Penn State Football: James Franklin's Long Way Home to East Stroudsburg
James Franklin graduated from East Stroudsburg University in 1995 with 23 school football records, a degree in psychology and an unfortunate stint sporting a box fade haircut.
Two years later, after assistant coaching stints at Kutztown and his alma mater, Franklin left the only state he had ever lived in.
Nine jobs later, with stops at college football hotbeds like Harrisonburg, Va., Pullman, Wash., and Pocatello, Idaho, he’s back. And how.
Nearly two decades later, Franklin is Penn State’s bald-headed head football coach. And has been since Jan. 11. Still, with everything he’s had on his blue and white plate since then, Franklin has already returned to his alma mater. Twice, in fact, over the past seven weeks.
This Wednesday, he’ll make it three times.
That’s when Penn State’s Coaches Caravan lands on the East Stroudsburg campus. It’s Stop No. 15 on Day No. 8 of the 17-destination, nine-day roaming pep rally through four states and the District of Columbia that has already traveled 1,369 miles, according to GoPSUSports.com’s numbers nut, Tony Mancuso.
Franklin’s first ESU homecoming was on March 18, when he returned to campus – in the midst of Penn State’s spring drills -- to cheer on his alma mater in the NCAA Division II basketball playoffs. Franklin sat with the legendary Denny Douds, Franklin’s coach in the 1990s and still at ESU after 48 seasons. (ESU fell to West Liberty, 89-82.)
Then, just last weekend, Franklin returned to the Poconos to deliver a pair of commencement addresses at East Stroudsburg. (Read his afternoon speech here.)
Wednesday’s visit, when Franklin headlines a lunchtime appearance at the campus’ Mattioli Recreation Center, will be the result of another circuitous journey. The Franklin entourage will go to Penn College in Williamsport and the Genetti Hotel in Wilkes-Barre on Tuesday, before heading south to East Stroudsburg and then onto Bethlehem on Wednesday. A far-flung trip to Erie Thursday night caps off Caravan Tres.
At East Stroudsburg, Douds will no doubt be there to lead the welcoming committee. Right behind him will be offensive coordinator Mike Terwilliger, an ESU assistant for four decades, and Frankin’s quarterback coach. They’ll be joined by Mike Santella, ESU’s offensive line coach. He was Franklin’s college roommate and still his best friend.
FRANKLIN THE QUARTERBACK
Franklin was Douds’ starting quarterback his final two collegiate seasons, in 1993 and ’94, and directed ESU’s spread offense. As a junior, he led the Warriors to a 7-2-1 record and was named All-PSAC East second team quarterback. That season, he managed a unique passing-running double, carrying the ball 123 times and completing 123 passes. He rushed for 395 yards (a 3.2-yard average) and scored three rushing TDs. His completions came on 265 passes (46.4%) for 1,912 yards, with 19 TD passes and 13 interceptions.
As a senior in 1994, Franklin was once again a dual threat for the Warriors, who went 5-5. Franklin ran for 543 yards on 182 carries (3.0 ave.), with seven TDs. As a passer, he was 187 of 364 (51.4%) for 2,586 yards, with 14 TDs and nine picks. He averaged 312.9 yards of offense per game and was a regional candidate for the Harlon Hill Award, given to the top player in Division II.
Franklin was a Sports Illustrated “Face In The Crowd” for a 28-carry, 150-yard rushing performance against Southern Connecticut in 1994, preceded by two 100-yard efforts against Mansfield (15-109) and Bloomsburg (19-125) in 1993. Still, he toiled in a relative anonymity that was hardly a cliché. In his 20 games as a starter, a total of 59,511 people saw Franklin play – as few as 500 at Cheyney in 1993. (On average, that was #2.975kStrong.)
When he graduated, Franklin held a share of 23 passing and rushing school records, including season records for passing yards and total offense in 1994, and passing TDs in 1994. Not bad for a quarterback from Neshaminy High who came to campus with all of 38 pass attempts as a senior and the passing mechanics of an auto mechanic.
“The first thing I said to him when he was throwing the football (was that) the nose of the football was up in the air,” Terwilliger told a Nashville website in 2012. “He had the craziest release I ever saw.”
“A PURPOSE…GREAT ENTHUSIASM”
Douds saw a lot more in his young quarterback. In fact, the James Franklin Penn Staters see now is much like the James Franklin that Douds spotted back then.
“James had a purpose. He had a great enthusiasm,” Douds said when he and I talked in March for a story about the longtime ESU head coach. (Read it here.)
“James has a great ability to communicate – and to communicate with a large diversity of people. I don’t care if they’re young, old, rich, poor, black, white, orange. He has the confidence that he’s going to make it work. Not only can he communicate with people, but he cares about them.
“His mother worked in the cafeteria in Neshaminy High School. He didn’t come with a golden spoon in his mouth. He worked for everything he got and he did it the right way. When you see people who are starting out and they know how to do it the right way, they’re getting that rocket ship off the pad. And once he lifts, you know it will be smooth sailing. Yeah, there will be some bumps along the road, but he’ll work through that because of his ability to interact and communicate with people.”
Douds has coached 418 games, tops in Division II history; has won 244 games, most in PSAC history; and has developed more than 180 coaches – from high schools to the NFL. So he certainly knows what it takes to win. And having been part of an ESU fund-raising trip to Florida just before we spoke, Douds knows that there’s more to football than X’s and O’s when leading a program like Penn State.
“You have a lot of responsibility as a head football coach,” Douds said. “And you have to remember that you’re a head football coach 24/7/365. There are no days off. He walks into a room, they want to get their picture taken with him, they want to talk with him. That’s all part of it. We don’t have (at East Stroudsburg) what he has been involved with at Penn State. That’s all been magnified umpteenth times.”
WORKING WITHOUT A CLOCK
Until recently, the 73-year-old Douds was his team’s defensive coordinator. And he still teaches a “Principals of Coaching” class at 8 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, one of the more popular courses on campus. What bespeaks to his work ethic, perhaps most of all, is the fact his office doesn’t have a clock.
Hmm, so that’s where Franklin gets it.
“James had a purpose. He had direction, a target,” Douds said. “He knew what he wanted to do. He was willing to go out and work not just the time that you’re supposed to work, but in the spirit that you do whatever is needed to get it done.
“You do what it takes, with all your talent and ability. No matter time is it is.”
At 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, it will be time for Franklin’s Penn State family to meet his East Stroudsburg roots. You can go home again.