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Penn State Football: Franklin Seeks Coaching Staff Stability

by on May 10, 2018 9:00 PM

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Six Penn State assistant football coaches have left Happy Valley in the past 30 months.

One — erstwhile 2014-15 offensive coordinator John Donovan — was fired, but the others left of their own volition.

Only four of the original nine assistants who joined James Franklin’s Penn State staff in January 2014 remain — Brent Pry, Sean Spencer and Terry Smith on defense, and Ricky Rahne on offense.

And of that group, both Pry and Spencer have been courted to go elsewhere the last two seasons.

On Wednesday, at the Day 2 stop of Penn State’s Coaches Caravan in Philadelphia, Franklin said enough was enough.

“We’ve lost a number of assistants for lateral moves,” said Franklin, heading into Season 5 of his Penn State tenure. “And that can’t happen.”

“…We’ve had multiple coaches get opportunities. Some coaches we lost for lateral moves and some we were able to retain.”

On the third and final stop of the Coaches Caravan here Thursday afternoon, Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour said the pool of money to pay Nittany Lion football assistant coaches was raised considerably last year.

“That’s something where there was a huge spike this last year,” Barbour said. “That’s something we always need…that’s probably the No. 1 priority. We all know how important continuity is. James has put together a tremendous staff. And even when we have folks leave, he seems to make great hires and great fills. We just need to make sure we’re competitive. So we’re going to need to continue to grow that. There’s no doubt about it.”


Joe Moorhead’s departure last November to become head coach at Mississippi State is certainly understandable. Moorhead had been successful as a head coach at Fordham (38-13 from 2012-15), before revamping Penn State’s offense as Franklin’s O-coordinator the past two seasons, a big reason the Nittany Lions had a 20-3 record since losing at Michigan on Sept. 24, 2016. 

Franklin said he gets that.

“Obviously, guys leaving for promotions (like) Coach Moorhead going to Mississippi State,” said Franklin, who was 24-15 in three seasons at Vanderbilt, his first head coaching gig, before coming to Penn State. “I mean, awesome. I want that for him, I want that for his family. He’s going to do a great job.”

In some ways, Moorhead’s success — and the departure of other assistants — is a big compliment of Franklin. That other schools desire his assistants means that what he has built at Penn State is of value.

That’s not what bothers Franklin. He said he does not want his assistants leaving for a job at that same title or level. Two key PSU departures over the offseason added titles like “assistant head coach,” “run game coordinator” and “co-offensive coordinator” to their resumes at their new stops.

“We have to make sure we’re not losing assistants for lateral moves,” Franklin said. “If they’re leaving to become a coordinator, if they’re leaving to become head coaches, then that’s wonderful. But at a Top 10 program like we are now, we shouldn’t be losing to programs with lateral moves.”

Shortly after Moorhead was hired, Charles Huff followed him to Mississippi State. At Penn State, Huff was running backs coach and special teams coach. At Mississippi State, Huff got a higher job title and likely more money. Officially, he is the Bulldogs’ assistant head coach, run game coordinator and running backs coach.

In an interview with 247Sports in February, Huff said leaving Happy Valley was not easy.

“It was tough decision, first of all, because I was in a really good spot,” Huff said. “What we were doing at Penn State, what we were building and what we had built over the last four years was really good. We had a lot of good relationships with Coach Franklin, the players, the community, so it was a tough decision to leave.

“Although it was a rewarding decision because it was good that Joe felt that good about me and my leadership and coaching ability and recruiting abilities to make me his first hire. I think that says a lot about what he sees in me as far as my day-to-day role, as far as my administrative duties, my coaching ability. When someone has that kind of confidence in you, it is rewarding. But whenever you're leaving home or wherever you are at for four years, it is tough. But it is good and rewarding that Joe felt that good about me to bring me along.”

In late January, Josh Gattis left Penn State for Alabama. Gattis, who came to Penn State with Franklin from Vandy in 2014, had been the Nittany Lions’ wide receivers coach and offensive recruiting coordinator. On Dec. 1, after Moorhead left and Rahne was promoted from tight ends coach to offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, Franklin gave Gattis the title of passing game coordinator.

That was short-lived.

In late January, Gattis left Penn State for Alabama, where Nick Saban hired him to be wide receivers coach and co-offensive coordinator, at salary of $525,000 — an increase from what he was making at Penn State. (PSU does not disclose its assistants’ salaries.) Earlier in January, Saban had promoted Tide co-offensive coordinator Mike Locksley to offensive coordinator. Locksley succeeded Brian Daboll, who went to the NFL’s Buffalo Bills as their new offensive coordinator. (Locksley coached with Franklin 2000-2002 at Maryland.) 

Here’s what Saban had to say when Gattis was hired: “Josh Gattis an outstanding addition to our coaching staff. He is a sharp, young coach who did a great job at Penn State and Vanderbilt before that, and we believe he will bring great energy to our program. He is an excellent recruiter and knows what he is doing in terms of coaching wide receivers and building relationships with the players.”

For his part, Gattis said: "It is a tremendous opportunity to work for Coach Saban and The University of Alabama. Coach Saban's program is the epitome of success and consistency, and to have the chance to be part of that and learn from him is truly a blessing. I am also excited for the chance to work with an outstanding group of players, and I look forward to getting out on that field and coaching."

AFTER 2015

Franklin lost a pair of key assistants following the 2015 season, both of whom who left for lateral positions, as far as job title goes. Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop went to Tennessee and offensive line coach Herb hand went to Auburn. Both had somewhat extenuating circumstances.

The cloud under which Shoop departed featured dueling lawsuits that ended in a settlement in February under which no details were announced. And Hand was under pressure for an inexperienced, patchwork O-line that was feeling the heavy effects of the NCAA sanctions. In addition, Hand had a strong personal relationship with Auburn head coach Gus Malzhan. The two were previously co-offensive coordinators at Tulsa, where they ran the nation’s No. 1 offense for two consecutive seasons.

Hand’s case also illustrates that more than a job title can impact a decision to seek a new job. A community and workplace need to be a good fit; Hand’s family never made the move to State College when Hand joined the seven other assistant coaches and a host of staffers who followed Franklin from Nashville to State College in January 2014. Hand left Auburn in January 2018 to go to Texas, where he’ll be making $640,000 as Tom Herman’s co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach.

As Hand’s situation illustrates, sometimes, a move to set up the move after a move. Same for Gattis, who is better positioned to be head coach. In the lead-up to the Rose Bowl 18 months ago, Gattis told me his career goals were to be a coordinator and then, ultimately, a head coach. Having the co-coordinator tag gets Gattis, 34, one step closer to where he wants to be. Same for Spencer, Penn State’s defensive line coach as well. Franklin shifted the associate head coach title from Pry to Spencer in the offseason, to help Coach Chaos get closer to his career goal of being a head coach as well. (More about that here.)

Money, of course, is always a key determinant whenever anyone — in or out of football — decides to leave for a new job, So are such items are geography, family ties, promotions, more responsibilities (or, sometimes fewer responsibilities; neither Huff nor Gattis has special teams duties in his new position), as well as perks, such as the opportunity to have access to a university plane for private use.

Moorhead’s new deal at Mississippi State is for four seasons and $11 million, beginning at $2.6 in 2018. “I feel very fortunate to coach a kid’s game and be provided with the salary that I am,” Moorhead said.

That’s a lot less than his predecessor, Dan Mullen, was paid. Mullen made $4.5 million at MSU in 2017, then saw his salary jump to $6.07 million at Florida in 2018. Franklin, for his part, renegotiated his contract last summer and signed a six-year, $34.7 million deal that will pay him an average of almost $5.8 million.

Moorhead left some money on the table so that salary pool for his assistants — like Huff and Shoop — could paid more.  

“As we went through the process of Joe’s contract with him, it’s probably the least amount of time we spent on any subject,” said Mississippi State athletic director John Cohen. “Joe said ‘what you’re offering me is great. Here’s what I want to do, I want to take care of our staff and make sure we have the best football staff in America. That’s what’s important to me.’ ”

Mullen’s salary pool for assistants is $5 million at Florida. Ironically, Ju’Juan Seider — Penn State’s new running backs coach — was the only Gator assistant Mullen planned on keeping, although Seider was slated to move to RB coach to tight end coach. Ironic, too, was that by coming to Penn State, Seider had a chance to dive into the enlarged salary pool that Barbour referenced while in D.C. 

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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