End zone engineering

November 06, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The tinted windows of the bus couldn’t hide the flashing cameras or the deafening screams of Penn State football fans. The stars of the evening were determined and restless to get onto the field. Stepping out of the bus, Scarlett Miller opened her eyes to a swarm of journalists and photographers surrounding her. It was an experience unlike anything she had ever known.

“It was so weird,” she said, “I just kept thinking, ‘How am I here right now?’”

Miller is an associate professor in engineering design and industrial engineering in the College of Engineering but for two days, she stood on the sidelines as the guest coach for the first football game of Penn State’s 2018 season.

“It was such a special experience,” she said. “It was a surreal weekend and a once-in-a-lifetime kind of event. People don’t just get to do this.”

As part of the long standing tradition of notable alumni and faculty members participating in the Penn State spirit, Miller was chosen to be the guest football coach for the Penn State vs. Appalachian State University game on Sept. 1.

Last year, another SEDTAPP faculty member, Conrad Tucker, associate professor of engineering design and industrial engineering, was chosen to be the guest football coach for the Penn State – Nebraska game.

As per the compliance guidelines of the National Collegiate Athletics Association, Miller was not permitted to actually help in coaching the team. Instead, she stood next to Coach James Franklin throughout the weekend, interacting with team members at dinners and observing their practices, strategies and plays.

“My role was just to observe and really to witness what the student-athletes are going through and what it takes to play football,” Miller said. “I asked Coach Franklin why do this [practice of guest coaches] and he told me that it was to create more awareness and a better tie-in between the faculty and student-athletes. I think it’s hard to understand the pressures student-athletes face if you don’t go through this experience.”

As guest coach, Miller’s day began on Friday with a tour of the Morgan Academic Center, which provides academic services to student-athletes. Miller said that, like most people, she had assumed that being a student-athlete was just balancing work and school. However, she quickly changed her mindset. 

“I always thought that playing football was like having a job while going to school. Turns out that’s a really bad metaphor,” Miller said. “The best analogy I can come up with is that it is like getting two concurrent degrees at two different universities that don’t take transfer credits.”

The Growth, Opportunities, Aspirations and Learning of Students in college (GOALS) study conducted by the NCAA in 2015 found that student-athletes participating in Division I FBS football reported spending 42 hours per week as part of their in-season time commitments. According to a pamphlet titled “Time Management: What Division I Athletes Should Expect” published by the NCAA, student-athletes spend their time on competitions, practice, workouts and film review, as well as secondary activities like injury prevention, team fundraising, media activities and sessions with psychologists and academic advisors.

“The boys were studying all of the time. I’d see playbooks everywhere. They were taking tests during meals as well as had strength training, practices, tape studying; they’re going to classes and taking tests there, too. There are two distinct things that the players are doing at the same time and devoting the same amount of time and attention to each,” Miller said.

At Holuba Hall, the primary indoor facility for the Penn State football team, Miller witnessed a walkthrough practice. These “dead silent,” non-contact practices are used to review strategies for the upcoming game. She also sat in on the film study, motivational speeches inside the locker room and the tests that the players were taking on the various plays to be used.

“I remember asking the coaches what would happen if one of the players didn’t do well on the pre-game play test and I was told that they need to know what the players do and do not know,” Miller said. “It’s the same as an educator in a classroom. If a student doesn’t do well on our test, there are two likely contributors. Either the students were unprepared, or we failed in our education of the concepts. Much like the football play test, these results help us identify what the students still need to learn and how we can modify our educational strategy to better facilitate learning.”

Miller’s love of college football began as an undergraduate while she studied industrial engineering at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, a school that is as famous for its football culture as Penn State. Miller went on to obtain her doctorate in industrial engineering from the University of Illinois before moving to State College. Her research at Penn State primarily focuses on ergonomic product design, design cognition and human-computer interaction. While she says that working at Penn State has not changed her allegiance to Nebraska football — her website even warns that “anyone who talks to me for more than five minutes will come to realize I am a huge Nebraska sports fan” — she now says she holds a special place in her heart for the Penn State Football program.

“I watch college football differently now. As someone so immersed in the game of football, I know it’s really easy to get caught up in the team and forget the players that make up the team,” Miller said. “I’m making an honest effort to not do that anymore. These student-athletes are the heart of the game, and it’s important that we always remember that.”

In the dead silence of the final meal before the Appalachian State game, Franklin leaned over and asked Miller if her experience as guest football coach was what she expected. Her reply, “No, way cooler.” It is an experience she says she will never forget.

  • Man and woman pose for photo in front of tables

    Scarlett Miller and Nittany Lions Coach James Franklin prepare for breakfast with the team on game day.

    IMAGE: Scarlett Miller
  • Woman stands on the sidelines of a football field with her hands in the air

    As a Nittany Lions Football guest coach, Scarlett Miller stood on the sidelines during the Penn State vs. Appalachian State University game in September.

    IMAGE: Scarlett Miller
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(Media Contacts)

Last Updated November 13, 2018