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Penn State Football: For James Franklin & Staff, It’s Academic

by on April 03, 2014 11:11 PM

Editor’s Note: This is the 22nd in a series previewing Penn State football, part of the countdown to the Blue-White Game on April 12 by and Onward State. Read the previous stories here.

To a very real degree – both bachelor’s and master’s – Penn State’s new football staff is as much teacher as it is coach these days.

In fact, make that 15 bachelor’s and eight master’s degrees. Together, they equal 23 college degrees of preparation.

Those are the diplomas earned by the core group of coaches and administrators who run the day-to-day operations of Nittany Lion football. And all are being put to good use, no doubt, given all the learning that is going on in Lasch and Holuba these days.

New system, new schemes, new coaches, new positions, new style, new tempo, new freshmen. Coaching at Penn State now, especially, is part (bachelor of) arts and part (bachelor of) science.

But that’s nothing new to new Penn State head coach James Franklin.

“We have great teachers,” says Franklin, who brought the bulk of his staff with him from Vanderbilt. “We’re called coaches, but we’re really teachers. That’s what we essentially are. I think we have a really good group of guys who can do that.”

In total, Franklin, his nine on-field assistants and conditioning guru have 202 years of coaching experience – an average of almost two decades per person. They’ll need all of it as Penn State faces a year of transition, still socked with NCAA sanctions.

That teaching assignment begins with Franklin, who owns an undergrad degree in psychology from East Stroudsburg and a grad degree in educational leadership from Washington State. And it extends through his nine coaching assistants, plus double-degree holder and director of performance enhancement Dwight Galt and a four-man admin team that, collectively, seemingly has more degrees (eight!) than those savants on Big Bang Theory.

The key root words of Franklin’s degrees are key to describing his philosophy and style – psychology, education, leader. Although his emphasis was psych as an undergrad, Franklin said at a winter coaches clinic that “people tell me I’d major in communications today.” No kidding.


The list of alma maters of Franklin’s staff reads like a who’s who of U.S. News & World Report’s annual university rankings (Vanderbilt is No. 17, Penn State No. 37). D-coordinator Bob Shoop went to Yale and was head coach at Columbia. Quarterback coach Ricky Rahne was a three-year starter at Cornell. Josh Gattis was all-conference twice at Wake Forest. Director of player personnel Andy Frank has a B.S. degree from Princeton. In engineering, to boot.

Offensive coordinator John Donovan earned a sociology degree from Johns Hopkins, then topped that off with a master’s in economics from Georgia Tech. As a Yalie, Shoop studied economics, so you can imagine the conversations between the two coordinators about the high interest in Penn State’s low amount of bench reserves. That’s not to mention the trending impact of the NCAA penalties on wins and losses, both on the financial ledger and the playing field.

Offensive line coach Herb Hand has a master’s to complement his undergrad degree in history from Hamilton (N.Y.), established in 1793. Hamilton’s credo touts that it is “a national leader in teaching students to write effectively, learn from each other and think for themselves.” Sounds tailor-made for the Twitter and Reddit worlds where Hand loves to (word) play.

Speaking of which: Hand clearly has his hands full with an undermanned offensive line. Nowhere else on the squad is a deft teaching hand more needed. Compounding matters, with Miles Dieffenbach out of action Penn State’s 92-man spring roster now features 58 players with freshman and sophomore eligibility – 63% of the team. The young roster will get even more inexperienced in the fall, when Franklin welcomes at least 20 more freshmen. That should give Penn State a roster where almost seven out of every 10 players will have freshman or sophomore eligibility.

“We have a long ways to go,” Franklin said last week, “in development in schemes, concepts, understanding what it is going to take to get this program where we want it to be.”


Behind the scenes, the Nittany Lion staff packs a lot of brainpower to get that job done. Michael Hazel, director of football operations, leads the academic pack with three degrees – a bachelor’s and MBA from Elon and a master’s in organizational leadership from Vanderbilt. Kevin Threlkil, director of football administration, has a master’s in college student personnel in athletics from Kansas State, while chief of staff Jemal Griffin got his management science degree at Coppin State. Galt earned his master’s in exercise physiology.

It’s titles like that which Franklin clearly relishes. And emblematic of an academic bent of which he is quite proud. While showing an executive from the World Wide Leader around the offices a few weeks ago, Franklin interrupted a pair of meetings to introduce the visitor to each and every coach and GA. Franklin not only announced each one’s coaching title, but his alma mater as well.

The staff of 15 also holds two degrees from Vanderbilt – “our last institution,” as Franklin likes to call it -- and one from Penn State, a degree in business management earned by secondary coach Terry Smith.

Running backs coach Charles Huff – a graduate of Hampton University, founded in 1868 and boasting “The Standard of Excellence, An Education for Life” – says the challenging Vanderbilt experience prepared the dozen-plus Franklin acolytes who came to PSU from Vandy.

“At Vanderbilt, we were used to an emphasis on academics,” Huff said in January when he was hired. “What helped us – because we could see the importance of both – was that we knew you can play football and be smart, if that makes sense. Some people just thought, ‘They just pushed him along,’ but we knew they had to be good students, too.”

Franklin has echoed that loud and often since he arrived at University Park. He has credited the Penn State players’ academic prowess as a key indicator in easing the transition for everyone in the program.


“We have smart kids here. I think that helps,” Franklin said after practice last week. “We have smart kids off the field who are football smart as well. That’s important for us.”

One of the smartest guys on the field for Penn State is quarterback Christian Hackenberg. After studying with QB master Bill O’Brien as a freshman last season, Hackenberg is now under the tutelage of the 33-year-old Rahne, a former quarterback himself. As a three-year team MVP at Cornell, Rahne threw for 7,710 yards and 54 touchdowns, with 25 200-yard games.

It appears that those who do can also teach.

“Coach Rahne brings a lot of energy,” Hackenberg said on Thursday. “He’s younger and brings a lot of the game. It’s always fun to go to meetings with him. You always come out learning something. Very passionate, high energy, very fun to work with.”

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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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