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James Franklin's Formula for Penn State Football: Passion + Perseverance

by on June 18, 2017 8:25 PM

I listened to a TedTalk the other day that reminded me of James Franklin.

It was part of a Ted Radio Hour podcast from 2013 on "Success," and all of that word's iterations.

The podcast featured Tony Robbins and Mike Rowe (the "Dirty Jobs" guy) and Angela Lee Duckworth, a Penn psychology professor and a MacArthur "Genuis" Fellow.

It was Duckworth's talk — already seen by almost 11 million people; watch it here — that made me think of CJF.

And no, her TedTalk wasn't about recruiting, selling, relationships, CEO's, Tweeting or retro-like uniforms. Or about what Franklin thinks he does best, which is what I asked him on this year's Caravan trail, to which he replied, "Developing" people and programs. (Read about that here.)

Duckworth's 6-minute and 12-second talk wasn't even about football.

It was about grit.

Which, Duckworth says, is the net result of passion plus perseverance.

That's James. Call it, if you want, Nit Grit.

If we've learned nothing else from him as we head into Day No. 1,255 of the James Franklin Era, we have seen that Penn State's 16th head coach is all about those two words. He would, no doubt, include another "P word" — people, as well.

Penn State's most famous head coach, Joe Paterno, was also all about passion and perseverance. Those traits manifested themselves one way in the early and middle years of his long career, and an entirely different way in his later years. Bill O'Brien had the passion — in spades — and persevered during the most severe parts of Penn State's stretch of the Sanction Era. But he didn't stay.

Franklin didn't stick around at Vanderbilt, either. It's much more likely he'll be around at Penn State for much longer than he was in Nashville. It could be much, much longer.

WHAT GRIT IS

Duckworth studies self-control and grit, and has even written a book about it. She runs this non-profit called the "Character Lab." Grit, her research tells her, is the No. 1 predictor of success. She studied seventh-grade students, contestants in the national spelling bee, first-year teachers in rough neighborhoods, cadets at West Point and salespeople just starting out. Tough situations all.

(We could throw Franklin's beginning situation at Penn State in there as well.)

And the most successful of each of those groups had one thing in common. In her words:

"One characteristic emerged as a significant predictor of success. It wasn't about intelligence, it wasn't good looks, it wasn't physical health. And it wasn't IQ. It was grit.

"Grit is passion and perseverance for achieving very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future day-in and day-out. Not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years. And working really hard to make that future a reality."

Sound familiar? 

SATURDAY AT CAMP

I thought about this on Saturday, while spending the afternoon over Penn State's IM fields, watching hundreds and hundreds of high school football players — 55 teams in all — playing in day-long 7-on-7 contests. And, at the same time, there were hundreds more high schoolers over by the Lasch practice fields, in a separate camp for linemen. In all, #1.1k kids were on campus for football that day.

For Franklin and his staff, it was the culmination of a season that began about 11 months ago, with a staff retreat that led into summer practice, that led into losses at Pitt and Michigan, then nine straight wins, a Big Ten title and the Rose Bowl. Then recruiting, National Signing Day, spring practice, the caravan, more recruiting, and football camps near and far.

Saturday represented the end of a very long — and very successful — year for Franklin and his staff. It was a group, by the way, that has remained intact, one of less than 20 in all of major college that didn't lose a single assistant coach in the off-season. Paterno-like in that sense, as well.

Wearing a blue Penn State baseball-style jersey, Franklin was in golf cart, going from game to game, shuttling from the IM fields to Lasch and back. (In fact, all of his assistant coaches and staffers were doing the same dance well.) He was schmoozing high school coaches, checking  cheat sheets to see which prospects were playing where, and passionately talking with parents and with players.

Franklin and his staff — assistants like Brent Pry and Ricky Rahne and Charles Huff and Josh Gattis and Chaos Spencer — have been grinding for almost 180 weeks, since they first got to Penn State in January 2014. Pry, Spencer and Rahne have done twice that, having been with Franklin since Day One at his previous institution.

"Do you ever get a break?" I asked a former assistant during a bye week a few years ago.

"Not with James," he said flatly.

 Passion plus perseverance.

A HURRICANE ABOUT MIAMI

On Saturday, I thought back to Oct. 27, 2015, and Franklin's answer to the 12th question of his Tuesday presser that day, which came on the heels of a one-point victory over Maryland in Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium that was preceded by a 28-point loss to Ohio State in The Horseshoe.

It was as fiery as I've ever seen Franklin in public. (Though it's commonplace on locker room videos put out by the PSU PR folks.) 

The question was about rumors of Franklin considering the open head coaching position at Miami (Fla.), made vacant by the firing of former Nittany Lion Al Golden, who ironically enough was a candidate for the Penn State job that ultimately went to Franklin.

"First of all, let me say this, OK?" Franklin gritted that day. "I don't like it. I don't like it. I think it calls into a distraction for our team. I think it's a distraction for Penn State. And I have no idea where it's coming from, whatsoever.

"My family has sacrificed. I've worked my ass off to get to Penn State, to get here. And this is where I want to be. This is where I want to be. Got a lot of work to do on the field, 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 100% on Penn State. Like I said, I've worked like crazy to get here."

Penn State beat Illinois a few days later, but then dropped the final four games of the season, to finish 7-6 for the second consecutive year. Franklin was questioned and even doubted all off-season and into the first four games of the 2016 schedule. Then the passion and perseverance were rewarded by performance.

Penn State went on a roll and you know the rest of the story.

A REMEMBRANCE MUCH ROSIER

On Saturday, I thought of the afternoon of Dec. 4, 2016, as well, when Franklin did his umpteenth press opportunity — actually, a double-header, both by phone — on the day after the Nittany Lions defeated Wisconsin to win the Big Ten championship. As I wrote back then:

When James Franklin’s Penn State squad won the Big Ten title last week, he didn’t bask in the glow of rebirth and redemption and rewards. He did what he’s always done. He went back to work. He hit the road recruiting. For a week.

On back-to-back media conference calls on Sunday afternoon, you could hear the exhaustion in Franklin’s voice. It was gravelly, wane, flat, soft. The Nittany Lions head coach had hardly slept the night before, and although he was back home in State College – albeit briefly – he was already packed for the road.

“The players will have some down time right now,” Franklin said on one of those calls. “Which we need or we needed right now. Myself, I will be leaving this evening and I won’t come back until Saturday.”

NO SATURDAY IN THE PARK

That was 27 Saturdays ago. This coming Saturday, Franklin — and his assistants and band of loyal staffers — will be on vacation.

When they return, the next cycle begins.

And — to be gritty about it — in a world of Urban and Harbaugh and everyone else, it will be time for Franklin and his coaches and players to work their asses off. Again.



Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football 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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