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Penn State Football: Thy Staff Comforts James Franklin

by on April 09, 2015 10:35 PM

Yea, though I’ve walked through the valleys of the shadow of the SEC and Big Ten, I will fear no evil;

For you are with me: my rod and my staff, they comfort me.

That’s directly (sort of) from the King James version – as well as the James Franklin version.

And talk about comfort:

Although Franklin begins only his second season as Penn State’s head coach (and 16th month overall), he has a staff in which he can take great solace and receive even greater support.

Given the vagaries of a peripatetic profession, to a large extent his disciples have been with him for a relatively long period of time.

Seven of nine assistant coaches at Penn State were with Franklin when he took over as Vanderbilt’s head coach in 2011. (An eighth came to Vandy in 2012.) Also with Franklin that first year – and part of a partnership with Franklin that has reached near-Biblical proportions -- was strength guru Dwight Galt. In addition, all four of Franklin’s top-level administrative aides at Penn State were with him his entire three years at Vanderbilt.

Here’s a breakdown of Franklin’s current staff, and their years with him at stops at Kansas State, Maryland (two stints), Vanderbilt and now two seasons at Penn State:

Assistants: Director of performance enhancement Galt (13), offensive coordinator John Donovan (12), QB coach Ricky Rahne (7), co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Bob Shoop (5), co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Brent Pry (5), defensive line coach Sean Spencer (5), offensive line coach Herb Hand (5), running backs coach Charles Huff (4), wide receivers coach Josh Gattis (4) and cornerbacks coach Terry Smith (2). Only Smith, a former Penn State star wide receiver, had never coached previously with Franklin.

Staff: Director of football administration Kevin Threlkel (9), chief of staff Jemal Griffin (8), director of football operations Michael Hazel (5) and director of player personnel Andy Frank (5).

Other than Smith, that entire group followed their leader and made the 698.2-mile journey north from Nashville to State College. In all, that means 13 of Franklin’s top 14 Penn State assistants were with him at Vanderbilt at some point or, mostly, all points.

Shoop, the main architect of PSU’s nationally-ranked defense, contemplated leaving Penn State for LSU in the offseason. (Until athletic director Sandy Barbour OK’d a big raise.) And Franklin said earlier in the spring that Spencer was a hot commodity as well.

“Shoop is the guy who became a big story,” Franklin said, “but we’ve got a bunch of guys on our staff that got offers and opportunities to move on and turned them down. … That stability and that continuity that we saw here at Penn State for a long time, we want to try to be able to do that as well because we know how valuable it is.”


Just like Joe Paterno, one head coach and three seasons before him, Franklin preaches staff stability.

“I don't care if you run the same scheme, if you bring a different coach in, he’s going to have some different opinions or philosophies or techniques,” Franklin said. “We don't have that. At every single position, not only the scheme is the same but the philosophy, the techniques, things like that, are the same.”

From literally Day One at University Park, Franklin has firmly noted he keeps a file on potential assistant coaches. It must be dusty. He really doesn’t need it. In his five-year tenure, Franklin has had just 14 assistant coaches, figuring on 10 spots per season if Galt is included. Since 2012, he’s had just a dozen for 10 slots. Franklin didn’t bring two Vandy assistants to Penn State – special teams and tight end coach Charles Bankins, who stayed at Vanderbilt in 2014, and secondary coach George Barlow, who was at North Carolina State last season.

On the day he was announced as Penn State’s head coach, Franklin was upfront about his preference for the assistant quo: “I am fiercely loyal as a person in general. And I'm going to be fiercely loyal to the guys that I’ve worked with in the past.”

Added all together, Franklin’s core staff has been together longer than almost any other group in the Big Ten. That staff unity and loyalty is unique – especially since the group is only in its second season at its current school.

The pure number of assistants who possess at least a five-year history with Franklin is surpassed by only two of the other 13 teams in the Big Ten Conference – Northwestern under Pat Fitzgerald and Minnesota under Jerry Kill. Both schools feature 10-person assistant coach/strength coaches that have been virtually intact for at least five seasons. And usually much, much more.

Kill’s staff is especially unique and tight-knit; that was demonstrated when he was sidelined with health problems last season and the Gopher staff hardly missed a beat. Much of Kill’s staff has been with him for 10, even 20 years, at low-profile stops like Northern Illinois, Southern Illinois, Emporia State and Saginaw Valley. Minnesota strength coach Eric Hein has been with Kill at five schools since 1994.

At Northwestern, Fitzgerald’s was an entirely different situation. A College Football Hall of Fame linebacker for the Wildcats, Fitzgerald became head coach in 2006 after the unexpected death of Randy Walker. At 31, Fitzgerald was the youngest head coach in major college football by five years. An older Northwestern staff that was already in place rallied around him and has stayed. But the past five years have not been good ones in Evanston, with only one winning record in conference play in that time and a 10-14 overall mark the past two seasons.


That can be the flip side of a staff that hangs together, on and off the field, for a long time. Maybe too long. They become stale, with few ideas from the outside. Franklin worked hard in the offseason to combat any possible malaise. Franklin went to town on this – in offseason deed and then in word at the press conference to open spring practice.

“Professional development, program development – we’ve completed all our self-scouts, gone back and studied everything, watched every rep of practice, every rep of games, done studies on our programs, met with professionals, collegiate and high school staffs, have had a lot of people in,” he began, speaking in his patented rat-a-tat Jamespeak. Often complete sentence challenged. Like Mel Kiper Jr.

“University of Alabama was in last week meeting with us. Had Villanova in. A lot of different people to sit around, bounce ideas off each other, explore. We’ll continue to do that throughout the rest of the spring and the summer. Always looking to grow there. We consulted with experts, consultant from the NFL, retired special teams coordinator spent a day with us, which was excellent.

“Visited with several different types of analytic companies to meet with our staff, which was really good,” he continued. “We attended some conferences, went out to the MIT Sloane Sports Analytic Conference, which was great, not only for the analytics, but with all the sports science and studies we’re trying to do with those things as well.

“We sent a group of people down to Philadelphia (and) the Flyers, the Eagles, the 76ers. The Steelers I think were all there talking about sports science, how we’re all using it. That was a really good experience for us as well. All of these things looking for ways to get better.”

National champion Ohio State does it a bit differently. Other than wide receivers coach Zach Smith, who was with Meyer four years at Florida as a student assistant then GA, no one on Urban Meyer’s current staff has been with him for even five years, counting his head coaching stops at Bowling Green, Utah, Florida and Ohio State, plus four more as an assistant. His D-line coach, Larry Johnson, does have a history of longevity – he was at PSU for 18 years.

Of the Big Ten’s 14 coaches, 11 have been at their current school for five or less years. Three are in Year One. At Michigan State, seven of Mark Dantonio’s assistants have been with him at one time or another for seven seasons. Three other conference schools have coaching staffs featuring six assistants who have been with their head coach for at least five years, not always at the same school. They are Indiana, with head coach Kevin Wilson; Iowa (Kirk Ferentz); and Maryland (Randy Edsall).


For Franklin’s entire staff, coming to Penn State was a Godsend.

Before arriving in Happy Valley early in 2014, the staff’s stop-offs featured such hot spots as Concord College and Glenville State (Hand), Tennessee State and Hampton (Huff), Western Carolina and Georgia Southern (Pry), Northern and Columbia, where he was 7-3 as head coach (Shoop), Temple (Smith) and Trinity, Shippensburg and Wesleyan (Spencer).

For his part, Franklin’s assistant coaching career included stints at Kutztown, James Madison and Idaho State. How do you like them potatoes?

Donovan, a New Jersey native who surely speaks for his coaching colleagues, loves his fifth coaching stop.

As the Nittany Lion offensive coordinator said last spring on Penn State’s Coaches Caravan trail, “This is the best job any of us have ever had.”


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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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