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Penn State Football: Hiring Staff is Biggest Decision of Franklin's Career

by on January 12, 2014 9:35 PM

Brady Hoke at Michigan hired Doug Nussmeier away from Alabama to be his offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

The Crimson Tide's Nick Saban responded by hiring Lane Kiffin to replace Nussmeier.

That's setting a very high bar. Those are Big Boy moves. And now, James Franklin must put on Big Boy Pants of his own.

Nussmeier, who spent the past two seasons at Alabama, has coached quarterbacks A.J. McCarron, Jake Locker, Drew Stanton, Jeff Smoker and Marc Bulger.

Lane Kiffin, for his many, many (did I say many?) foibles, could make a very good O-coordinator for college football’s best head coach. That’s a helluva of 1-2 punch and shows that Saban means (college football is a big) business. Kiffin was great in that role at USC for Pete Carroll, has NFL and SEC experience, and did guide the Trojans to a 10-2 record as a head coach in 2011, dressing just 56 scholarship players in the season finale.

If Penn State is going to return to the national stage on the field – and not just in the drama department – it will need the equivalent of a Nussmeier or a Kiffin. Or maybe both. It’s reasonable to expect as much; the hires by Hoke and Saban were made in the league where Franklin now coaches and in the league he used to coach. Both hires were made on offense, where PSU needs a Big Coach to go with its BMOC. Nittany Lion quarterback Christian Hackenberg can be as good – or maybe better than -- any of the guys coached by Nussmeier. But he needs, Penn State needs, a coach of comparable ability.

With just 48 minutes and 55 seconds of cheerleading on Saturday, Franklin Won The Press Conference and the hearts of thousands of Penn State fans and dozens of reporters. For him, it was easy.

Now, much more importantly, he must Win The Hiring Race.

In the past week, an out-of-state agent with coaching clients in the NFL and college football, as well as a major college assistant coach, both told me that Franklin’s most important task is negotiating a lot of money for his assistant coaching staff. The more money you have for assistant coaches, the more likely you can afford a Nussmeier or a Kiffin.

Don’t laugh. If Franklin wants to achieve what he espoused on Saturday, he’ll need at least one or two people of that caliber. The bills are bigger, the stakes are higher, the expectations (again) are higher at Penn State than they were at Vanderbilt. You win the state by winning the assistant coaches' room.

So, did Franklin Win Dave Joyner’s Wallet?


Bill O’Brien put together a staff that had a couple Big Boys, while also relying on the PSU coaches who stayed and his two decades of contacts in a fairly stable career, during which he was at Georgia Tech for eight years and with New England for five. Save for the two retained Penn State assistants, O’Brien had one or two degrees of separation from the first nine assistants he hired.

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They came with big league credentials. Overall, four won national championships and O’Brien had been to the Super Bowl twice. Offensive line coach Mac McWhorter was associate head coach at Texas when the Longhorns won the BCS title. Receivers coach/assistant head coach Stan Hixon was associate head coach (for Saban) when LSU won the BCS title. Hixon also coached with Buffalo and Washington in the NFL. Although Vanderlinden and O’Brien didn’t see eye to eye personally, professionally Vandy was an excellent linebackers coach and he was also a head coach at Maryland (where he hired Franklin). Larry Johnson is an NFL D-line machine. The mononymous “Fitz” was a rock star among the Penn Stare players.

Then there was O’Brien. He was a terrific quarterback coach. Witness what he did with Matt McGloin and Hackenberg, polar opposites, but kindred spirits in competitiveness, leadership, brains and savvy. As an offensive coordinator, O’Brien used what he had, and was mostly effective.

Joe Paterno’s staff, although aging at the end, had three former head coaches (Vanderlinden was one of them), easily one of the top defensive coordinators in the country in Tom Bradley, plus Johnson. They had back-to-back 11-2 seasons in 2008-09. If Frank delivered that in the next five years, he’d be a hero. 

Franklin needs to make his mark on offense. If he were to bring O-coordinator John Donovan and quarterbacks coach Ricky Rahne from Vandy, Penn State would be taking a step backward in both areas. Vandy’s offense, among the 123 FBS teams in 2013, was ranked 92nd in rushing offense, 67th in passing offense, 80th in total offense and 56th in scoring offense. Rahne’s only coaching gig as a QB coach has been with Franklin over the past three seasons.

This hire – or hires, if the offensive coordinator is not the quarterbacks coach – is/are the most important that Franklin will have at Penn State. Ever.

For his part, Franklin says that X’s and O’s are not as the important as the people he employs, the players he coaches and their combined mindset.

“To me, I’m not a guy that’s going to pigeon hole what we’re going to do,” Franklin said on Saturday. “I think my philosophy is you go out and hire really smart people, and you have a system that has flexibility to take advantage of all your strengths and hide your weaknesses. I think that’s what we all try to do in whatever organization or whatever business you’re in. You play to your strengths and hide your weaknesses, and that's what we're going to do.

“I don’t believe in one offense or one defense or one special teams philosophy is the end all, be all. It’s about taking advantage of the assets that you have, and that's what we’re going to do.”

At that, Vanderbilt’s 24-15 record over the past three years, however impressive, bears some scrutiny. Tennessee football has been down and Vandy did not have to play SEC West Division members Alabama or LSU the last three seasons. Franklin’s team won four games in the SEC in 2013, against teams with a combined conference record of 10-22. For Penn State, in a division that is topped by Ohio State and Mighty Urban, and includes Wisconsin, four conference wins gets you a 4-4 record and third place. In the division.


Franklin’s next six hires will be the biggest, most important decisions of his entire Penn State coaching career. To repeat: Franklin’s next six hires will be the biggest, most important decisions of his entire Penn State coaching career.

So far, Franklin has made a home run hire in Dwight Galt, who mentored Fitz at Maryland then moved his workshop to Nashville. Now, his home is in Lasch. After the head coach, the most important coach on a college football staff is the head of strength and conditioning – or, in Galt’s case, the director of performance enhancement. He and his staff see the players 18/7/310. The head coach and FT assistants can’t.

Franklin has also brought along Bob Shoop, his defensive coordinator at Vandy. Although 7-23 as a head coach at Columbia, Shoop made defense the strength of the team. Prior to Vandy, he was at William & Mary. Now, he’s facing Urban & Brady. And Brady now has Doug.

Charles Bankin, Penn State’s new special teams coordinator, has a strong resume, albeit compiled at schools like Maryland, Richmond and Hampton. Penn State is a much bigger stage. Same goes for Josh Gattis, who was offensive recruiting coordinator and wide receivers coach at Vandy. He’s been a full-time assistant major college assistant for just three years.

They are a start to his nine-man staff, and it would not be surprising if Franklin brings defensive line coach Sean Spencer to Penn State. A 1995 Clarion grad with the Twitter handle “@SpenceChaos,” he’s known for massive energy. His resume includes mid-level stops at Bowling Green, UMass, Hofstra, Villanova, Holy Cross, Trinity and Shippensburg. (That sounds like St. Francis' basketball schedule.) He’s never been at one school for more than three years, in direct contrast to LJ, who has been the defensive line coach at Penn State since 1996 -- the year after Spencer graduated from college.

Franklin has no doubt already decided whether he will bring Spencer north and whether LJ's future at Penn State will head south. Same with Vandy.

And by Vandy, we mean Vanderlinden, the only guy who’s ever coached two two-time Bednarik winners. Not the university where Franklin used to coach.

Related Stories:

Penn State Football: Franklin to Bring Four Key Assistants From Vanderbilt

Penn State Football: James Franklin Contract Details

Head Football Coach James Franklin Explains What He's All About

Penn State Football: James Franklin Introduced As Head Coach

First Comments From James Franklin as New Penn State Coach Arrives at Penn State

Penn State Football: Players React To News Of James Franklin Hire

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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