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James Franklin & Penn State Football Are Riding Their Own Brand of Momentum

by on February 11, 2018 9:00 PM

There may be as many as half-a-hundred people who work for Penn State football, not counting the players.

But, in some ways, James Franklin is a one-man brand these days.

And he sure looks like he's having fun being The Man.

Just take a look at recent home Penn State basketball and wrestling contests. Franklin has been there, baseline and center in his support of those teams.

Although it is the dead of winter, the fifth-year head coach and the Nittany Lion football program are showing no ill-effects of recently losing two coordinators — including the guru of PSU's offensive renaissance — in one fell swoop, plus a third key assistant to Alabama.

Which brings to six the number of top Franklin assistants who have left Happy Valley, one way or another, over the past 27 months. (Five arrived with Franklin in 2014.)

Beginning with Franklin himself, what remains is a core that has thrust Penn State into the end-of-year AP Top 10 in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2008-09 and only the third time since joining the Big Ten in 1993.

The Nittany Lions are riding some big momentum. Since falling in a perfect storm at Michigan State, they've won four games by a combined score of 192-81, including a 35-28 victory over Washington in the Fiesta Bowl. Franklin has signed the No. 5 recruiting class in the nation, with two five-stars in Micah Parsons and Justin Shorter, and the No. 1 recruit from three different states.

Overall, as reported by Tyler Donohue of Landof10, Franklin has signed six Top 100 recruits to his 2018 class. Comparatively, in Franklin's first four classes at Penn State he signed a total of just five Top 100 prospects. Combined.

Even say-saying good-bye to Saquon Barkley has its positives, given all the ongoing pub that he is bringing to the Penn State football program. Barkley is No. 1 in a slew of NFL mock drafts, has signed with Jay Z and Roc Nation, as well as Nike — on his 21st birthday. He'll likely be the King of the Combine in three weeks, and come late April he'll be one of the big Saquons of the ball.

No wonder that among high school recruits, Penn State was recently ranked as the third-best college football brand, according to picksixpreviews.com. The site asked 224 recruits "to grade their interest and desire in each program as if they were the No. 1 recruit in the country (i.e. they had offers from every school)." Details are here.

Clemson was No. 1, Ohio State was No. 2, followed by Penn State, Georgia and Oregon. Alabama was No. 19, so not all kids equate connect branding with winning national championships. The programs were rated on such criteria as stadium size, uniforms, program prestige, coach prestige, coach persona, location, media exposure, fan sentiment, playing style and academics.

These days, Penn State rates high in each — and every — category. No #hyperbole, either.

THE FRANKLIN BRAND

These days, at the core of Penn State's brand is Franklin.

Not just in persona, but in practice — i.e., emphasizing and prioritizing the brand, as it pertains to each area those recruits rated. It's been a very consistent message from Day One at Penn State. Much of that imaging it is carried out by Penn State's director of football operations Michael Hazel, who has an undergrad degree in corporate communications, an MBA and a master's organizational leadership. He knows his stuff. Hazel has been with Franklin since the day the coach arrived at Vandy, and on a daily basis he handles a good bit of the messaging, visuals and branding.

A significant part of that brand is the Penn State "family" and its stability, the departure of those half-dozen assistants notwithstanding. That was a big part of Franklin's pitch when he signed a contract extension in August 2017, worth at minimum $30.1 million of guaranteed money and retention bonuses if the coach stays at Penn State through Dec. 31, 2022. That's not counting an annual maximum of $1 million in bonuses each year.

"Do you feel comfortable," I asked Franklin a few days after the contract extension was announced, "that this is where you will be the next six years?"

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The coach didn't provide a straight yes or a no, but he did offer the "S" word:

"I think, for me, it's about stability," Franklin said. "We have started to build something here that I think can really be special. It provides stability for my family, but it also provides stability for my assistant coaches. It provides stability for their families, it provides stability for our players, it provides stability in recruiting — all of those types of things."

1,500 DAYS

Franklin was hired by Penn State on Jan. 11, 2014. Next Tuesday, CJF will have been at PSU for 1,500 days. It is his second longest tenure as a football coach — head or assistant — in 24 years in the business.\

(By comparison, his longest tenure was at Maryland for 1,790 days as an assistant in 2000-04. His shortest was 314 days with the Green Bay Packers in 2005. And he was the head coach at Vanderbilt for three seasons and 1,139 days.)

More comparisons:

Big Ten: As he approaches his fifth season as the Nittany Lions' head coach, Franklin ranks fifth in tenure among the 14 Big Ten Conference head coaches, behind Kirk Ferentz (at Iowa since 1999), Pat Fitzgerald (Northwestern, 2006), Mark Dantonio (Michigan State, 2007) and Urban Meyer (Ohio State, 2012).

Nationally: Since Franklin was named Penn State's 16th head football coach, there have been 71 head coaching changes among the 129 FBS (major) college football programs. Some schools are on their third coach since Franklin came to Penn State. Heck, Willie Taggart was at three schools — South Florida, Oregon and now Florida State — in the span of 363 days.

Here's a year-by-year breakdown of FBS head coaching changes, according to Footballscoop.com:

2015 — 21

2016 — 21

2017 — 29

Stability, thy name is James Geoffrey Franklin.

That's a heck of a thing to say about a guy who had 11 different jobs in his first 17 years in the business, including a stint as the offensive coordinator and quarterback of the Roskilde Kings in the Danish American Football Federation. (James is a winner: With him as the QB, the Kings beat Copenhagen in the Mermaid to win the league title.)

THE SECRET SAUCE

This is what that stability looks like, when you scratch below Penn State football's surface:

A big chunk of Franklin's secret sauce is his top-level administrative staff, which has been by his side since he arrived at Penn State — and, actually, before then as well. Hazel falls under this banner, as well as chief of staff Jemal Griffin, recruiting chief Andy Frank and director of football admin Kevin Threlkel. All were with Franklin at Maryland and/or Vanderbilt, and going as far back as Kansas State a dozen years ago. Strength & conditioning czar Dwight Galt, who along with his staff sees more of the Penn State players year-round than anyone, has worked with Franklin for over 17 years. There's no one Franklin trusts more.

Other key staffers, in place when Franklin arrived at Penn State, have remained. This form of stability is key as well. These include video coordinator Jevin Stone, academic advising director Todd Kulka and Tim Bream, who is leaving his role as head football athletic trainer at the end of the month.

Neither Penn State president Eric Barron nor athletic director Sandy Barbour was on board when Franklin was hired, but both arrived on the University Park campus shortly thereafter. These days, they are Franklin cheerleaders, and the coach regularly calls them for their support.

Barron was hired in February 2014 and Barbour started in August 2014, before a Penn State team coached by Franklin played a single game. Both are on contract through 2019 (Barron's current pact expires on June 30, Barbour's on Aug. 31). Their contracts will likely be extended, especially given athletics' far-reaching success under Barbour's direction. Phil Esten, the No. 2 person in athletics and the day-to-day administrator for football, has been in place since October 2014, and the consistency that he has brought to the program has been a behind-the-scenes component of football's success.

Their support for Franklin and Penn State football, through early thin and recent thick, has been important. Not just in word — via public pronouncements and private meetings — but in deed. They have opened the coffers for raises and extensions and perks for Franklin and his assistants, for Lasch and Holuba Hall renovations, for jet travel, and for a bunch of that other stuff that goes into branding and rebuilding a program.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Here's one big way you measure significant: Money.

According to documents Penn State athletics must file annually with the U.S. Dept. of Education to comply with Title IX, the finances associated with Penn State football have skyrocketed:

In 2011, Penn State football brought in $72.4 million in revenue, with $19.5 million in expenses.

In 2017, Penn State football brought in $81.1 million in revenue, with $39.1 million in expenses.

Success comes with a price, beginning with Franklin. In 2017, he made approximately $4.9 million. The investment has resulted in 11-3 and 11-2 seasons, with a Big Ten championship, two New Year's Day bowls, a high-water mark of No. 2 in the polls last October and a 20-1 record at Beaver Stadium since 2015.

Speaking of which, average attendance at Beaver Stadium has risen by 10,120 fans per game under Franklin, going from 96,587 in 2013 to 106,707 (nearly #107k) per home game in 2017.

WHAT JAMES SAYS

I'm reminded back to Oct. 27, 2015, when a media report said that Franklin was interested in the vacant Miami (Fa.) head coaching job after former Penn Stater Al Golden was fired. Franklin was all fired up over that news at his press conference at Beaver Stadium that day. He was fiery.

"My family has sacrificed. I've worked my ass off to get to Penn State, to get here," franklin said. "And this is where I want to be. This is where I want to be. We've got a lot of work to do on the field. We've got a lot of work to do off the field in every aspect. But this is where I want to be. Stuff like that I guess some people could look at it as a compliment. I don't. My focus is a 100% on Penn State. Like I said, I've worked like crazy to get here."

Since then, over the past few years, Franklin has peppered his meetings with the press with throwaway lines about him staying at Penn State a long time, maybe even making it his last stop — often marveling at how long Joe Paterno stayed. Quite a statement for a relatively young guy who just tuned 46 on Groundhog Day.

In that vein, though, here's what he had to say back on Nov. 15, when I asked him about Penn State's history and how important it is to him, specifically in that case Nebraska, which he had noted with surprise was ahead 9-7 in its series with Penn State:

"I look at Penn State's record vs. opponents and I'd like to chop away at it," he replied. "I'd love to be able to retire here and have been able to say some of those things at some point.

"I do want to understand the big picture and teams we've had good records against and teams we've struggled against. I'd like to have been able to have a positive impact on all of those things before we leave here."



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