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Penn State Football: James Franklin Utilizes His Own Brand of David vs. Goliath

by on July 20, 2014 10:30 PM

Penn State is more David than Goliath these days.

And we aren’t just talking sanctions, lingering national disdain, reduced scholarships and three coaching regimes in four seasons either.

Attendance and recruiting ratings aside, on the field the Nittany Lions have been decidedly David more than just lately. In their last 20 games against Top 10 teams since 2000, they are 3-17.

The last time they were ranked No. 1 in any poll -- be it pre-, mid- or post-season -- was 6,121 days ago.

And until Bill O’Brien’s recent 3-2 mark, the Nittany Lions were on a 1-10 skein against Top 25 foes. Last year’s 44-24 loss at Indiana followed two games later by a 63-14 drubbing at Ohio State gives you an idea of the Biblical proportions of Penn State’s sanction hole.

That’s why many Penn State fans don’t cringe when James Franklin says things like, “I want to bring this program back to where I think it can be.” They know it’s been down.

Penn State has its many positives and that’s a big reason Franklin took the job. Like Vanderbilt, Penn State is an undervalued stock. Franklin is betting he can turn things around, #107k things at a time.

The underdog role fits Franklin’s bill. From being raised in a single-parent home to 12 coaching stops in two decades, Franklin cannot be accused of taking the easy way out. Just like he was at Vanderbilt – and damn near everywhere else -- Franklin may be the perfect David to fight the Goliaths of a monolithic conference in a sport of colossals. (And tick off a lot of them in the process.)

The concept isn’t mine. Credit Malcolm Gladwell.


My summer reading included Gladwell’s “David and Goliath,” which postulated that being the little guy has big advantages, if viewed through a different lens. And the more I read the book, the more I thought of the bald-headed spectacled guy now running Penn State football – and his predecessor as well.

“Giants are not what we think they are,” writes Gladwell. “The same qualities that give them strength are often the sources of great weakness. And the fact of being an underdog can change people in ways that we often fail to appreciate: it can open doors and create opportunities and educate and enlighten and make possible what others may have seemed unthinkable.

“Goliath,” Gladwell writes, “was expecting a warrior like himself to come forward for hand-to-hand combat. It never occurred to him that the battle would be fought on anything other than those terms.”

Franklin is creating those new terms. Goliath didn’t envision out-of-state summer camps, the wholesale relocation of an entire coaching and support staff, an all-out assault on early (and early early) commits, signing day parties big and bigger, social media blitzes, home-state gerrymandering, the measuring of potential recruits’ hands at summer camp, and a blitzkrieg of near-shameless Kardashian-like promotion.

And that’s just for starters.

O’Brien got it started, with run-ons and thud and upsets selling the #nextlevel. But Franklin has taken it to a whole new level.

Goliath was not without his faults. He was hampered by 100 pounds of bulky armor, had incredibly poor vision, lacked mobility, was accustomed only to toe-to-toe fights, and left his forehead open and vulnerable. Franklin’s arsenal includes a program history steeped in tradition and a fan base near nonpareil, which he slings with stunning speed, striking with pinpoint precision while employing an unorthodox approach.

David spun his sling so fast, Gladwell writes, that when his stone struck Goliath’s head it was traveling 100 feet per second – “more than enough to penetrate his skull and render him unconscious or dead. In terms of stopping power, that is equivalent to a fair-size modern handgun.” 

In other words, David didn’t fight fair. He fought a new and different way. “David had no intention of honoring the rituals of single combat,” according to Gladwell. “It never occurred to Goliath that the battle would be fought on anything other than (his own) terms.”

Sound familiar?


Power, David knew and Gladwell writes, “can come from breaking rules, substituting speed and surprise for strength.” Goliath didn’t expect cartwheels out of the bed in the morning, never-ending fist bumps and recruits arriving at Lasch to the applause of 20 staffers surrounded by blue and white balloons. At Vanderbilt, David piloted a helicopter.

Gladwell talks about a young girls basketball team in California coached by software developer Vivek Ranadive. Ranadive admittedly knew nothing about the sport, while his players – which included his daughters – were among the worst in the league. They couldn’t dribble or shoot. Ranadive knew that playing conventionally, employing a standard half-court defense at a slowed pace, would result in huge losses. “It was,” writes Gladwell, “as if there were a kind of conspiracy in the basketball world about the way the game ought to be played.”

Ranadive’s ensuing strategy was simple, yet defied convention: His “team would play a real full-court press – every game all the time. The team ended up at the national championship.”

Vivek Ranadive, meet James Franklin.

Gladwell says that when the world’s greatest artists -- like Monet and Manet and Cezanne and Degas – couldn’t get noticed by the old-school art community in Paris, they started up their own art show to great acclaim. “I urge you to exhibit,” wrote a supporter of the group. “You must succeed in making a noise, in defying and attracting criticism, coming face-to-face with the big public.”

Franklin faces the Big Public when he drives through the ESPN car wash on July 30, with a half-dozen other Big Ten football coaches. They’ll be on several of the World Wide Leader’s national radio and TV programs, serving up their message and – usually – humble pie. Not Franklin, who is a different dish altogether and, for some, an acquired taste.

But that’s why, in large part, Penn State acquired him at the tune of $4.3 mil per year. David is well-paid. 

Franklin’s assistants were educated at prestigious schools like Yale and Cornell and Johns Hopkins. But they learned their coaching skills at places like Glenville State, Shippensburg, Western Carolina, Tennessee State, West Virginia Wesleyan and Trinity. Goliath education, but skills learned in the trenches of college football’s Davids, where they had to do more with much less.

Franklin’s task at Vanderbilt was simpler than that at hand Penn State. Two wins against SEC opponents with winning records in three years – combined with a 24-15 overall record – showed that David belonged in the same league, at times, with the SEC giants. That was more than enough.


Penn State’s David is vastly different. The Nittany Lions were once giants and are fully expected to be so again. Franklin’s plan is hit everybody he can – opponents, recruits, fans, the media, his team, his employer – with both testaments. Early and often.

It's his Sermon on The Mount Nittany every day in every way possible.

“Being an underdog can change people in ways that we often fail to appreciate,” Gladwell writes. “It can open doors and create opportunities and educate and enlighten and make possible what might otherwise have seemed unthinkable.”

Simply put, slinging it works.

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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