Penn State Football: The James Franklin Mint of Staff Loyalty
When James Franklin rallied a ballroom full of high school coaches last week near Allentown, many of his own Penn State assistants were scattered throughout the room.
An offensive coordinator here. An offensive line coach there. A recruiting coordinator off to the side.
And a whole bunch of graduate assistants, several new as well as a holdover from the O’Brien regime, lined up along the sides.
They were there to dominate the state. And the GA’s came along to also hear their new boss’s coaching and life philosophies.
“That’s part of the reason we brought the young guys, because I want them to hear this as well,” Franklin said. “We have to make sure everybody is on the same page, over and over again. That’s critical.”
Thy Hand and thy staff, they comfort James. In fact, Franklin’s biggest victory at Vanderbilt may have come off the field.
“We were the only staff in the SEC that did not lose an assistant coach in our three years there,” Penn State’s new head coach proudly told the several hundred high school coaches in attendance.
TIDE THIN, VANDY THICK
Those assistants – nine out of 10 who followed him to Penn State – have been with Franklin through thick and thin. There was the thin of back-to-back 21-3 and 34-0 losses in 2011 to South Carolina and Alabama five weeks into their tenure at Vanderbilt.
And there was the thick of three straight bowl games, back-to-back 9-4 seasons and a 16-4 streak over their final 20 games at Vanderbilt – a record bettered in the SEC only by the Crimson Tide.
But the biggest thick of the group of the assistants could very well be making the move north to Penn State. “For most of us,” said one of Franklin’s veteran aides, “this is the best job we’ve ever had.”
Among the PSU assistants, only former Nittany Lion Terry Smith never coached before with Franklin. The other nine have a combined 36 seasons on a staff with Franklin. Dwight Galt, director of performance enhancement, leads the way with eight – all with Maryland. John Donovan, the offensive coordinator/tight ends coach, spent seven seasons with Franklin, while passing game coordinator/quarterback coach Ricky Rahne is next with five (three at Vandy, two at Kansas State). Many, like O-line coach Herb Hand, are in their fourth year with Franklin.
Keeping that group together at Vanderbilt, Franklin told a group of high school coaches last week, was the reason for his successful three-year stint there in the South.
“Was part of that because in three years we had three different contracts and our contracts were about building the program and making sure I could pay to keep the coaches there?” Franklin asked. “Yeah, that was part of it.”
“The other part of it was that our wives and our kids come to the office every single day and have lunch with us and run around the fields. I recruit the heck out of the wives and make sure they are happy as well. Although we grind and work a lot of hours, we’re not walking around on eggshells. We have fun, we interact.”
Franklin coached with his assistants at three different schools – Kansas State, Maryland and Vandy – over the course of 13 different seasons, enjoying the thick of an 11-3 season and suffering through the thin of a 2-10. But it was the 24-15 turnaround in Nashville that convinced Franklin that he needed them at Penn State. Nearly all of them. Only Charles Bankins, who coached running backs and special teams at Vanderbilt under Franklin, didn’t come along to Happy Valley.
FAMILIARITY BREEDS VICTORIES
Loyalty, trust, teaching ability and dependability are among the traits that Franklin desires the most when constructing his staff. And he said so the day his group of assistants was announced en masse, back on Jan. 24.
“… I'm really, really excited about the staff that we've been able to put together,” he said at the time. “For me, what I was looking for is really familiarity; guys that I've worked with or known for a very, very long time, guys that I trust, guys that I know how they're going to interact with the players and these young men that we're working with. How these guys are going to be in the community, and also have a connection with Penn State from a lot of different perspectives.
“The other thing is I wanted to surround myself with guys that are loyal. When I say loyal, I mean loyal to Penn State University, loyal to James Franklin and are fired up about being here and this opportunity, what I think is one of the more unique opportunities in college football. So you're going to see that.”
For Franklin, that loyalty is a two-way street, borne of friendship, as well as practicality.
“The coaches know ultimately that I not only care about them personally, I care about them professionally,” he said at the coaches clinic last week. “We can never lose a coach for a lateral move. If they get a chance to be a coordinator or head coach, there is no one more fired up than me. But I think the fact that the kids see how well we get along as a coaching staff is so important.”
Franklin is CEO, head of marketing, team psychologist, ace recruiter and already the bespectacled, smooth-domed, grinning face of the program. Not that he doesn’t know his X’s and O’s. But he isn’t afraid to delegate that away either, in pursuit of the bigger picture.
“We believe it’s all about relationships,” he said. “People ask, ‘What’s your coaching philosophy?’ To be honest with you, I could care less about what offense we are going to run, what defense we are going to run, what special teams we are going to run. Don’t get me wrong: Being sound and having good plans is important. But to me it’s all about relationships.”
SELFIES WITH JAMES
That begins with his assistants, includes his players and seemingly extends to selfies with everyone but that Ellen DeGeneres-generated group of Spacey stars at the Oscars. In reality, though, Franklin works hard to articulate his goals and expectations with the legions in Lasch, giving them a snapshot in 24-hour intervals.
“I have a team meeting every single day,” he said at the coaches clinic. “I think it is very, very important for the head coach to set the standards, to set the expectations over the entire organization and make sure they understand what is expected from them that day. …One of our reasons for success is that we maximize everyone in the organization.”
Often, that means giving his assistants wide berth. For example:
Rahne about Franklin: “He’s the leader of our program, so he’s going to insert himself in every position, to be quite honest with you. Early on at Vanderbilt he did that. After he was confident that everything was being taught the way he wanted, he stood back.
“There are a lot of responsibilities as a head coach. It’s not the way it used to be. The media, the alumni, the board of trustees – all those sorts of things keep him busy. He has a lot of things on his plate. So that’s why he hires guys who he trusts who are going to do things the way he thinks needs to be done. If he has time, he’ll pop his head in the (quarterbacks meeting room) every once in awhile and drop some knowledge on us.”
Franklin about Donovan: “John called every single play over the last three years at Vanderbilt. I did have recommendations and I did have input, but John called every single play, so we’ll see how that evolves."