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For Penn State Football & Franklin, 5 Years Later & Opportunityisnowhere

by on February 28, 2019 10:00 PM

It was five years ago to this very day — February 28, 2014 — when James Franklin was the featured speaker in Room A of the Breinigsville Holiday Inn.

Nike was sponsoring its annual Eastern Pennsylvania Coach of the Year Clinic and Franklin was the man coaches throughout the state had come to see that Friday night.

Jimbo Fisher, then of Florida State (and now of Texas A&M), was the morning’s main lecturer.

The previous day, the very first speaker of the three-day clinic for mostly youth, middle school and high school coaches was a little-known head coach named Joe Moorhead, of Fordham University.

Moorhead’s topic was a twofer:

The Money Down: Converting 3rd and Medium +2; The Spread Offense: How to Combine Your Run Game With Effective Play-Action Passes.”

Franklin’s speech that Friday night had no title. But if had, it might have been, “Make Penn State Great Again.”

I was there, paying cash money for a seat amongst the coaches. This week I dug out my reporter’s notebook and also watched a short clip of his speech that I had recorded to jog my memory of that night (a snippet of which appears below). Among the bon mots I wrote down that night was this:

Me to John Donovan, as we were swigging beers with Herb Hand: “How is the team going to be this year?”

Donovan: “You guys probably know better than I do. We’re just trying to tread water. We’re a little thin along the offensive line.”

Franklin, coming off an unprecedented three consecutive postseason bowls at Vanderbilt, knew his task at Penn State — still in the midst of the sanctions — was going to be an incredibly tough one.

Franklin was Penn State’s fifth head football coach of some variety and title in 27 months. He knew Job One was getting the entire Pennsylvania football community, with its mixed allegiances and alliances, to buy into what he was saying. His biggest concern in that area? Penn State’s players.

As Franklin told the room of a couple hundred coaches, “Are they (the players) willing to work on the little things that the common fan or the media guys or the administrator — who don’t know what it takes to be successful — that will allow those kids to be successful? You have to get those kids to buy into that.”

He continued, as he somewhat manically paced back and forth: “We’re going to talk a lot about collective mentality. Everybody on the same page. That’s part of what I’m doing here today. I’m trying to Jedi Mind Trick and brainwash all of you to leave here and say, ‘If I have a good kid, he’s got to go to Penn State.’ Get everybody on the same page, with the message and the philosophy.”

To illustrate his point, Franklin put a slide on the front screen, one of several in his PowerPoint display. It read, in big block sans serif letters:


It’s a standard CJF PP slide these days, ever-present in his presentation deck for groups big and small.

But back then Franklin, a Pennsylvania native, was newly returned to the state where he played his college ball at East Stroudsburg form 1991-94 and last coached, in 1996, as a grad assistant at the same school.

So, his message was fresh. And in this case, the letters were borrowed from his East Stroudsburg coach, the legendary Denny Dowd, as Franklin freely admitted.

“Read it,” Franklin barked. “A lot of people read it as, ‘Opportunity is nowhere.’ I’m going to tell you, there are guys at Penn State who are going to read it like that.”



Which was true. And in the two seasons following that speech, it looked like they were right, as the Nittany Lions went 7-6 and 7-6 with an offense that was so miserable that it got Donovan fired. And Moorhead hired.

And then, it happened. Franklin’s relentless optimism, constant restructuring and ceaseless recruiting, combined with Moorhead’s two-year clinic on “The Money Down: Converting 3rd and Medium +2; The Spread Offense: How to Combine Your Run Game With Effective Play-Action Passes,” resulted in a 21-5 streak.

Opportunity knocked. And Penn State answered.

People, including and most importantly the Nittany Lion football players, ended up reading that old saw from the PowerPoint a bit differently:


And so it is.

As Franklin prepares for his sixth spring practice at PSU, there has been major churn in the program, both in the coaching staff, in the locker room and on the practice field. The transfer portal and a veritable parade of coaches departing Happy Valley, most of them on their own accord, have made the start of 2019 a new era for Penn State football again.

Welcome back, Opportunity.

Prior to Franklin’s 37-minute lecture that night five years ago, Willie Jungels and I cornered him for five quick questions. (Read them here.) One covered leadership, which will once again be an issue for the Nittany Lions  in 2019. College football is cyclical that way.

Thus, Franklin’s response five years ago could be Franklin’s response now:

“For us as coaches, some of the biggest challenges are developing leaders,” he said. “Anybody can identify leadership. That’s fairly easy to do. It’s how you develop leadership. Everybody focuses on the seniors. You better be developing freshmen, sophomores, juniors, seniors – not only for the years to come.

“For now, you better have some leadership in your freshman class for when your seniors aren’t around, for when they’re in the freshmen dorms or they’re out. That’s something we’re constantly working on – developing leadership.”


Franklin’s first slide that night read “UNRIVALED Penn State Football.”

His last slide outlined Penn State’s spring practice schedule, as he invited all the coaches in the room to attend a PSU practice.

In between, he listed Penn State’s core values — you know them by heart, by now; no need to list them here again.

But the core of his message was the same then, as it is likely now:

After a 9-4 season in 2018 that saw the Nittany Lions go a shaky 5-4 and average just 24 points per game down the stretch, succeeded by an exodus of Old Testament dimensions, we know this:

Opportunity is now here. Again.

Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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