contribute. So, even sitting here talking to Shaka (Toney) on-on-one, just about life, he talked about the next-man-up mentality. They really believe that if I put four more guys in, the expectation is still the same, and I learned this from Mark Whipple, the head coach at UMass, years ago: no one rises to low expectations. You have to expect greatness from the kids every time they walk on the field. If you don't demand that as a coach, if you just sit there, if you allow things to happen that are not congruent with what you are trying to teach, then you’re failing them. So that’s just that mentality that we’ve built around there. I always tell them you have to exude more energy than I, as a coach. You can’t walk on the field. I’m not going to walk out there like we gotta practice and [then] twirl my whistle. No, I’m tapping my foot, I’m jumping around, I’m excited going out there and getting better, and that’s the way they’ve got to approach practice.

HappyValley.com: Has there been an upperclassmen along the D-line who's distinguished himself as the leader of that area, or is it more of a group effort? And what do you prefer?

Sean Spencer: It’s funny, because I really don’t have a true senior, right, but I have guys that have what I call earned credits. Shareef (Miller), Buchholz, Kevin Givens, Shaka Toney played a lot of reps last year, those are the guys I lean on for lack of a better word, my leadership committee. I’ll go to them about things, and I think leaders aren't always just born, they’re created. I think it’s my job to pull Shareef in and say, “I need you to talk to the guys about this because I need them to focus on this, and it can’t just come from me, it comes from you.” It takes a village to raise a child, or a dog pack to build a defensive line room, and that’s kind of how we do it.

HappyValley.com: In the spring, Ryan Buchholz said that Antonio Shelton and Fred Hansard were having great practices. How do you assess the progress that the two of them made?

Sean Spencer: Both of those guys probably played their best football for me in the spring. Even talking to those guys, a lot of times if you're on scout team, I don’t always see what those guys do. I could watch the tape but they’re reading a card; the work with me in the spring, working with Coach Phil Galiano in the spring, you actually are applying things that we’re going to do as a defense. Both of those guys, in my opinion, have taken huge steps to our success. We’re only as strong as our weakest link. What I mean by that is in order for us to have the success that we’ve had over the years with the 40-plus sacks or more, you have to develop tremendous depth, and you've got to be confident that the guy that you’re putting in is just as good as the guy that you started with. So, those two guys having a really good spring is, I think, going to be tremendous in our development as a unit.

HappyValley.com: What's your message to recruits, and what's the one thing you tell them that distinguishes Penn State from all the other programs?

Sean Spencer: We preach family, the family atmosphere and being there for you beyond football. I think some places say it, and I don’t know, because I’m not in their hallways and in their offices. But, I know that we mean it. I know that if a kid comes here, he’s going to get my best, and his parents can rest assured I am going to be there for him on and off the field; that’s how we are. We have our kids run around the office, and Coach Franklin doesn’t even blink an eye. His daughters will come right into the meeting and interrupt and sit down and talk to us. When families see that, they say this guy is not just a football coach, this guy is a father, this guy is a mentor, this guy is a leader, and I think that’s important in the recruiting process for people to understand that.

HappyValley.com: What has Brent Pry meant to this defense during his time here?
Sean Spencer: I call Brent Pry the guy in the Wrangler jeans commercial, smoking the cigarette, just cool, calm and collected. Something happens on the field, he just goes, “All right guys, let’s go.” It’s so smooth with the southern accent. I’ve known Brent for several years now, and I consider him one of my best friends. Now, he’s demanding of himself, he’s demanding of the defensive unit, he’s demanding of the players, and it’s never off track. He’s not accepting of your worst. He wants your best all the time. And as coaches, he’s going to demand that of us.

We’ve got a tremendous work relationship. I watch him as a leader, and I try to emulate some of the things that he does. He’s a guy that’s point-blank in your face about stuff. You don’t have to worry whether or not he’s coming from the left or the right. When he’s going to say something, it’s going to be direct. I, as a person, deal with that better than someone dancing around the subject, and I try to do that with my players also. It’s probably one of the things I learned most from him, being very direct and blunt about what you want and your expectations. I think at that point, people respect your opinion a lot better, and they’ll respect your criticism better when you’re direct with them.

HappyValley.com: Along those same lines, what dynamic does Nick Scott provide to this team?

Sean Spencer: You know I told you that Coach Pry has no problem having a tough conversation or basically coming straight at you and telling you what he thinks: that’s Nick. We have leadership committee meetings; watch Nick talk to his peers, and he has no problem at all telling them exactly what he thinks. I think that’s a tremendous quality. I also know that Nick Scott on the field goes as hard as anybody else. It’s easy to say it—say this is what you need to do—but when you actually watch that guy practice and work out, it’s like this guy has got it. You know how people say people got the “It” factor, that guy’s got it. Whatever it is, he’s got it.

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