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The Odd Couple of Penn State Football: James Franklin & John Donovan

by on April 24, 2014 9:30 PM

The discussion was between Penn State offensive coordinator John Donovan and his boss, head coach James Franklin.

It came in the days just before the Blue-White Game and the longtime co-workers were debating just how much of Penn State’s “real” offense they should show. 

They both knew Penn State’s 2014 season opening opponent, Central Florida, would be sure to watching – and taping – the Nittany Lions’ intra-squad scrimmage.

It would be UCF’s only chance to see how much of what Franklin and Donovan ran at Vanderbilt would also appear at Penn State. It was also an opportunity to see just how well the Nittany Lions were learning their third offensive scheme in four springs.

Franklin and Donovan had just 14 practices to install their offense – only about a third of the normal 45 classes their players have to grasp in, say Econ 102 or Psych 004. (Actually, Donovan could help with the former; he has a masters in economics from Georgia Tech. And Franklin, who was a psych major at East Stroudsburg, could very likely teach the latter – “Introduction to Well-Being and Positive Psychology.”)

Donovan knew what he wanted to do. So did Franklin.

“If there was a real spring game and we were putting together a mini-game plan, we probably would have been more creative,” Donovan said. “But you don’t want to show it all. You want to be base. I’m more like that. James? Not so much.” 

Not that Franklin didn’t get it. George O’Leary could watch all he wanted. What James O’Franklin does in Dublin on Aug. 30 may not be what he did in University Park on April 12. So, Franklin wanted to say O’Thehellwithit.

And, to a degree, he did. There was the Wildcat, a reverse and a reverse pass. But Christian Hackenberg took an early exit, the offensive line was in a shambles, and Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton were basically MIA. Not a lot to be leery of, actually.

“I'm not one of these paranoid college football coaches,” Franklin said. “They have three years of really good film on us (from Vanderbilt). It's not like we're hiding a whole lot. The playbook’s limited just because of where we’re at in some of our situations, dividing the team up, being thin personnel-wise. But it is what it is.”

LET'S TALK

So Donovan and Franklin talked it over. Got input from around the offensive coaches table. Then had to reach some sort of accord as to how much of the Nittany Lions’ new offense – possessing that fresh new car smell -- they would show. As Donovan remembers it: “You don’t want to show your hand too much, but it’s not bad giving some tidbits out there to make people think. James and I were talking about it, and he goes, ‘Just do it all.’ “

Donovan pauses, then grins: “Uhhhhh…”

Clearly, he’s had these discussions with Franklin before. Eleven years’ worth, to be exact. If anyone is Franklin’s work spouse, it’s Donovan.

“You’re a good couple then?” Donovan was asked.

“No doubt, no doubt.” Donovan was emphatic. “We find a happy medium in there somewhere.”

Of PSU’s assistants, Donovan has been with Franklin the longest – tied with director of performance enhancement Dwight Galt. The three were together at Maryland in 2001-04 and again in 2008-10 (in the interim, Franklin coached with the Green Bay Packers and then Kansas State). When Franklin got the top job at Vanderbilt in 2011, Donovan and Galt were the only Terp assistants who followed him to Nashville.

While he certainly had daily input, Franklin gave control of the Vanderbilt offense to Donovan, who became the Commodores’ offensive coordinator. Donovan’s impact was immediate, measurable and memorable. The first season, Vandy’s scoring went up 10 points per game. That’s not a misprint. Overall, in three years Vanderbilt’s point production went up 65%, when comparing the three years before Donovan arrived (19.2, 16.3 and 16.9 points in 2008-10) and the three seasons he was there (26.7, 30, 30.1; 2011-13).

Franklin will be the first to tell you what Donovan meant to that offense. In fact, doing exactly that didn’t take long to get to on Jan. 24, when the Penn State head coach introduced his staff of assistants to the media. The very first question was, “Who will call the plays?”

Franklin’s long answer: “At this point, John and I have had the discussion like we did going into Vanderbilt -- we haven't decided that. We have the same philosophy. It’s my offensive philosophy that we’ve evolved over the last couple years. We’ll see how this thing pans out. I am the CEO of Penn State football and there are a lot of things that need to be done. If I feel like that’s going to give us the best opportunity to be successful, then I’ll call the plays.”

Franklin’s short answer: “But, more likely than not, that will be John’s role. John called every single play over the last three years at Vanderbilt. I did have recommendations and I did have input, but John called every single play. So we’ll see how that evolves.”

The bottom line: Franklin trusts Donovan.

DONOVAN'S CHI

Donovan brings balance, perspective and history to the table. Not just coaching football experience, but coaching football with James Franklin experience. Donovan is the calm to Franklin’s storm. Donovan has the sensibilities and curiosity of a sociology major from Johns Hopkins, the analytics of that econ graduate degree and the hidden wily and cunning that resulted in a dozen picks while he was a three-year starter on the secondary for Hopkins.

Donovan originally eyed a job working on Wall Street, just across the Hudson from his native Bergen County, N.J. Then he caught the coaching bug. After one season at Villanova, he spent three years at Georgia Tech, where he met a fellow bottom-of-the-food-chain assistant named Bill O’Brien. The two coached together at Tech for three years (1998-2000), then again in 2003-04 at Maryland, where Franklin was also on the staff.

Given his relationship with O’Brien, Donovan knew a lot about the Penn State offense – and players – before he came aboard. OB told Donovan about Hackenberg’s immense skills, and the young quarterback lived up to that billing throughout spring drills. Donovan was also impressed with Penn State’s entire slate of players.

“You’re starting from scratch. You don’t know how these kids are, how they’re going to execute,” he said. “But they are smart and they got a good base in the past year or two, so that helped.”

Donovan will turn 40 on Sept. 11, the Thursday before the Rutgers game. Life will no doubt be a bit crazy at that point, with the early schedule taking Penn State to Ireland (Aug. 30), Beaver Stadium (Sept. 6 vs. Akron) and then Piscataway at night on Sept. 13, for Rutgers’ first-ever Big Ten Conference game. You have to figure Franklin will be more than a little worked up by that point.

Donovan is used to controlled frenzy. He has three kids 7 and under – John Patrick, Cate and Shea -- who definitely play up-tempo. They’ve been to practices in the spring, along with his wife Stacey, a Maryland native who knows a good deal about high-level athletics as well, having worked for the Washington Wizards. At first glance, with his high forehead, Donovan shares the profile of a young Jim Delaney or looks like a much younger Richard Jenkins – the venerable character actor in Step Brothers, Friends With Benefits and The Visitors (in which Jenkins played, coincidentally, an econ prof).

At first glance or first meet, Donovan shares some of their measured demeanor. Eventually, though, you find he’s clever and candid, bubbly in a subtle kind of way, with a surprising everyman, good-guy quality that belies his education and current job title. He’s hard not to like. Of course, a couple weeks ago his offense scored 37 points and ran the Wildcat. And the back-to-back night games at The Big House and against Ohio State are still 169 days away.

A VOICE FROM ABOVE

Expectations for the Nittany Lion offense are high, beginning with Franklin. At that introductory press conference in January, the second question posed to Donovan came from on high, from a guy leaning against the rail in the balcony.

“How many points a game are we going to score next year?” chuckled Franklin from above.

Donovan recognized the voice and looked up anyway. He grinned, shook his head, and gave the only answer he could.

“As many as it takes to win.”

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Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979. He is a senior lecturer in Penn State's College of Communications and teaches a pair of classes in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism: “Sports Writing” and “Introduction to the Sports Industry.” He created and taught for several years the Center’s course on “Joe Paterno, Communications and The Media.” 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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