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Penn State Football: Time & Respect at the Heart of CJF, OB Relationship

by on April 09, 2018 12:12 AM


Penn State head football coaches present and past talk a lot about that word.

They live it, too.

Between them, their relationships help saved Penn State football: A combined .662 winning percentage, five consecutive winning seasons, a Big Ten title, #106.7k fans per home game in 2017.

James Franklin and Bill O'Brien.

Their relationship — built on time and mutual respect and an overlapping love for Penn State and shared ownership of maintaining the tradition their shared predecessor, Joe Paterno, built — helped bring O'Brien back to Happy Valley on Saturday.


James Franklin (36-17, Jan. 11, 2014 - present; 1,548 days) says it may be the one thing that defines him above all else.

"If the players and people who you work with know how passionate you are and how much you care about them, and care about their journey — and now, care about Penn State — then you have the chance to do something special," Franklin said in a piece I wrote last summer.

"You can be really challenging, you can be demanding, if they know how much you care and it is coming from the right place for the right reasons."

On Saturday, Bill O'Brien (15-9, Jan. 7, 2012 - Dec. 31, 2013; 724 days), the head coach of the Houston Texans since the day he left Happy Valley, returned to Penn State.

O'Brien dined on Friday night with former Penn State football players Matt Millen and Paul Suhey. He spoke to a couple hundred high school coaches on Saturday morning. He confabbed in the Lasch Building office that Joe (409-136-3, Feb. 19, 1966 - Nov. 9, 2011; 16,699 days) and Bill held before James. He shared hugs with former football key cogs like Spider and Kirk and Rick. He chatted with in-house media men Jeff and Jonesy.

It was his first time in Lasch in 223 weeks.


O'Brien met with some local media for a dozen minutes. There were 19 of us, less than 10% the size of the crowd when he was introduced as Penn State's 15th head coach six-plus years ago. By my count, just eight of that small group on Saturday were covering Penn State football the day Bill left town.

I asked O'Brien — who is 31-33 with two playoff appearances in four seasons in Houston (injuries to J.J. Watt and to Daesean Watson in 2107 kept him from going 3 for 4) — what he's most proud of in his time at Penn State.

And if he has any regrets.

"Well," he answered, "I regret every loss. I mean, I definitely regret every loss. I thought we could have won more games while we were here."

Then he quickly changed gears. "But I think the biggest thing that I’m most proud of here is just the relationships that we built," he said. "And the fact that, listen, I’m just going to tell you: There was a time when the sanctions first came out that they said this program would never come back.

"There were people that said this program would basically be a Division II, Division I-AA program — whatever the word is for that now— and I think all of us who were here looked at this wall (of past Penn State stars) and All-Americans. We knew that was never going to happen, that something terrible had happened here, but things were moving forward and we had the right people in place to bridge that gap to where they are now."

Relationships first. Saving the program second.

He immediately circled back to his players and co-workers at Penn State, and the people he and his wife Colleen and his kids Jack and Michael met in State College and at Penn State, many of whom they have faithfully keep in touch with.

"I’m most proud of the relationships and the people that we had here," O'Brien continued. "Some of the best people I met were the guys that I worked with here, the people I worked with here, the guys that I coached here. I still keep in touch with a lot of those guys, so I think that’s probably what I’m most proud of."

There's a lot of Franklin in that. From his East Stroudsburg buddies to countless high school coaches in the DMV, from an intact quartet of front office staff that has been with him at a trio of previous institutions, from close family that regularly visits State College to childhood friends who are still part of CJF's inner circle.


To Franklin's enormous credit, O'Brien returned at the invitation of his Penn Stater successor, with whom O'Brien has had a relationship that dates back to Feb. 14, 2003, the day O'Brien was hired to be the inside linebackers coach at Maryland.

That's right, Valentine's Day. (And Christian Hackenberg's birthday. Different relationship, different story, different day.)

Franklin was already at Maryland, heading into his third season as wide receivers coach. He began his Terps' coaching career in 2000, under head coach Ron Vanderlinden — who would come to Penn State in 2001, after being fired, and remaining through 2013, his last two seasons under O'Brien, by then the head coach at Penn State. (The quarterback coach and offensive coordinator for that 2000 Maryland squad was Mike Gundy, now the head coach at Oklahoma State. Gundy coached the QBs in College Park, while Franklin coached the WRs.)

After Vanderlinden was fired, Maryland brought in Ralph Friedgen from Georgia Tech to be its new head coach. Only Franklin and Mike Locksley were retained. Friedgen had been the offensive coordinator at Georgia Tech from 1997-2000. He was O'Brien's boss. O'Brien coached the Yellow Jacket running backs and was recruiting coordinator. When Friedgen left for Maryland, O'Brien succeeded him as Georgia Tech's O-coordinator and QB coach.

Two seasons later O'Brien followed Friedgen to College Park. Franklin and O'Brien were on the staff together in 2003-04, when Maryland went 10-3 and 5-6. Dwight Galt was already a fixture as Maryland's strength and conditioning coach, and his assistant was Craig Fitzgerald — who became O'Brien's bare-chested, flopping S&C coach when he came to Penn State in 2012. The Terps' assistant recruiting coordinator was John Donovan, a good O'Brien friend who eventually followed Franklin to Vanderbilt and Penn State — but not before succeeding O'Brien as the Terps' running backs coach when OB left for Duke after the 2004 season.

O'Brien was hired by Maryland as its inside linebackers coach, but quickly switched to running backs. Hired in his stead to coach the 'backers, prior to the start of the 2003 season, was Tim Banks — who is now Penn State safeties coach and co-defensive coordinator.

Small world. Relationships.


At Maryland, James and Bill were in close proximity day and night.

"Our offices were next to each other at Maryland," O'Brien recalled on Saturday. "We were neighbors in Crofton (20 miles from College Park). Our wives are friends — Fumi (Franklin) and my wife, Colleen. One thing I always remember about James is he was great with my oldest son (Jack). He was always great and, every time he called, he asked about my oldest son. That always meant a lot to me about James.

"...When I left (Penn State) and there were some candidates for the job, he was one of them. And he called. Just about where things were at and what I thought needed to be done, improvement-wise, relative to this building or to recruiting and all of the different things. We talked about the personnel they had there and things like that. That was pretty much just a lot of football talk. And I told him what a great place it was and what a great two years I had here. Personally, I really enjoyed my two years here."

Franklin and O'Brien are obviously driven men, but from different backgrounds.

O'Brien, 48, went to a New England prep school, then Ivy League Brown, and was a so-so D-lineman. White collar background, blue collar player. A sports nut, he grew up studying the Boston Globe sports section. Franklin, 46, was from a single parent household, his mom from England, his African-American dad having met her while in the service. He was a flashy dual-threat quarterback and gifted athlete at Neshaminy and East Stroudsburg, but his was a tough upbringing strengthened by a family rich in doting and successful aunts, many of whom lived in the south.

Educationally, their interests align, and were of great benefit in Penn State's darkest days, as well as today. O'Brien's undergrad degree included a concentration in organizational behavior management. Franklin has a master's degree from Washington State in educational leadership.

Incredibly, they both ended up coaching football at Penn State, following Paterno at a time when it wasn't easy. On Saturday, O'Brien gave his fellow Brown alum his due.

"I knew that in time," O'Brien said, "with the support and the type of program that Coach Paterno had built here, that this place was going to be back."


Fifteen years ago, O'Brien could have never imagined the fall or rise of Penn State football. Or his hand in keeping the ship afloat. Or Franklin's leadership in putting wind in the Nittany Lions' sails. But O'Brien did think his old co-worker would make it big one day.

"Did you see in anything in ’03 or ’04 that led you to believe Franklin would be here?" I asked O'Brien.

"Oh yeah," O'Brien replied. "He was very smart. Very energetic, had a great energy. Good with players, smart in a lot of different areas. Could coach, could recruit, hard worker, very hard worker. Up early, stayed late and a good personality.

"I think whatever your personality is, you have to have something to be able to be a head coach. And I think he had all of those traits and obviously he started that at Vanderbilt, and then what he’s done here has been fantastic."

Add to that list the inviting of OB back to PSU.

Credit Galt not for the invitation, but for ingraining the importance of relationships in Franklin's DNA. "When I was with Dwight Galt at Maryland, I was passionate. I was driven. I was coaching the guys hard. And recruiting hard," Franklin recalled last summer. "One day, Dwight and I had a long sit-down and discussion. And he said, 'The thing that you are really good at, but are really missing the boat with, is that it is all about relationships.' "

Franklin took it to heart. Still does.

CJF's outreach to OB was a nice nod to the past, both to his and especially Penn State's. Who knows? Perhaps there's more to come.

"It just makes me feel really good about being here today. It was cool to come here," said a grinning O'Brien, he of piercing eyes, dimpled chin and the trademark ability to call each and every old beat reporter by his or her name, five years later.

"James asked me to come back and speak at the clinic and I said, 'Man, I think that’d be really cool.' So, it was good to be back."

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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