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The Word on Coaching: Penn State's James Franklin on 'Relationships'

by on July 13, 2017 8:30 PM

Last summer, James Franklin went to dinner with Penn State football player after Penn State football player.

After Penn State football player.

"It seemed like they all want to go to The Field" restaurant in State College, Franklin lamented last year at this time.

Franklin's squad was coming off back-to-back 7-6 seasons, with a core group of players that had been at Penn State longer than their head coach. The team had lost its last four games of the 2015 season.

There was a danger that Franklin could have lost the team. And, hence, the program.

So he went to work, back to what he does best. Actually, to be more accurate, to what Franklin learned he does best.

And that's building relationships.

That lesson was driven home years ago, when Franklin was an up-and-coming, high-energy, head-full-of-hair assistant coach at the University of Maryland. He had everything, it seemed, to go to the next level.

Almost everything, anyway, as his mentor Dwight Galt — the Maryland strength coach then and the Penn State strength coach now — pointed out. Franklin was missing one key ingredient: Understanding the power of strong relationships.

Ironic now, huh?

Franklin worked hard to hone that skill, and it was a key component of his achieving great success at Vanderbilt.

Last summer, Franklin went back to the drawing board. He looked at what worked, and so quickly, at his previous institution and worked hard to connect and re-connect with his players at Penn State. Both old and new. He took dozens of them to dinner, night after night. And bit by bit, and biteful by biteful, he bonded with them...

Months later when adversity struck again, those relationships — in James We Trust — held fast. After a 2-2 start, the Nittany Lions won nine consecutive games and the Big Ten championship. As it turned out, all those dinners at The Field may have been his meal ticket to victory on the playing fields.

At the heart of the Nittany Lions' 2016 historic run, which was chock-full of comebacks, was his players' belief in themselves and Franklin's message: Relationships matter. People matter. Team matters.

So, reading that relationships are what's at the heart — and in the heart — of James Geoffrey Franklin is no big surprise. But, as Penn State's head football coach shares below, it is a surprise that it wasn't always the case.


The following interview with Franklin is Part 6 of our "The Word on Coaching" series, in which Penn State’s athletics director and a half-dozen of PSU’s most successful current head coaches discuss their philosophy on athletics and life, summarized in a singular word of his or her choosing. The line-up:

Sandy Barbour, Director of Athletics — "Why?"

Russ Rose, Women’s Volleyball — "Commitment"

Char Morett-Curtiss, Field Hockey — "Heart"

Guy Gadowsky, Men’s Ice Hockey — "Environment"      

Erica Dambach, Women’s Soccer — "Standards"

James Franklin, Football — "Relationships"

Cael Sanderson, Wrestling — Monday, July 17                        



Franklin: For me, it's relationships.

When I was with Dwight Galt at Maryland, I was passionate. I was driven. I was coaching the guys hard. And recruiting hard.

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." We had a long conversation that day. His sons were on the team, so he had a pretty unique perspective on all of this, and he knew me very well.

It really hit home with me that you can be the best coach in the world. You can be driven, you can be passionate, you can understand fundamentals and schemes and all of those things. But if guys don't want to play hard for you, it's not going to matter. I took that day and spent a lot of time thinking about it.

From that point on, I changed and grew. I had my ah-ha moment in the profession.  And since then, I've taken it to a whole 'nother level personally. How so?

Franklin: If you think about it, it starts at home. If you have healthy, positive relationships at home with your wife, your kids — that's where it starts. If you feel good about that and are grounded there, then you have an opportunity to go to work and focus on your job. If you're not healthy at home, you're going to be distracted at work. From home, it goes to the people you work with every single day. It's something I'm very passionate about.

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. 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.

When you have that, and you have trust, then you have a chance to bring out the best in people, in organizations, in yourself. How does that impact how you lead?

Franklin: I tell the coaches all the time: Every time we have a discussion and a decision to make in the program, it should start with, "Is this something that is going to form healthy, positive relationships in our building?" If not, we shouldn't be doing it. It has to make us better, it has make the kids better.

That doesn't mean the conversations and situations are easy. I'm not a person who is scared of conflict. Some people don't like conflict and they avoid it at all costs. I think conflict is healthy, if handled in the right way and not disrespectful. Conflict is an opportunity for growth. Two people who disagree on something should be able to talk through it and come to an understanding.

I tell the players all the time: "A true friend and a true teammate tells you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear." A healthy and positive relationship doesn't mean that it's always rainbows and puppies. It's about making decisions and having conversations that are in the individual's — and, more importantly, the overall organization's — best interest. So how does the importance of a good relationship translate in the third quarter, the game is tied and it's third-and-7? Where does that come in?

Franklin: I think it comes down to, if you're the center, you know you can depend on the guard and the tackle next to you to do their job. Not only because it is their job, but because he doesn't want to let the guy next to him down.

It's (Penn State defensive coordinator) Brent Pry turning down a chance to be a head coach because he and his family are really happy for the first time in a long time in their career. It's (Penn State defensive line coach) Sean Spencer being offered jobs pretty much every year since we've been here and turning down job offers — at one point, turning down a job offer that was about $100,000 more money.

It's being able to bring a player into your office and having a conversation with him — and it not being the best conversation in the world to have — but the player knowing the only reason you are having this conversation is because you care. Because if you didn't care, you wouldn't have that conversation in the first place. They know that you care about them and you care about Penn State.

To have that kind of understanding with our team matters,  so that when times get tough — like during a game — that they'll look at the coaches and see how we're reacting. They'll check to see If we're panicked or we're showing a lack of confidence; whatever the case is, that's what is going to happen to them as well. If we don't flinch, it helps reinforce what we already know — that we're going to win the game, that we're going to be successful together.

Having those relationships affects you when you make a mistake. I make the comment all the time: "I'm not perfect." And no one in our organization is. If you have a good relationship and a strong foundation from the beginning, you give people the benefit of the doubt. Can you give me an example?

Franklin: There are times I may say something in a staff meeting or a team meeting, and it comes off the wrong way. I didn't intend for it to come off the wrong way. But then you have one of your captains come in and say, "Coach, you said this and I don't think it is what you meant. But this is how the team interpreted it." Now, the next day I can go back and explain in better detail about what I meant. Without that relationship, they're not going to come in.

Or, if I say something in a staff meeting and Dwight Galt or Brent Pry or (assistant coach) Terry Smith comes in afterwards and says, "Coach, I don't think the guys understood what you were saying. It's being misinterpreted, so you may want to cover this again tomorrow." Or I'll call the staff back in and address it.

That's like when I go in and ask the administration for something. It's different now compared my first couple of years. There's a relationship now. They understand where my heart is and why I'm asking.

I'll give you a perfect example: When I was at Vanderbilt, one of the greatest mentors of my career was David Williams, the athletic director. My first year, I'd keep going in and we'd have discussions about things we needed and why. He would ask me Question A, Question B, Question C and Question D. And every time he would ask, I'd have an answer to A, B, C and D. My answers were well thought-out and I wasn't just coming in and asking for things off the wall.

We got to a point where he said, 'You know what? I'm the expert on Vanderbilt. And you're the expert on college football. Let's work together and build something special. I can't always give it to you the way you want it, but I can give it to you in a situation that will make sense for Vanderbilt." Once that happened, we created a great relationship together. I learned a lot.

To me, that's kind of what is starting to happen a little bit at Penn State. When I go and ask for things, or I say we're lacking in an area or we need this as we continue building, I always talk about best practices and what other people are doing and things that make sense for Penn State. That's happening, so the conversations are easier. So when I go to Sandy (Barbour, the athletic director) or go to Phil (Esten, the deputy athletic director) or to president (Eric) Barron or other people and have these discussions, they know where my heart is. It's what I think is going to be in Penn State's best interest and our athletes' best interest. You have a really diverse background. Where does that fit in regards to relationships?

Franklin: My background has helped me with a perspective that very few people have. It's becoming less that way, given how our society is going.

Everybody says that when you get in a leadership position, you want to surround yourself with as many smart people as possible who will challenge you and allow you to grow. But then people get in those positions, and they're intimidated by that.

Everybody says you should be a lifelong learner. But a lot of people get to a certain point of their careers, and they feel like they have all the answers and they know it all. Then they stop learning and growing. I hope I will be growing and learning until they put me in the ground. That's growing from people, from situations, from perspectives. A lot of coaches I worked with I felt like I could have helped them from a big-picture perspective. But some young coaches feel like they've already arrived. Where does the lifelong learning come into play in terms of your relationships?

Franklin: It helps if I continue to learn about myself, about Penn State, about the people I work with and the people I work for — and, ultimately, about the most important thing, which is learning about our players. Because the better you know your players, the better you can serve them. I believe that.

People talk about servant leadership and throw that term around. I believe that this is not my football program; this is the players' football program, and we are here to help them reach their dreams. And it's whatever those dreams may be, to become a doctor, a lawyer, a CEO, play in the NFL — or a combination of all of those things.

All of those things are based on relationships. What do you do to build or cement a relationship with a player?

Franklin: Knowing who the players rely on is important. You learn that through the recruiting process. Sometimes it's very difficult to figure that out. When we first got to Penn State, we hadn't recruited the players who were already here. We didn't know who was in their circle of trust.

Now, if there is a problem or an issue, I can pick up the phone and call the mom or dad or a sister or the high school coach who is very involved, and say, "We're struggling with this. We need your help, let's work together." Those things are really valuable.

At the end of the day, the way you form relationships and the way you form trust — not just with the players, but anybody — what is very important is consistency of behavior. You can say whatever you want to say, and it is important that you verbalize those things. If you have good family dynamics, it is likely that you've been through adversity. You've gotten through it together as a family. Every time you do that, you become stronger and stronger.

It's no different with a football team. How do you maintain a certain distance as a coach?

Franklin: You see the dynamic a lot now where parents are friends rather than their parents. What we struggle with a lot of times is that with some of our players we are the first male disciplinarian or role model in their lives. That's a different dynamic and can be a key component of that relationship we are talking about.

It doesn't mean I'm always going to tell them what they want to hear. Or it's always going to be easy. For you to get 18- to 22-year-old males to grow, it shouldn't be easy. It should be difficult. People don't want to go outside of their comfort zone. But the only way you ever grow is if you are willing to go outside your comfort zone.

The staff does that with me. Players do that with me — players from different backgrounds and perspectives and positions.

You need to be able to learn, to grow, to be consistent with your behavior and be consistent in showing that you care. I would make the argument that trust and love and relationships go hand-in-hand with discipline and structure.

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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