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Penn State Football: What James Franklin Needs

by on November 10, 2019 6:00 PM

MINNEAPOLIS — Penn State fans have seen this movie before.

Youngish head coach with a cleanly shaven head, full of energy and aphorisms, and with one resurrection under his belt, creates another.

In the middle of Season 3, that quest is punctuated by a big win at home against a Top 5 team, winning by less than a touchdown.

A Big Ten title appearance and a New Year’s Six bowl follow. As does a big contract. (And, perhaps, another after that.)

Thus, if you believe in James Franklin then so must you P.J. Fleck.

And then Minnesota’s win here on Saturday should not have been a surprise. Franklin and Fleck are on the same mission: Win games and build a program as they build a community.

Even though Penn State lost 31-26 to Minnesota, Franklin is ahead of Fleck. Not quite at the mountaintop, but much closer: on the field, in national prominence and definitely on the recruiting trail.

Compared to P.J., CJF has more resources, more fans, more tradition, more access to and more success with the nation’s top high school football players.

Fleck has crashed the Top 25 party, and as No. 7 this week, has the coveted key to the Top 10 Club. For James, it’s been there, done that. Franklin wants to be in the CFP Final Four. Not — like last week — for the first time in five seasons. But every season and most weeks.

Franklin has already, painstakingly and meticulously, built that sustaining foundation. It is one that has landed the Nittany Lions in the Associated Press Top 25 for 52 consecutive votes, including Sunday’s (PSU is No. 9.). Only Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma have longer such streaks. Since 2016, only Saban and Swinney have more wins than Franklin.

For Fleck, that is still aspirational. And, given his close kinship with Franklin, inspirational. But it will require a lot more perspiration.

That’s not deny that at 11 a.m. Saturday under sunny skies in TCF Bank Stadium, in a battle of 8-0 teams, Minnesota was the better prepared team. And executed better — on offense, defense and the sidelines.

But that was one day.

Penn State will be back. Because Penn State is back.

FLECK VS. FRANKLIN

Under Fleck, the Gophers are nearly there. Saturday’s win over Penn State was his biggest at Minnesota. It was a signature win, beyond its 37-15 trouncing of a wounded Badgers team in 2018, and perhaps on par with Penn State’s 24-21 victory over No. 2 Ohio State in 2016.

Franklin is where Fleck wants to be, with a Big Ten title and a 54-21 (.720) record. And he may very well be there, at least in 2019, with Minnesota’s first 9-0 record in 115 years. There’s a bit of the Lincoln-Kennedy coincidence to this all (you know, Lincoln’s secretary was Kennedy; Kennedy’s secretary was Lincoln, etc., etc.):

-- Franklin was 14-12 in his first two seasons at Penn State. Fleck was 12-13.

-- Fleck is 21-13 (.620) in his third season at Minnesota. At the same juncture, Franklin was 21-14 and in the midst of a nine-game winning streak that that looked a lot like Minnesota’s current string. The Gophers are riding an 11-game win streak that started on November 24, 2018 in Camp Randall; it will have reached 356 days when the Gophers host Iowa on Saturday at TCF Bank.

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-- Minnesota has to face a gauntlet very similar to what Penn State just did in the three-game stretch prior to meeting the Gophers: Iowa, a struggling Michigan State and Michigan. Fleck’s team must play Iowa (6-4, 4-3 in the Big Ten) and Wisconsin (7-2, 4-2) at home, as well as a struggling Northwestern (1-8, 0-7).

Fleck & Co. are the masters of their own fate. With a two-game lead in the Big Ten West and given how strong they looked on Saturday, it is likely they’ll advance to the conference title game, where they’ll meet either Ohio State or Penn State. In 2019, Franklin & Co. are also the masters of their own fate. (Penn State’s road to Indy is tougher, though, since it goes through Columbus.)

That self-determinating fate is not just on the field, but off it as well.

DOLLARS AND SENSE

The partnership of Fleck and Minnesota was further forged while the iron was hot last week, in the lead-up to the game. As Fleck’s name has appeared in connection to current and likely future open coaching vacancies, his agent and the university reached a new contract agreement that upped Fleck’s annual salary to a minimum of $4.6 million with the opportunity for $5 million-plus, and locks him up — theoretically — with Minnesota through the 2026 season.

Of course, there’s always the buyout clause. Essentially, the new contract tethers Fleck to Minnesota for just this season and next. If Fleck leaves through December 31, 2020, he owes the university $10 million. After that, it is reduced to $4.5 million (2021) and then a very manageable $3 million (2022).

Fleck may have everyone rowing the boat and preaching F.A.M.I.L.Y., but it’s also about getting his. Read all the extensive details — from guaranteed new money for his assistants to personal tickets for bowl games, basketball games and hockey games — here, from Watchcom.

The same came true for Franklin in August 2017, when he signed a contract extension that goes to 2022, with the promise of $7.25 million for that final season, counting guaranteed money and a $1 million retention bonus, plus incentives that could include another million dollars. Franklin’s buyout, though, is a lot less, a million bucks. (Details are here, from my August 20, 2017 column.)

Like Fleck, Franklin’s name has been frequently bandied about in the national press, most recently in connection with Florida State and USC.

Will he go?

Not likely.

Especially if he gets some guarantees that the $69 million needed to complete a renovation of Lasch Building won’t all come from fundraising efforts fully reliant on the head coach himself.

Franklin’s initial vision for Penn State — #107k, pulling the rope in the same direction, dominating the state, returning to prominence — have all come true. A large part of it is due the blood, sweat and tears of Franklin and others, from his assistants who have stayed to longtime staffers that have been with him since Kansas State and Vandy, to the leadership of Sandy Barbour and Old Main stalwarts Eric Barron and David Gray.

But to stay in the face of outside offers and put Penn State firmly in that aforementioned longtime AP Top 25 Cub — Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma — will require a commitment that is just not financial, but includes both heart and soul. Not just for his players, his staff and their families, and his program. But also for the community, in which he has given much in the ways of winning and rebirth.

In no way this is meant that Franklin’s heart isn’t it; it is: 24/7/365. But, with other schools sure to come a’courting — it is likely they have already reached out to Franklin’s agent, Trace Armstrong — his next decision could likely decide where his older daughter graduates from high school. That’s a deep heart decision, especially for a family man like Franklin.

A PENN STATE RENAISSANCE

It was interesting a few weeks ago, at the head coach’s weekly presser on October 22, ahead of when Franklin was being honored at Penn State’s annual Renaissance Fund dinner, which spotlights a Penn State-State College community member who has made myriad and time-worn contributions to the community. Originally asked in 2018, Franklin was this year’s honoree, a situation made easier by two bye weeks.

Neil Rudel of The (Altoona) Mirror, who’s been on the Penn State beat as a regular longer than anyone save for John Black of the venerable Football Letter, asked the head coach if the honor is “an indication of a community embrace and vice versa?”

Franklin responded, jokingly, by asking Rudel if he feels embraced, because the head coach said he felt that way about Rudel. Then Franklin turned serious.

“It’s a tremendous honor,” Franklin answered, “and I think for us, when you’re able to get involved in being a part of scholarships that are going to make a difference in someone’s college experience and maybe open up some opportunities for college experience — I'm a first generation college student.”

Franklin said more, about the award and the fund and how it helps students. But he never addressed the question — the part about embracing.

A bit more than a week later, during the dinner on October 30, Franklin got a mulligan to address Rudel’s question. This time, he came much stronger. I was there, as a paying customer, to hear it first-hand.

It was, if you read between the lines, a Sally Fields Oscar-like moment.

“Tonight is a meaningful night for me and my family,” the coach said his acceptance speech of 7 minutes and 10 seconds. “We have worked very hard to become a part of this community and make a difference.

“Thank you so much for embracing me, thank you so much for embracing my family. (And thanks) to the best coaching staff in the United States, the best daughters the best wife. It means the world to us that we are here and part of this community.”

Strong words from a man who last week hinted strongly that he would never forget the booing directed at him at half-time of the Penn State-Minnesota game in 2016.

WANT FRANKLIN DESIRES

Sure, Franklin would love another contract extension, with even greater commitment to the program and staff and facility building and his bank account, too. And he’ll likely get it, sooner rather than later. (This summer, I told him that as the major marketing face of an organization with $7 billion in annual revenues, at $6 million he is underpaid.)

But, truth to be told, I think he’d also like a little more all-out lovin'. The kind that Fleck is getting in the Twin Cities.

That’s reading between the lines at Franklin’s most recent Tuesday presser, on November 5:

“To be honest with you, I don’t know if it’s talked about enough, in my opinion, to think about how far we have come in the last eight years,” Franklin offered at the end of an epically long 48-minute media session. “It’s remarkable. To me, it’s not talked about enough. So, I’m very proud of it. It’s interesting, as we went out and did some trips this summer, went and visited some people, and even our own people.

“You kind of sit down and you say, ‘You know, bullet point one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, of what we have been able to do in the last six years and what we have been able to do specifically in the last three years.’

“And people are like, ‘I wouldn't have known that if you didn’t tell me.’

“So we probably could do a little bit better job of that,” he concluded. “We’ve got a pretty amazing story that we should be very proud of. But again, all that stuff is wonderful, and we’d better go 1-0 on Saturday.”

No denying that James wants a big check and more commitment. Sure. But.

He may be the guy with the psychology degree and not me. However, I am closing in on a master’s degree from Penn State in the history and philosophy of sport; have covered CJF for six years, near and far, in groups of 1,000 and one-on-one over coffee (he’s a double expresso guy); and have written about PSU football since 1979. So, I’ll take a swing at what he really desires.

In addition to a national title and the commitment to do what it takes, it may be as simple as this — especially after the vitriol that has been on social media the past 24 hours:

Some appreciation. And a hug. A really big hug.



Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for StateCollege.com since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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