From our July/August 2017 issue: It took two years to convince the skeptics—and those were just the guys on his roster. For fans, media, and even some Nittany Lion lettermen, it took last season’s inspiring Big Ten title run to convince them that James Franklin was the right man to lead Penn State football. His secret? Preaching family, recruiting serious talent, and maybe even learning a thing or two along the way.
Illustration by Nigel Buchanan; photos by AP Images, Centre Daily Times, and Steve TresslerJuly / August 2017
James Franklin sits at a table in his spacious office on a warm, quiet February morning, nursing a coffee and a hint of a cold. A stream of classic soul music murmurs through hidden speakers; the door leading onto the Lasch Building balcony is open to let in the air. Franklin is reflecting on how he and his family, a little more than three years since he was hired as Penn State’s 16th head football coach, have only recently begun to feel truly at home in State College. All the adjustments—to new schools, to new friends, to new surroundings—have taken longer than they expected.
“Even just getting around town,” he says. “I mean, for the first two years, I probably traveled the least efficient way to get anyplace, because I only knew one way. And I was going to go that way.”
He doesn’t intend the metaphor, but it lingers there, impossible to ignore.
In each of his first two seasons after arriving from Vanderbilt, Franklin’s Penn State teams finished 7-6. For a program hampered by NCAA sanctions and reeling from constant change after half a century of stability, that record was disappointing to many but largely defensible; at that point, the Nittany Lions weren’t supposed to be very good. But beyond the wins and losses, there was a sense—even among some current and former players—that Franklin himself wasn’t a great fit. That, in effect, he only knew one way. And that it wasn’t the right way for Penn State.
The gist? That he was a micromanager more concerned with image than X’s and O’s. That he brought with him an entire staff—not just assistant coaches but a behind-the-scenes crew focused on operations, recruiting, every aspect of running a program—who were loyal to Franklin, but largely unversed in Nittany Lion history or tradition. That he was style over substance, his methods not suited to Penn State or the Big Ten.
The fact that there wasn’t much in the way of actual evidence to support any of these assertions was beside the point.
For skeptics outside the program, it took last year’s dramatic midseason turnaround to convince them that James Franklin’s chosen route might not be so inefficient after all. But within the team—or, as Franklin would prefer it stated, within the football family—the hard work of convincing had taken place months earlier, shortly after the 2015 season ended. That’s when Franklin began meeting one-on-one with his veteran leaders—players he had inherited when he took the job, and with whom he’d had little chance to build trust. One at a time, Franklin took them out to dinner and asked them about their lives, their families, and their hopes for the program. And he listened.
“He asked us what we wanted to see changed,” says Nyeem Wartman-White ’15 Com, one of those senior leaders. “Him coming to us made it seem like our input was valued, like he cared about what we thought. After those meetings, with every-one on the team talking amongst each other, we knew he was consistent.”
And this, perhaps, is where the metaphor falls apart: To Franklin, last season’s adjustments don’t represent a repudiation of his approach, but a confirmation. “One thing he always says is, ‘Stick to the plan,’” says assistant head coach Terry Smith ’91 Bus. “We’ll hit some speed bumps, but we don’t detour.”
Franklin’s wife, Fumi, says, “I do think James had to adapt and evolve last year, but I don’t see that as something he’s doing differently. I think that’s always been one of his strengths.”
Franklin himself puts it succinctly: “I don’t think I’ve ever really wavered.”
No one is asking him to waver now. With the program’s most successful season in nearly a decade fresh in the collective memory, the skepticism has largely dissipated. It’s been replaced by expectations higher than any Franklin has ever faced: With so much talent back from last year’s 11-win team, many fans will be disappointed with anything less than a national title run. He will tell you that he didn’t come to a place like Penn State to have it any other way.
Mike Poorman has a theory. As a sportswriter, Poorman ’82 Com has covered the Nittany Lions for various outlets since his undergraduate days on the Daily Collegian. He’s also an instructor in the Bellisario College of Communications, where dozens of student-athletes, including many football players, are regulars in his class on the sports industry. As such, he’s got a unique perspective on the program.
“I think those first two seasons here taught James humility.”
Poorman is thinking of the young head coach who came to Penn State from Vanderbilt, where he had transformed one of the worst major-conference programs in the country almost overnight. Before Franklin took over in 2011, the Commodores had managed just five winning seasons in the previous 50 years; they went a combined 4-20 in the two seasons before he arrived. Franklin went 6-7 in his first season before leading Vandy to consecutive 9-4 campaigns, each capped by a bowl win.
And it wasn’t just that he was winning—he seemed to be having a blast doing it. You can find video online of Franklin, in the middle of a Vanderbilt practice, doing the “Carlton Dance” made famous on the Will Smith sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. He was barely 40 years old, working miracles at a long-moribund program in the mighty SEC. Why wouldn’t he dance? Why wouldn’t he smile and laugh and celebrate with his players? How could he not be a little bit cocky?
If he was, the path of his life and career to that point might argue that he’d earned the right. The product of a brief, difficult marriage between a white British mother and black American father, Franklin grew up in what he once called a “traditional dysfunctional American family.” Raised primarily by his mother, he split time between Pittsburgh and the Philadelphia suburb of Langhorne, where he grew into a star player at Neshaminy High School. He went on to set nearly two dozen records as a quarterback at East Stroudsburg University; upon graduating in 1995, he began the long, arduous climb up the coaching ladder.
That ascent started with five jobs in five years: stints as a graduate assistant and part-time coach at Kutztown, East Stroudsburg, James Madison, Washington State (where he earned a master’s in educational leadership), and Idaho State. In 2000, he made the jump to Maryland, where over five seasons he coached receivers, coordinated recruiting efforts, and briefly worked alongside another up-and-coming assistant named Bill O’Brien. Franklin then spent a season with the NFL’s Green Bay Packers before returning to the college game, first as offensive coordinator at Kansas State for two seasons, then three as OC and assistant head coach at Maryland. It was this second stint at Maryland that set him up for his first head coaching job.
Franklin’s three-year run at Vandy brought national acclaim, not to mention interest from a handful of NFL teams. Thinking back on it now, he’s unconvinced any of that meant much to Penn State fans. “We have a very knowledgeable fan base,” he says, “but I don’t know if people around here necessarily followed Vanderbilt. I wasn’t exactly a household name.”
He made a memorable first impression in State College, heavy on energy and enthusiasm: At his introductory press conference, he promised to blow up balloons at local kids’ birthday parties. He embraced the hype and dazzle of recruiting, holding a fan event at the Bryce Jordan Center to mark national signing day. He coined mottos, most memorably “Dominate the State,” in a nod to the importance of recruiting Pennsylvania’s best high school players. He and his staff established an active presence on Twitter.
All of it was in keeping with broader trends in the college game, the best practices of the best programs in the nation—and none of it was normal or familiar at Penn State. Franklin knew it.
“Different fan bases kind of have a vision in their mind of what a football coach is, and I didn’t really fit that picture,” he says. “I look different, I talk different, I acted different. I think, being so positive, so enthusiastic, that’s not how they envisioned the person in that position.”
He adds one more thing: “They didn’t really know me, so it was like, ‘Is this real?’”
Franklin is direct in addressing the implication: He knows there were those who simply didn’t buy him, who thought his relentless positivity and displays of raw emotion—during that first year especially, he would choke up almost anytime he talked about his pride in coaching the flagship program in his home state—had to be an act. That he was such an effective recruiter of high school talent almost reinforced the impression that he was less a coach than a salesman.
He would also find doubters on his own roster.
Franklin’s style was starkly different not only from Joe Paterno’s, but also from that of his direct predecessor. Bill O’Brien was famously blunt, impatient, and intense, and that approach, established during the emotional turmoil of O’Brien’s first year in charge, created an atmosphere of loyalty and defiance among the players who stayed at Penn State when sanctions threatened to cripple the program. And then, abruptly, O’Brien left, and Franklin became the program’s third full-time head coach in 26 months.
“There was just a lack of trust,” says Wartman-White, a linebacker from Philadelphia who committed to Paterno’s staff before anchoring O’Brien’s first recruiting class. “Guys were invested in Coach O’Brien, and they liked the way he did things. And then, bam, Coach Franklin got here, and it was a complete change of pace. A lot of guys rejected it, or at least didn’t buy into it. We couldn’t tell if he was genuine or not.”
Adds former long snapper Ty Yazujian, “I think, unfortunately, a lot of the older guys kind of built a wall. And it was difficult for Coach Franklin to get through it.”
That lack of trust lasted the better part of two seasons, and both Franklin and former players say the disunity cost the team on the field. It wasn’t helping off the field, either. More than once during the 2015 season, most notably during an embarrassing season-opening loss at Temple and a late-season drubbing by Michigan State, a number of former Nittany Lions took to Twitter to express their frustration at the state of the program.
That season ended with a largely forgettable loss to Georgia in the TaxSlayer Bowl, a game best remembered for the fearless second-half play of a young backup quarterback named Trace McSorley. In the lead-up to the game, Franklin had fired his offensive coordinator, John Donovan, a friend and colleague dating back to his first stint at Maryland. Shortly after, a pair of key assistants left on their own terms: Offensive line coach Herb Hand went to Auburn, while defensive coordinator Bob Shoop was hired by Tennessee. None of the changes implied a program in peak health.
All of which gets back to Mike Poorman’s theory about humility. By the spring of 2016, the feel-good story of Franklin’s Vanderbilt tenure was a distant memory, and many Penn State fans were tired of hearing “excuses” about the lingering effects of NCAA sanctions—even if the team’s relative youth and lack of depth were the direct result of NCAA-mandated scholarship reductions. Much of the criticism aimed at Franklin was objectively unfair, based on a small sample size of results and ignorant of the program’s limitations. That didn’t mean Franklin could afford to ignore it.
And so he brought in former Fordham head coach Joe Moorhead to run what promised to be a more entertaining offense. He scheduled those player meetings, nearly 40 in all. But he also doubled down on his plan, confident that through ambitious recruiting, an obsessive attention to detail, and an unceasing emphasis on team as a metaphor for family, greatness wasn’t far off.
The first month of the 2016 season brought wins over Kent State and Temple, a bitter loss to old rival Pitt, and a blowout at the hands of Michigan. The Lions entered October a wobbly 2-2, then found themselves trailing Minnesota, at home, in the final minute of regulation. In that moment, it was easy to imagine another year of mediocrity, or worse. It was not difficult to imagine James Franklin’s days being numbered.
Nine consecutive wins and a Big Ten championship later, it’s almost hard to remember how close the whole thing seemed to collapsing. Instead, a group of talented underclassmen—fruits of the recruiting prowess of Franklin and his staff—and those once-dubious veterans combined for something magical: a season of epic comebacks, scoring outbursts, and too many big plays to count. Most of the players who made most of those plays will be back this season, joined by another highly rated group of recruits. Suddenly, and emphatically, James Franklin seems to fit Penn State just fine.
For all the talk of his style, it’s the substance of how Franklin runs his program that might be most compelling. He embraces terms likes “CEO,” “micromanager,” even “control freak,” and stories of his attention to the job’s minutiae abound: how he once asked the equipment guys to cover the orange pylons on the practice field with blue fabric, or how he banned red clothing from the Lasch Building. Tom Devenney, a reserve offensive lineman on last year’s team, says players struggled to take those tendencies seriously at first, but eventually came to appreciate the implied lesson. “If you think of all the moments in a football season,” Devenney says, “the details are what make the difference between going 6-6 and 10-2.”
Then there is Franklin’s stated commitment to what he calls “the true student-athlete model,” an idea that he jokes makes him a dinosaur in 2017. But he sounds deadly serious when he talks about football’s success “aligning with our U.S. News & World Report rankings,” and when he’s not reminding his players on Twitter to sit in the front row of their classes, he’s bragging about their grades: Indeed, the Nittany Lions’ NCAA-measured academic progress rate in 2014–15, his first year in charge, was the highest in the history of the program.
Says Poorman, “I think the best thing you can say about a Penn State athlete is that they are in most ways regular students; since James has been here, that’s been the case. His players are diligent about participating. They go to class, and they’re engaged.”
And then there is “family,” a word Franklin emphasizes more than any other. Yazujian, the long-snapper and Academic All-American, says, “He’s great at establishing relationships with the players. You’re not just a number to him.” Devenney, a reserve and former walk-on—and therefore a player who might not rank as a priority in a coach’s mind—concurs: “I don’t think you get a sense of how much he really cares for the people in the program—every player, every coach, down to the assistant trainers.”
Fumi Franklin figures her husband’s craving for that connection might have its roots in his difficult relationship with his father. “I think it feeds something in him,” she says. But she sees that prioritizing most clearly in Franklin’s commitment to their two elementary-school-age daughters, Shola and Addison, and to the parents and children on his staff. The football offices are fair game for all the coaches’ families, at all times.
“James has worked places where the kids weren’t necessarily welcome, and it puts stress on families,” she says. “When you leave for work at 5:45 in the morning and you might not come home until 9:30 or 10 at night for 70 percent of the year, it could breed resentment. So we make it a priority to have them at the office. They’re sort of entwined with the program—there are times I have to text one of the other coaches to find out where my kids are. They have their favorite players, the big brothers they never had.”
Building relationships, excelling in the classroom, all these priorities that, on the surface, have nothing to do with X’s and O’s—with actually, you know, coaching football. Or maybe they do. Maybe the tendency to micromanage that drives him to suggest Twitter edits to his social media team is no different from the need to adjust a defensive tackle’s three-point stance. Maybe bragging about his long snapper’s GPA is no different than extolling his quarterback’s completion percentage. Maybe treating his assistants and his players and even recruits as members of a huge, ever-expanding family is the only way James Franklin knows how to build the trust he can’t win without.
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