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James Franklin’s Penn State Success is the Culmination of a Six-Year (and Lifetime) Grind

by on December 11, 2016 9:00 PM

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 last 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 rest for the weary, even if you’re 11-2, ranked No. 5 in the country, riding a nine-game winning streak into the Rose Bowl against USC and national coach of the year.

It’s how, Franklin in only his third season at Penn State – which is in only its first full season post-sanctions – got into the national spotlight in the first place.


But this wasn’t a 21-point comeback weary. Or even a season of second-half comebacks weary. This was a Six-Year Weary. Begun at Vanderbilt, sustained and continued and heightened at Penn State, 2,186 days as a head coach on unprecedented frontlines weary.

At age 44, Franklin knows nothing else. He’s played and worked under 11 head coaches. (Read about them here.)

He’s literally driven across America from one coaching job to another with a screwdriver for an ignition key in a beat-up old white Honda, only to begin work on his birthday. (Read about that trip here.)

He left East Stroudsburg University as a successful dual-threat quarterback in his own right who got his first job coaching wide receivers at Kutztown for $1,200. And he came back to his alma mater two decades later as a commencement speaker, as head coach of one of America’s most successful – and, at the time, most-maligned -- football programs. (Read about the homecoming here.)

You may not think of him this way, but Franklin is a grinder. Has been all his life. He’s been called a CEO, a recruiter, a salesman. All true, and remember, they’re not always pejorative. He’s also the economic engineer of a $120-million intercollegiate athletics juggernaut, a highly visible and charismatic biracial change artist, and a very successful major college head football coach – 49-29 overall, with remarkable turnarounds in totally dissimilar circumstances.

It’s important to note that Franklin’s success at Penn State is a continuation of his 22 years in the profession. And it is key to understand that his journey as a head coach began six years ago this week, on Dec. 17, 2010, when he was named the head coach at Vanderbilt.

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For the next six years, he’s been non-stop. It’s been 312 weeks of grinding. First, directing Vandy to a 24-15 record, taking the Commodores to consecutive Top 25 finishes for the first time in the 125-year history of their program. They beat Auburn, Missouri and Ole Miss in one season, then they defeated Florida, No. 15 Georgia and Tennessee in the next. His last recruiting class at Vanderbilt was ranked No. 20 in the country.

Then, on Jan. 11, 2014, he came to Penn State. You know the back story. Back-to-back 7-6 seasons followed. Last offseason saw the departure of two coordinators and a veteran O-line coach. This season brought a 2-2 start. Then those nine straight wins.

Over the past 73 months, he’s signed or gotten verbals from 161 recruits. Had six different starting quarterbacks, 16 different assistant coaches, 30 (16-14) out of 78 games decided by a touchdown or less, endured a 45-point blowout at Vandy and two 39-point blowouts at Penn State, and -- oh, yes -- celebrated a 24-21 win over No. 2 Ohio State (overnight, anyway, then: Purdue, Purdue, Purdue). Watched daughters Shola and Addison grow as he worked hard to be an involved dad. Gained more than a little grey in his goatee. Grinded.

And pushed his staff – hard. Yet, a total of 10 coaches and staffers have been with him every step of the way, in Nashville and in a born-again Happy Valley. (Read about them here.) They are part of his secret sauce. Only part. Also key to Franklin’s success is who he is and strives to be – “the one thing I’ve never lacked for is energy and enthusiasm,” he notes in the following.

Defensive coordinator Brent Pry, who has known Franklin since he was an assistant at East Stroudsburg and Franklin was the quarterback, knows Franklin as well and as long as anyone in Centre County. So what Pry said in the moments after Penn State beat Wisconsin 38-31 last Saturday in the Big Ten championship game bears repeating.

“James’ leadership is phenomenal,” Pry said. “He stays the course like no one I’ve ever been around. So many coaches can go up and down, and change this and change that. Yet James stays the course.”


So what does Franklin himself say about all this, as he closes in on a seminal anniversary date next Saturday? That’s when it will be six years since he was hired as a 38-year-old head coach by Vanderbilt, to guide a program that had been 4-20 its previous two seasons. It was the day when his life changed for good. And by good, we mean great turnarounds at both Vanderbilt and Penn State.

We caught up with Franklin on Sunday, to ask him to – uncharacteristically – reflect on the grind and incredible roller coaster ride that has been his football life over the past half-dozen years. A life that is now coming up roses. Here’s what he had to say:

What have the last six years been like?

“It’s been a grind. You think about the program we took over at Vanderbilt and the situation we walked into there. And you think about the situation that we came into at Penn State. Selling a vision, getting people to believe. It starts with the relationship aspect. We got the job here at Penn State on Jan. 11 and tried to put a class together before signing day. It’s a grind. It really is. It’s a grind on the family. It’s a grind on the coaches. It’s a grind on the staff. And it never ends. It’s year-round, year-long.”

So, what sustains you? What drives you?

“You can say whatever you want about me, but the one thing I’ve never lacked for is energy and enthusiasm. I’ve had that my entire life.

“I tell the players all the time, I think it’s really, really important that you have a picture in your mind of who and what you want to be. I have the ability to do the same kind of thing with organizations. I have a very, very clear picture of what I want Penn State to be, the type of program I want to be around, the type of people I want to be around. I think when you can see something so clearly in your own mind, it helps you when you’re putting the pieces of the puzzle together. And it motivates you towards it, because it’s such a beautiful thing that you’re trying to put together.

“I think that’s the thing that motivates me. So does my family, my wife and my kids. And also this very clear vision and picture in my mind of who and what I want us to be. It’s an everyday, all-day type of thing.”

The 10 guys who have been with you since Day One at Vanderbilt, who have bought into and lived that vision, have to be important as well.

“They’re very important. Very important. I think the biggest compliment that I have ever received came from Dwight Galt -- who was at Maryland for somewhere around 26 to 32 years, had been in the same house for over 30 years, who went to Maryland, whose two sons went to Maryland, who had a job working at Maryland the rest of his life since was the guy who trained Kevin Plank, who owns Under Armour.

“I remember the day I walked down to him, as a first-time head coach (heading to Vanderbilt from Maryland), and said, ‘I’m looking for a strength coach, do you have anybody?’

“And he goes, ‘Me.’

“I go, ‘What do you mean?’

“And he says, ‘I’ll go with you.’

“That was the best compliment I could have ever received. He’s been the guy who has been the father figure of our program and a guy I always bounce ideas off of. So that kind of was the start, that a guy like that would be willing to come with a first-time head coach and start something. We were the first two there (at Vanderbilt).

“Then I called Ricky Rahne (who worked with Franklin at Kansas State), who was next. He accepts the job at Vanderbilt without knowing what he’s going to be paid or even what he was going to coach. We’ve kept a nucleus of guys together. If you look at any successful staff or organization, there’s a core group of people who have stuck together. We’ve been very fortunate to be able to do that. I’ve been blessed.”

Is there a commonality to that group?

“I think they believe in the vision and they’ve bought into the vision. What happens is that it grows from there. It’s me and Sean Spencer now. It’s me and Brent Pry. And so on and so forth. You look at our administrative staff. I think a lot of the time people talk just about coaches. Right now, you’re reading about guys taking jobs all over the country and they may not take anyone with them. When Penn State called, they sent two planes and 16 people got on those planes. Men with families and kids and wives. They came to State College.

“That, to me, is ultimately what it is all about: A group of men coming together to try to build something and build something special. There’s a comfort in that. I think when people get around that -- recruits, recruits’ parents --  and they see how much we care for one another, it trickles down to them.”

What was the toughest part of the past six years? A 34-0 loss to Alabama or a 45-point loss to Georgia at Vanderbilt or the circumstances at Penn State?

“I think it’s different. Vanderbilt was a completely different animal. That was a wonderful place and we had a wonderful experience. But when we got there, there wasn’t really an expectation. So, when we lost – I was trying to get people to change – but losing was what we were supposed to do. And the wins were just so surprising. We were able to win six games, then nine games, then nine games in that (SEC) conference. That’s what was so special about being there – seeing the expectations change, the culture change.

“And then coming here to Penn State, it was the complete opposite. There are super-sized expectations, even after everything we’ve been through. It was a completely different animal.

“At Vanderbilt, it was all self-imposed: pressure and expectations and standards that we put on ourselves. Coming here, it was something that has been a part of -- and ingrained in -- this community for 50 years.”

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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December 11, 2016 2:00 PM
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Penn State Basketball: Lessons Learned With Franklin Still Apply As Chambers Builds With Youth
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