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Penn State Football’s Tale of the Tape: Franklin vs. Fleck

by on November 03, 2019 7:45 PM

PJ vs. CJF.

Phillip John Fleck vs. James Geoffrey Franklin.

Minnesota vs. Penn State.

8-0 vs. 8-0.

Saturday’s game in Minneapolis is not only a battle of head coaches with identical unbeaten records who are on a mission to win their side of the Big Ten Conference.

It is a matchup of two of college football’s more colorful coaches who are, seemingly, Men on a Mission.

They are glib, smart and media-savvy, full of energy and catchphrases, and preach family inside the locker room. And they are meeting as head coaches for the first time.

Both were college standouts themselves who made their mark as young head coaches who succeeded in the unlikely college football outposts of Kalamazoo and Nashville, taking the teams at their previous institutions to three consecutive bowl games.

And now, at their current schools, they are rowing their boats into an 11 a.m. showdown this Saturday in TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, with the goal of going 1-0. Each, hoping it will be 1-0 for the ninth consecutive time in 2019.

There is some danger in comparing the two, given that Franklin’s success in six seasons at Penn State (53-21, a Big Ten title) has far exceeded what Fleck has done in half that time at Minnesota (20-13). Of course, we need to remember that at one point Franklin was 16-14 at PSU before the program took off.

Franklin performed near-miracles at moribund Vanderbilt, going 24-15, with back-to-back rankings of No. 20 and No. 23 in the final AP polls of 2012 and ’13. Fleck matched that success by taking Western Michigan from 1-11 in his first season in 2013, to 13-1 in 2016 — winning the MAC with a perfect 12-0 mark, then falling to Wisconsin 24-16 in the Cotton Bowl (a month after PSU beat the Badgers 38-31 in the Big Ten title game), to finish ranked No. 15.

The two coaches know each personally and professionally: When Fleck was at Western Michigan he spent some time at Vandy, watching and taking notes on how Franklin did things. And last week, Franklin had major plaudits for Fleck.

Here’s where the real separation comes into play:

Penn State is No. 5 in this week’s polls, while Minnesota is No. 13. Add in Franklin’s success on the recruiting trail, and in the battle of initialed HC’s, CJF is clearly No. 1.

So, maybe, PJ is Franklin Lite. Or, put another way, a poor man’s Franklin. He’s also nearly a decade younger and makes several million dollars less a year.

Stylistically, though, there are so many similarities between the two (right down to spending one season in the NFL coaching wide receivers), it’s too tempting to not compare. Here’s a tale of the tape of the two men in a baker’s dozen of key categories:

1. HEAD — Franklin: Shaved. Fleck: Shaved.

2. GAME-DAY TIE — Franklin: For pre-game lap around field. Fleck: During game.

3. RUMORED TO BE NEXT COACH AT — Franklin: USC. Fleck: Florida State.

4. ON TWITTER — Franklin: @Coachjfranklin — 240,800 followers, follows 2,978, 9,935 tweets. Fleck: @Coach_Fleck — 119,200 followers, follows 4,272, 2,161 Tweets.

5. CATCHPHRASES — Franklin: 1-0. Four Core Principles. Iowa, Iowa, Iowa. Dominate the state. We Are…Better. Unrivaled. #107kstrong. Good, great, elite. Fleck: Row the Boat. Ski-U-Mah. HYPRR (How Yours Process Result Response). Howfer. Elite.

6. KEY STATS — Franklin: Age: 47. Born: February 2, 1972. Hired at PSU: January 11, 2014. Married, 2 children. 2019 compensation: minimum of $5.85 million, including $300,000 retention bonus on Dec. 31 and $200,000 bowl game bonus. Fleck: Age: 38. Born: November 29, 1980. Hired at Minnesota: January 6, 2017. Married, 4 children. 2019 compensation: $3.6 million.

7. 2019 STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE — Cumulative SOS (2019 past foes/future foes), according to the NCAA. Franklin: 23rd, .656. Fleck: 74th, .574.

8. CURRENT WINNING STREAK — Franklin: 8 games, last loss 27-24 vs. Kentucky, Citrus Bowl, Jan. 1, 2019. Fleck: 10 games, last loss 24-14 to Northwestern at home, Nov. 17, 2018. Nationally: Clemson (24), Ohio State (14), Minnesota (10), Baylor (10), LSU (9), Penn State (8), Alabama (8), Oregon (8).

9. RECORD — Franklin: 25-14 (.641) at Vanderbilt, 53-21 at (.716) Penn State, 78-35 (.690) overall. Fleck: 30-22 (.577) at Western Michigan, 20-13 (.606) at Minnesota, 50-35 (.588) overall.

10. RECRUITING (2017-2020, per Rivals) — Franklin: Average class rank: 10.25 (12, 5, 11, 13). Average recruit rank: 3.6 (5-star - 3; 4-star - 51; 3-star - 37; 2-star - 3). Fleck: Average class rank: 43.25 (57, 43, 41, 32). Average recruit rank: 2.9 (5-star - 0; 4-star - 6; 3-star - 76; 2-star - 16).

11. COLLEGE PLAYING CAREER — Franklin: Two-year starter at QB at East Stroudsburg. Set 23 school records, including total offense (3,128 yards) and TD passes (19). Harlon Hill Trophy nominee. Major: psychology; masters in educational leadership, Washington State. Fleck: WR at Northern Illinois. In 2003, helped NIU to a No. 10 ranking with wins vs. Alabama and Maryland (Franklin was the Terps’ WR coach). Career receiving: st 179-Ste 2,165 yards; career PR: 87-716 yards. Major: elementary education.

A12. THE NFL — Franklin: Coached WR for the Green Bay Packers in 2005. Entire staff was fired after a 4-12 season and Franklin landed at Kansas State as O-coordinator/QB coach. Fleck: Coached WR for Greg Schiano and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2012, then left to become head coach at Western Michigan. Played 2004-05 seasons with San Francisco 49ers, signing as a free agent, and was mostly on practice squad and injured reserve. Fleck, Arizona State’s Herm Edwards and Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh are the only Power 5 head coaches who both played and coached in the NFL.

13. COACHING STAFF LOYALTY — Franklin: Current Penn State D-coordinator Brent Pry, O-coordinator Ricky Rahne and D-line coach Sean Spencer coached with Franklin at Vanderbilt; current Penn State safeties coach Tim Banks coached with Franklin at Maryland. Fleck: Current Minnesota O-coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, Rob Wenger (special teams), Kenni Burns (RB), Brian Callahan (OL) and Matt Simon (WR) coached with Fleck at Western Michigan. Of note: Minnesota DB coach Rd Chance was a defensive quality assistant under Franklin at Vanderbilt.

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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