Penn State Football: You See A Lot By Watching James Franklin’s Radio Show
It was 5:50 p.m., when James Franklin raced off the Penn State practice field and into Lasch Building late Thursday afternoon.
Fifteen minutes later, all showered and his head still early-morning shaved smooth, he pulled up to his reserved parking spot – guarded by a few orange cones, suitable for use at Penn State's pro day – at Damon’s Grill less than a mile away.
The Penn State Football Radio Show, the first of the 2014 season and his first-ever as the Nittany Lion head coach, had started at the restaurant five minutes earlier.
At 6:07 p.m., Franklin rushed down the steps to the restaurant basement full of big screens and Penn State screamers and -- handshaking, fist-bumping and grinning along the way – and was behind the mic. (That’s mic as microphone, not Mike as in middle linebacker as in Mike Hull, as in the guy that Franklin admitted mid-show he “has a man crush on.”)
At the first commercial break, Franklin started making the rounds of Damon’s patrons. According to Steve The Waiter, based on code requirements, he thought the SRO crowd was #198Strong. Franklin managed to personally say “hi” to all of the folks in the first two rows.
“I’ll get to you guys in the back the next commercial,” Franklin said before heading back to the interview table with host Steve Jones. And next commercial break, he did.
As Franklin was shaking hands, a guy sipping a 20-ounce Bud Light special said to the habitually nattily-attired coach, “What, no tie?”
Franklin, dressed in a tightly striped and pressed oxford shirt with a blue Nittany Lion head logo, khaki pants and a layer of perspiration on his forehead, turned and grinned: “Hey, I’m still sweating from practice.”
As it turned out, that was only the time in his 53 minutes of the program anyone saw him sweat. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, but he dominated the program. It was surprising by how much. Like, maybe, 34-6.
He knew one fan by her nickname, he provided more specific program news – in quantity and quality – than his typical presser with a desultory press corps and gave a clinic on both the star position (in many ways, like Penn State’s old hero ‘backer; think Michael Zordich) and Jimmy Johnson's recruiting and re-positioning model when he was at Miami (Fla.).
HE WAS KIDDING
Franklin adroitly deflected a young fan’s probing question about how long he planned to stay at Penn State, beginning with a light jab at the teen-ager and finishing with an homage to the university and the community. (And never gave a concrete answer in the process. Brilliant.)
After wishing the teen happy birthday, Franklin asked, “How old are you anyway?”
“Fourteen,” said the kid, standing about seven feet away.
“So why, in your question, are calling our players ‘kids’? You’re a kid. You must have an old soul,” said Franklin.
It was far from the only “live” question, asked by one of the fans watching the program in-person. That’s news, if only minor. (In fact, a good portion of the questions, and a good portion of the good questions, were posed directly to Franklin by the audience, with veteran network #goodguy Roger Corey running the floor like that Mike Hull guy.)
During his two years of doing the show, Bill O’Brien was on the frontline, fielding questions about sanctions and the NCAA and all that non-X-and-O stuff, when often no one else in the university would. So, eventually, during the show O’Brien was only fed questions that had pre-screened. (Although he was well-fed; OB often left the show with a doggie bag literally three feet deep.)
O’Brien rarely dodged a question anyway – when he did, it was preceded with, “I respect the question. I really do.” In those instances, had he actually answered, there would have been some doozies. O’Brien would show up in sweats, also directly from the practice field. (No shower, no pressed shirt.) For his two seasons, the program was at Damon’s, for the first time in the show’s long history.
For decades prior to that, Joe Paterno came off the practice field and a minute or two later, still wearing his grey sweatshirt and khakis and black coaching shoes, took questions from Judy from Muncy and a host of regulars, with navigators Fran Fisher and Steve Jones flying by the seat of their pants. First, when questions came out of left field from Lebanon and then right field from Reading. Then, in later years, filling air before Paterno showed up. Sometimes, that was 6:13. Others it was 6:18 or even 6:21.
For Franklin, the headphones slid right on. And that’s not just because of his haircut. He’s received huge props for being glib and approachable everywhere he’s gone. But he’s never been better than when he was on radio last night.
Part of Steve The Waiter’s #198 was a huge Penn State and radio network entourage – everyone from Franklin’s his new boss of four days, athletic director Sandy Barbour, to a fleet of promotions people and field lieutenants. That’s a far cry from Paterno, who worked one-on-one with Fran and then Steve, plus a PR guy or two, or even O’Brien.
COMMANDEERING THE SHOW
It may be preseason and it may have been his maiden Thursday night voyage, but this wasn’t Franklin’s first radio rodeo. Although the ride is certainly different. During his three years at Vanderbilt, there was the Commodore Call-In Show. It aired every Thursday night at 7 p.m. from the Holiday Inn’s Commodore Grille in Nashville, on a singular station and on VUcommodres.com. Martin and Zerfoss Insurance & Auto-Owners Insurance were the sponsors.
Penn State’s a bit different. The program airs on 41 stations in five states, plus on GoPSUSports.com. The show’s sponsor is this soft-drink company called Pepsi.
Franklin will be back on air Monday night, and not because his ratings were so blockbuster that he’s now going twice a week. Next Thursday, the Penn State football team will be in Dublin.
That means at least 198 fans – including that the big Bud Light guy – will be back on Monday night. So, too, will Franklin. By the looks and sounds of it, he wouldn’t miss it for the world.