With Bold Talk and Home-State Pride, James Franklin Takes Over at Penn State
There were a few lines that James Franklin had almost certainly rehearsed.
“I’m a Pennsylvania boy with a Penn State heart.”
“It’s about people. I’m a relationships guy.”
“We now have two daughters and 95 new sons.”
But what might have been the most memorable moment of the press conference announcing Franklin as Penn State’s 16th head football coach on Saturday afternoon appeared entirely unscripted. Wrapping up an answer near the end of the presser, Franklin was emphasizing how much this particular job meant to him. “Best day of my life,” he said.
There was a pause of two or three seconds before Franklin, noticing his two young daughters, Shola and Addy, in front of the podium, added, “I’m sorry. Third best day of my life.”
There was laughter among the overflow crowd in the Beaver Stadium press room. Having spent the better part of an hour convincing the assembled media and a national TV audience that he had accepted his “dream job,” the 41-year-old Franklin had earned a pass. It was easy to believe that, the births of his daughters aside, Franklin had indeed landed what he sees as the job of a lifetime.
Flanked by university president Rod Erickson and athletic director Dave Joyner, Franklin met the media Saturday after signing a six-year contract worth up to $4.5 million each year. For Nittany Lion fans, the hiring of one of the nation’s most coveted young coaches confirms Penn State as one of the top coaching jobs in college football. “Our program requires a very special kind of leader,” Erickson said. “We ran a careful and deliberate search process, and I believe we have found the right person to lead our program.”
Franklin is a Langhorne, Pa., native who grew up believing “everybody in this state is a Penn State fan.” He first stepped on campus in junior high, when he attended a summer football camp. “I thought I was good enough to play for Penn State,” he said. “I was not.” But he was good enough to be a record-setting quarterback at East Stroudsburg, a career that set him on the path of a 15-year assistant coach, with stops at seven different schools and a year with the NFL’s Green Bay Packers.
He got a chance to lead a program in 2011, taking over a historically weak Vanderbilt program and quickly making the Commodores competitive in the talent-loaded SEC. Vandy, with its academic prowess and Cinderella appeal, became one of college football’s feel-good stories, but there were some things the job couldn’t offer—namely, a 107,000-seat stadium, and national recruiting appeal, all close to where he grew up.
“I’m excited to be home,” he said.
Franklin inherits a program that, while still facing NCAA sanctions, finds itself on stable ground after the two-year tenure of Bill O’Brien. Franklin and O’Brien coached together at Maryland in the early 2000s (former Penn State linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden, then the Terps head coach, actually hired Franklin in College Park), and Franklin said he expects O’Brien would be a “great resource” as he settles into the job his former colleague just left.
Among the noteworthy ground Franklin covered Saturday:
* When asked how long he planned to be at Penn State, Franklin made no promises but said all the right things. “I’d still be at Vanderbilt right now if this wasn’t such an amazing opportunity. We plan on being here a very long time. This is my dream job. This is where I want to be.” He also called himself a “college guy,” consciously or not signaling a key difference between himself and O’Brien, whose NFL ambitions were never a secret.
* Franklin, renowned for his recruiting prowess, was blunt in describing his philosophy for drawing talent: “We are going to dominate the state.” He promised a strong regional and even national recruiting approach, but emphasized that the wealth of in-state talent meant his priority would be keeping Pennsylvania’s best players in Pennsylvania.
* Franklin was asked about the ongoing investigation into a rape case at Vanderbilt involving a number of his former players; while a Nashville DA has cleared Franklin of any wrongdoing regarding his knowledge of the alleged assaults, some in the media have criticized his hiring in the wake of the Sandusky scandal. “It couldn’t have been a more thorough interview process,” he said. “It’s the most challenging thing I’ve ever been through personally—as the father of two daughters—and professionally. What I think came out of all this, through their background checks and all the information they got, was that we were honest and up-front, we made decisions quickly, did everything we possibly could to respect the situation, and also worked hard and supported the young men that we have in our program.”
Added Joyner, “This was maybe the most thorough vetting process of any search of any position at this university. We utilized multiple third-party and independent sources … It couldn’t have been a more thorough vetting process with our committee, and with people that asked hard questions and got honest and true answers. My belief, without a doubt, is that James Franklin is a man of extremely high character.”
* Franklin wasn’t put off by the fact that Erickson is scheduled to retire and be replaced by an as-yet-unknown president within the next six months. “That was a concern,” he said,” but what I was sold on, and what I believe, is that Penn State has a plan and a purpose, and a certain type of individual will be attracted to this institution. That’s what made me very comfortable.”
* The status of his Penn State staff, including the possibility of retaining longtime defensive line coach Larry Johnson, remains up in the air. “I am fiercely loyal as a person, fiercely loyal to the people I’ve worked with,” Franklin said. “But I’m also going to have some discussions with people who are here.”
* Franklin joked—well, we think he was joking—about how far he’d go in embracing the off-field responsibilities of the job. That included a pledge not to turn down any speaking engagements, and even to “blow up balloons at kids’ birthday party.”
* Asked about the transition from Vandy’s 40,000-seat stadium to a home field that holds well over double that, Franklin made a promise that doubled as a challenge to his new fan base: “That stadium will be sold out every… single… game from here on out.”
Ryan Jones, senior editor