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Penn State Football: Franklin Hits 100 vs. Iowa and McSorley Isn’t Far Behind

by on October 25, 2018 8:00 PM

Penn State’s game against Iowa is James Franklin’s 100th as a college football head coach.

Franklin was 24-15 in three seasons at what he likes to call his previous institution (Vanderbilt).

That’s been followed by four-plus years at Penn State, where he has a 41-19 record.

Now 46, Franklin has been a head coach since Dec. 17, 2010 — the day Vanderbilt hired away from Maryland, where he was a head-coach-no-longer-in-waiting, thanks to a new Terrapins athletic director, who blocked Franklin’s path to succeed Ralph Friedgen.

Franklin’s first win as a head coach came on Sept. 3, 2011, against Elon.

Vanderbilt won that game, 45-14, before 27,599 fans at Vanderbilt Stadium against the alma mater of Franklin’s Radar O’Reilly-like aide Michael Hazel, one of 10 Penn State coaches and staffers who have been with Franklin for all eight seasons of his head coaching career.

Vandy held a slim 21-14 lead in the second half, then exploded for 24 unanswered points for the victory, as three times Franklin went for it on fourth down. The end-of-the season notes for the game, which still have Franklin’s fingerprints all over them, indicated “Vanderbilt won the turnover battle 3-0.”

When the Nittany Lions take the field on Saturday in Beaver Stadium, it will be Franklin’s 2,870th day as The Top Man — 1,120 at Vandy, 1,750 at Penn State. Nice, neat numbers for a coach who says he has touch of OCD, in addition to feeling a bit O-L-D as well.

“I’m becoming the old guy,” Franklin said on Wednesday in a rare moment of public introspection. “That’s amazing to me, because I never really viewed myself that way. But I am. I’m becoming one of the veteran guys, which is strange.

“…I think I have evolved a lot since Vanderbilt. I think all the way back to Vanderbilt and it seems like an eternity. We were talking as a staff, how far back was that game in Ireland?”

Franklin paused a moment, looking back to his first game as Penn State’s head coach, on Aug. 30, 2014 in Croke Park in Dublin, Ireland, where Christian Hackenberg threw for 454 yards and the Nittany Lions beat Central Florida, 26-24, on a walk-off 36-yard field goal by Sam Ficken.

“It seems like 10 years ago,” said Franklin, twice. “It seems like 10 years ago.”

• • •

You can see why Franklin would think that.

He arrived with Penn State under NCAA sanctions and although they were lifted, his new team was playing with one hand behind its back. Back-to-back 7-6 seasons followed, as the Nittany Lions averaged just 21.8 points per game. Franklin fired offensive coordinator John Donovan. Veteran assistants Bob Shoop and Herb Hand, who like Donovan were among the 16 coaches and staffers who followed Franklin from Nashville to Happy Valley, departed under a bit of a cloud.

Franklin retooled and with the arrival of Joe Moorhead and the emergence of Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley, Penn State had back-to-back 11-win seasons, a Big Ten championship and two New Year’s Day bowl appearances.

But…

Over the past 13 games, Franklin’s team has lost Moorhead, assistants Josh Gattis and Charles Huff, and two games each to Ohio State and Michigan State — by a total of nine points. Nearly 44% of his games at Penn State have been decided by one nerve-wracking touchdown or less; he is 14-12 in those contests. (He was 6-2 in such games at Vandy in 2012-13, after going 1-5 in 2011.)

“I think we’re constantly evolving,” Franklin said on Wednesday.

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• • •

When it comes to Franklin, two fifth-year seniors who are the stalwarts of the 2018 Nittany Lions on offense and defense, respectfully disagree. He hasn’t changed.

McSorley and cornerback Amani Oruwariye knew Franklin as high school juniors, when they were recruited by Vanderbilt. Both, in fact, originally committed to Vandy — McSorley from Virginia, Oruwariye from Florida.

“Coach is basically still the same person,” said Oruwariye this week. “He’s just that same hard-working coach, passionate, high energy, same guy.”

McSorley met his future head coach when he was still a rising junior quarterback from Briar Woods High School in suburban D.C., attending a summer football camp along with Oruwariye in Nashville. 

“I think the things that Coach Franklin said at the junior prospect camp there are exactly what he says at the junior camp now,” McSorley said this week. He laughed, but he meant it.

McSorley liked what he heard. Now in the homestretch of his five years at Penn State and facing his 35th start as a Nittany Lion quarterback against Iowa on Saturday, McSorley was a bit undersized in high school. But Franklin knew he was getting a winner. In four seasons at Briar Woods, McSorley had a 55-5 record as a starter with three state titles (and lost in a fourth appearance).

This is Year Five at Penn State for Trace and James, a former collegiate quarterback himself as well as a QB coach and coordinator as a college assistant. They’ve been together through back-to-back 7-6 seasons with Christian Hackenberg as the starting quarterback and McSorley in the wings. McSorley has been the starter since the 2016 season-opener, through a string that has included a 27-7 record (the most wins by a PSU starting QB is 29).

Like Franklin, McSorley is facing his own century mark.

If he stays healthy and the Nittany Lions play six more games (five regular season and a bowl), McSorley will have been a starting quarterback for 100 games. That’s over seven seasons — four years and 60 games in high school, three years and 40 games in college.

McSorley has a slew of records, and has amassed 10,283 total yards of offense, a Penn State record and 11th in Big Ten history. If he maintains his 2018 pace of 288 yards per game over the next six games, he’ll finish with 12,001 yards — trailing only Purdue’s Drew Brees (12,692) and Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett (12,697).

“Trace is a guy that's always part of the solution. He's never about the problems,” Franklin said this week. “I think we all realize it's easy to identify problems, but Trace is a solution guy. He's always been really good at that from a leadership standpoint. He's always been really good at that from an ownership standpoint.”

On Wednesday, I asked McSorley what he has learned most from Franklin over the past several years, as he grew from a 17-year-old recruit to a 23-year-old nationally-recognized college football star.

“I think as I've gotten to know him and our relationship has grown, (it’s) buying into what he talks about with the core values and taking those and applying them to my life,” McSorley said. “I think that's been the biggest thing I've been able to do — taking the positive attitude, having a great work ethic, competing in everything, being able to sacrifice.

“Those are things I didn't have when I first met him in high school. Now that I've known him for six years, seven years, whatever it might be, and I've continued to grow and become an older person, I've been able to add those into my life and carry those off the field and use them outside of football. 

“I think that's the biggest thing that I've been able to learn from him. It’s what I’ve been able to apply in my life since I've gotten here, became a player here and just have been able to learn from him.”

• • •

Turnabout is fair play. The day after quizzing McSorley, I asked Franklin what he thought of the quarterback’s comments that the head coach hasn’t changed since they first met. The coach disagreed.

“I think Trace is probably talking about approach,” Franklin replied. “I don’t think my approach has changed a whole lot. It’s evolved. I’m learning every single day, I’m challenged. …I learn something every single day in practice. We have discussions as a staff — how do we handle this or that situation? We’re constantly reading and watching other teams play and how they handle different situations. I think I’m constantly growing and evolving. I think I’ll be that way 25 years from now.

“When you feel like you go it all figured out in this game, you have problems. You better be constantly challenging yourself as much as you possibly can.”

Over the past three-plus years, if you asked James Franklin about Trace McSorley, the head coach’s answer always — always, always, always — included some variation of this: Trace is Steady Eddie.

So, too, Franklin.

And he is intentionally so.

“I think our process and how we kind of go about things and my demeanor, I try to be the same guy every single day,” Franklin said. “Whether my wife’s mad or me at not, I try not to bring those things to the office. I come in and try to be the same type of guy. That sets the tone for the whole office. If the head coach comes in and he’s in a bad mood, everybody is walking on eggshells. If I come out to practice and bring bad energy, it brings it (to everyone).

“So I’m very aware of my demeanor that I try to bring to the office every single day and what I try to bring to the practice field every single day, and the meeting rooms and things like that.

“That’s probably what Trace is talking about.”

• • •

Counting Hazel — who handles the internal communications, branding and all things CJF messaging — that core group of 10 that followed Franklin from Year One at Vanderbilt to Year Eight at Penn State has been Franklin’s own Steady Eddie secret sauce.

And in many ways, what they heard from Franklin at this morning’s 7 a.m. staff meeting is what they heard over 2,800 days ago in a game week morning meeting in Nashville.

That group has been with Franklin for all 100 games. Each, in his own, owns a share of Frankln’s 65 victories as a head coach.

They include: defensive coordinator Brent Pry, offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne and D-line/associate head coach Sean Spencer; strength and conditioning guru Dwight Galt Jr. and his assistants Chuck Losey and Barry Gant Jr.; and chief of staff Jemal Griffin, and his direct report trio of Hazel, recruiting chief Andy Frank and football administration head Kevin Threlkel. (Rahne and Threlkel have been with Franklin since Kansas State in 2006, God bless ’em.)

They are accustomed to Franklin frankly speaking at 24/7/365. Late-night texts from CJF on everything from X’s and O’s to PR and HR are SOP.

Franklin is A-OK with that rep.

“I talked to another college coach this week — and it’s a coach that Sean Spencer worked for before — and he was talking about the differences” between us,” Franklin said this week. “Some coaches you kind of never know where you stand with them. That’s kind of Sean’s thing, ‘With you, we always know specifically where you stand.’ That’s because of how we go about our business.

“We’ve created an environment where guys will me in and talk to me. I try to do that with them as well. I think it’s created a really good environment over the last eight years. It’s evolved and it’s grown. It helps that most of us have pre-existing relationships and there’s trust there, so you can have hard conversations with people and they know it’s coming from the right place.”



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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