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Penn State Football: James Franklin's Dinner of Champions Gives Him Food for Thought

by on May 02, 2014 12:15 AM

Forget Wheaties and breakfast.

James Franklin’s dinner last week was with a table of champions.

Penn State’s football coach broke bread one recent evening with a trio of college coaching legends. The meal gave him food for thought, and filled his belly with desire.

His dining companions included Cael Sanderson, whose Nittany Lion wrestlers have four consecutive NCAA championships. He was pretty good on the mats himself, with a 159-0 record and four national titles while at Iowa State, with an Olympic gold medal for good measure 

Then there was Russ Rose, whose Penn State women’s volleyball teams have won six national championships – including five in the past seven seasons.

And rounding out Franklin’s night of food networking was Bob Warming, Penn State men’s soccer coach who ranks third in all-time wins among active Division I soccer coaches, and who has taken three different teams to 17 NCAA tournaments.

Together, Rose (1,125 wins, 35 years), Warming (428, 38) and Sanderson (105, 8) have 1,658 victories, 81 years of head coaching experience, 10 NCAA championships and more Big Ten titles than I had time to count.

“It’s about these coaches,” Franklin said, Thursday night at this year's first Coaches Caravan event. Warming and Rose were sitting on stage nearby. “It didn’t take me long to realize that I needed to develop a relationship with these guys. We went to dinner so I could tap into all the experience they had. I want to understand about this place, what makes it special and learn what they do so well.” 

Franklin’s new friends – plus such stalwarts as field hockey coach Char Morett, women’s basketball coach Coquese Washington, track and field coach Beth Alford-Sullivan, and women’s soccer coach Erica Walsh -- form the backbone of a Penn State coaching staff that not only takes the cake, but also might take the cup.

The Learfield Sports Director Cup, that is.

In the most recent standings for the Learfield Cup, awarded to the winningest Division I athletic program, Penn State ranks second, trailing only perennial winner Stanford. The standings are through the winter sport season. National titles by the squads led by Rose and Sanderson bolstered Penn State’s rankings.

Franklin’s no slouch, either. At long-time SEC doormat Vanderbilt, Franklin compiled a 25-14 record, finished in the Top 25 and won bowl games in consecutive seasons – all school records. Vandy won seven of Franklin’s final eight games, including victories over Georgia, Florida and Tennessee.

THE HIGH BAR OF EXPECTATIONS

But, Thursday night at the opening event of the 17-stop 2014 Coaches Caravan, which kicked off its third year before 500 shivering PSU faithful in Pegula Ice Arena, Franklin acknowledged that at Penn State winning is expected.

“The expectations are high,” he said. “I think high expectations are good. What other goal can we set but to be the best? There are expectations. That’s exciting.”

A few minutes into the hour-long program, Franklin first said he has just one specific goal for PSU football, which has gone through a 31-19 stretch since 2010, and has been pummeled by NCAA sanctions. “We focus on the process,” he said. Later, he recanted a bit and shared a glimpse of his vision of Penn State – the one he sold during the hiring process, to his cadre of top-shelf recruits, to a team of undermanned incumbents and to a loyal, blue collar staff that followed him nearly en masse from Vandy:

“I didn’t come here to say my goal was to be second place in the Big Ten this year. We are not going to be happy ‘til we have the highest graduation rate in the country, until we are consistently playing in and winning Big Ten championships, until we’re in consistent competition for the national championship.”

The words may be a bit of a revelation, but the overall concept is not. And it is certainly simpatico with what his tablemates have accomplished. And it is part and parcel of a Penn State athletics program and coaching staff originally crafted by former athletic director Tim Curley.

“We have some of the finest coaches in the country,” said Rose, Mr. It Takes One To Know One. “Our coaching staff is unbelievable.”

That his three new brothers took in Franklin is no surprise. For the past few years, the tight-knit group of 21 head coaches at Penn State has bonded in a special way, from the caravan to brown-bag sessions to attending each others’ games, That’s been key, especially since athletic director Dave Joyner has been serving as a temporary bridge between Curley and whomever incoming Penn State president Eric Barron hires to replace him.

Franklin’s predecessor, Bill O’Brien, was a unifying force, standing up for his fellow coaches in word and deed. I’ve heard O’Brien say that he saw himself as the true leader of athletics, and that had he been offered the A.D. job to go along with his coaching duties, he confidently would have taken it.

IT'S ABOUT THE MONEY

Now, Franklin is the key. Football drives much of the spirit of the university and is the ATM for the athletic department. Franklin clearly has his work cut out for him. In 2010-11, Penn State football grossed $72.7 million and netted $53.2 million, according to the U.S. Dept. of Education. Just two years later, those numbers were $58.7 million and $30.1 million – a drop in profit of over $23 million dollars. That’s 43% in two fiscal years. A big reason: From 2007 to 2013, average per-game attendance in Beaver Stadium dropped from 108,917 to 96,581 – a decrease of 12,330. Still, Penn State ranked fifth overall last season in attendance.

Franklin is Penn State’s current meal ticket. If his #107kStrong mantra becomes reality, Penn State’s athletic coffers will get a much-needed boost, as it is running a deficit and borrowing money from the Old Main Savings & Loan. While Penn State has one of the broadest, most successful athletic programs in the country -- most teams are known as non-revenue sports. For a reason. And they need football – football’s money, to be exact. 

As did O’Brien and Joe Paterno, Franklin often acknowledges the role that football plays in the P&L of PSU athletics, and so far it seems like he has embraced it. At the same time, Thursday night he called himself “old school” and said he is wary of items like stipends for football players and is concerned about how football is now the 600-pound gorilla in college sports.

“I’m sensitive and concerned because a lot of the decisions that are made are based on football,” said the football coach. “I think that’s troubling because those decisions need to be made on what’s in the best interest of all of our student-athletes.”

Still, let’s be honest: As Franklin goes, so does football. As football goes, so does athletics. And, to a lesser degree, the university. Warming, Rose and Sanderson (although he has nice booster-generated war chest) and their head coaching colleagues need a Beaver Stadium made full by winning.

Franklin will be making every single one of the 17 caravan stops, a precedent set by O’Brien in 2012 and ’13, when he made a combined 30 stops in 15 days through seven states and the District of Columbia, traveling a combined 3,439 miles. (Just proof positive, right, that all O’Brien wanted to do was coach football?) In the summers of 2010 and 2011, Paterno didn’t do one off-campus banquet or event. In some ways, he didn’t need to, and in others he couldn’t.

MILES TO GO BEFORE JAMES SLEEPS

Thursday night, Franklin started a journey about which he originally had some trepidation, he told the crowd. But Franklin likes recruiting – because, he says, he likes to win. And you need great players to win big.

The caravan – with stops in places like Lemont Furnace (home of the Fayette campus) and Whippany, N.J. -- is about winning as well. Penn State football, again, is at a fork in the road. And at last week's dinner, those fellow coaches no doubt peppered their conversation with suggestions that the 42-year-old Franklin needs to not only take that fork – but also lead the way. All without much of an offensive line and with a receiving corps that was ARobbed of a prodigious talent. To say Franklin has a tough path to match the exploits of his fellow Nittany Noshers is saying a mouth full.

Not too long after sunrise on Tuesday morning, when the two busses head south on Route 322 to Harrisburg and then onto 83, the 2014 Coaches Caravan kicks into high gear.

First stop? York.

That’s where, Franklin hopes, he will get to taste the first road victory of his Penn State career. A lot of other Penn State head coaches are betting on it.

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Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979. He is a senior lecturer in Penn State's College of Communications and teaches a pair of classes in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism: “Sports Writing” and “Introduction to the Sports Industry.” He created and taught for several years the Center’s course on “Joe Paterno, Communications and The Media.” 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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