Penn State Football: The Three Cars and One Long Journey of James Franklin
Two decades of coaching football.
Eighteen job titles. Twelve coaching positions. Eleven towns and cities. Ten leagues and conferences. Eight states and two countries.
“I’ve been everywhere, man.” Hit it, Johnny.
Peripatetic to the point of dyspeptic? Hardly.
“I also like the fact that I played Division II, coached Division II, coached I-AA, coached I-A, coached NFL, coached West Coast, South, Midwest, East Coast…” Franklin said on Sunday at Penn State’s senior elite high school football camp, “so I’m able to answer a lot of questions, because today’s not just about Penn State.”
Franklin’s answers were honed in the PSAC, the Danish American Football Federation, the CAA, the Pac-10, the Big Sky, the ACC, the NFL, the Big 12, the SEC and the Big Ten.
“He can’t keep a job,” East Stroudsburg president Marcia G. Welsh deadpanned after introducing him at ESU’s commencement ceremonies last month.
Franklin gets it. “I'm a blue‑collar guy that had to work my way up the ladder to get in this position,” he said on Jan. 11, 2014, the day he was hired as Penn State’s 16th head football coach. “If you look at my resume, it’s probably not a great example of who I am.”
Or, it’s the perfect example. Franklin’s road as a college coach began in 1995, when – just months after graduating from East Stroudsburg as a record-setting quarterback – he took a job as the wide receivers coach at Kutztown University. For $1,200. It’s only 152 miles from Kutztown, Pa., to University Park, Pa. But it took Franklin 20 years to make the two-hour and 36-minute trip.
Franklin’s expedition included a side trip in 1996 to Denmark, where as the offensive coordinator, quarterback and MVP for the Roskilde Kings he led his team to a 62-48 victory over the Copenhagen Towers in Mermaid Bowl VIII. “The uniforms were like covered in advertisements,” chuckled Franklin. “We looked like NASCAR.”
(For a complete and completely funny take on Franklin’s time in Denmark, check out his 2013 TV appearance with ESPN’s Dan Le Batard, beginning at the 2:04 mark.)
Franklin usually made his own way in his career, having played at a Division II with a head coach and staff that was firmly rooted in the school, in the community and atop the PSAC standings. “Playing at East Stroudsburg and not having played at a big-time school with a lot of connections and contacts,” he said, “I kind of had to work my way up the ladder.”
Here’s that ladder, in order: Kutztown, Denmark, East Stroudsburg, James Madison, Washington State, Idaho State, Maryland, the Green Bay Packers, Maryland (again), Vanderbilt and Penn State. Franklin makes no apologies for all his Mapquested job quests. Without them, he may not have been hired to his first head coaching gig, at Vandy in December 2010, at the relatively young age of 38.
“First of all, I’ve been fortunate. People have given me opportunities and been mentors and helped groom me in a lot of ways,” Franklin said. “I think it’s very, very important that I was an assistant or that I was a recruiting coordinator or that I was an offensive coordinator before becoming a head coach.
“It’s kind of like the guy who becomes a manager and he hasn’t done all the jobs leading up to being a manager, and now he goes back and is telling people what to do and he doesn’t really understand because he’s never done those jobs. I think it’s helpful for our players that I can kind of give them different perspectives.”
Forget about paying your dues. Franklin paid his tolls. And he’s done it all in just three automobiles.
True. He’s owned a 1988 white Honda Accord, a purple Isuzu Trooper and a jet black 2005 Yukon Denali, his current car, which is still in prime condition (Kelley Blue Book value: $19,538). That’s it. If we’ve learned anything about James Franklin over the past five months, he’s about the road less traveled – unless it leads to a four-star recruit. He’s also all about the journey, not the mode of transportation. (That’s personally. Remember: Professionally, Franklin made waves with his recruiting helicopter at Vanderbilt.)
On rare occasions along the 2014 Caravan trail -- which Franklin took by plane, no train and by bus – the number of media types dwindled to three or four or five. That would allow Franklin to let down his hair and provide a peek inside his true self. Such was the case in Baltimore, were it was just Franklin, some Penn State PR people, three beat guys, a stringer for a pay site and a Baltimore reporter named Jeff Barker who has the distinction of being the first Associated Press reporter embedded in State College in the 1980s. (Barker later covered Franklin when he was at Maryland.)
That’s when Franklin started talking about his history with cars, in a roundabout way, when I asked him about keeping his “eye on the prize” throughout his crazy quilt career. His answer was a very long one, in two parts. He stopped a couple of times. This wasn’t your usual exchange, and he knew it.
Franklin: “This is an interesting interview we’re having.”
Franklin again: “Are you sure you guys want to hear this?”
Franklin again: “I don’t know why I’m telling you this story.”
Us: Yes, it is. Yes, we do! Because it answers part of the question, Who is James Franklin? His reply that day, in his own words:
COAST TO COAST
“I never forget getting the Washington State job (in 1998) and getting in my 1988 Honda Accord with over 170,000 miles on it and driving what I think was 37 hours from Philly to Pullman, Wash.,” he recalled. “I was thinking it was really pretty cool at first that I could put everything I owned in a 1988 Honda Accord. About six hours into the drive I said, ‘You know, this is pathetic. I’ve been out of college like six years and I can fit everything I own in a 1988 Honda Accord.’
“A couple of nights before I left, I went out to celebrate with some buddies in Philadelphia. I came out and I said, ‘I swear I parked there.’ My car had gotten stolen. And I didn't get it back until like 5 o’clock that morning.
“I remember driving down (Interstate) 95 with a screwdriver in the ignition because they had torn off my dashboard. But I ended up driving that car out there. In Montana my car was giving me problems. I was over on the side of the road and a cop pulled up and asked me if I was OK. I said, ‘Yeah.’ And they pulled back off and left. Everything was good.”
Franklin’s car started up just fine and off he went as well. A mile later, he ran into Montana’s finest. Again.
“The cops were waiting for me. They ran me off the road and I’m like freaking out,” he continued. “Well, I didn’t realize that they ran my plates and it came up as stolen. It had never been cleared. So I had to go through that.”
Eventually, he was back on the road. After a quick pass through Idaho, Franklin pulled into Pullman behind the wheel of his 1988 white Honda Accord. In short order he met with head coach Mike Price, recounting the unfortunate stops in Montana. It was Monday, Feb. 2, 1998, Franklin remembers to this day: “It was actually my birthday.”
GREAT HEIGHTS IN DENALI
When Franklin arrived in Maryland in 2000, he finally got rid of the Honda Accord. He bought that Isuzu Trooper. He thinks it was purple, but still isn’t sure.
“I thought it was blue, but I'm slightly color blind between black and navy blue, and purple and navy blue,” he said. “I thought it was blue until people told me it was purple. Right now, I actually have the car that I’ve had since I was with the Green Bay Packers (in 2005).”
That would be the aforementioned Yukon Denali.
“It’s amazing. It’s only got 50,000 miles on it because I never drive it,” he said. “Like right now, it’s been sitting in the parking lot for two months because I’m living in my office. So it gets no miles on it whatsoever.”
Don't let the symbolism of that SUV get lost in the story. Denali Park & Preserve in Alaska is six million acres of wild land, punctuated by Mount McKinley -- North America's largest peak, at 20,320 feet. Franklin may not have moved mountains to get to Penn State, but as the interracial son of a blue-collar single mom he certainly climbed a few. His values and work ethic remained intact. The Denali was new when Franklin bought it. And it still looks that way.
“I remember growing up, I wanted a new car bad. Bad,” he recalled. “But I also was taught early on that when you buy a car, as soon as you drive it off the lot, it loses value. Although I wanted one bad, I always fought the temptation. And the car that I have now is the first new car I’ve ever owned in my life. I’ve had it … it’s a 2005, I think. It’s a nice car and serves its purpose. But there’s things that are important to me in life -- like my family and my kids and my wife and this job.”
This is Coaching Job No. 12. And admittedly, it is Franklin’s dream job. So it’s unlikely he’ll go anywhere soon.
Lucky he stopped short of 13. Or maybe not. Luck, they say, is the residue of design.