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Football and Community Are Family Affairs for Renaissance Fund Honoree James Franklin, His Wife, Fumi, and Their Daughters

by on October 24, 2019 5:00 AM

It’s easy to see that Fumi Franklin feels right at home in the Lasch Building, where her husband, James, presides as Penn State’s head football coach.

Sitting amongst the trophies and plaques that showcase the program’s many accomplishments, she waits for James to finish up an obligation on a late afternoon in early June. She greets players, coaches, and staff as they make their way past her husband’s office after a long day.

Fumi gives more than just the requisite “hello” to the passersby; she engages with each, asking personal questions. The conversations are easy, full of stories and laughter.

It is all part of the family atmosphere that James Franklin has built in the program. The sense of family extends to the community, as the coach focuses on the type of students and people he is leading, as much as the wins and losses.

And with all the time that he puts in making sure that his team remains on top of its game, his family has to be right on board, sometimes making a home away from home in the football facilities.

James Franklin, with his family by his side, has helped build upon the pride of the Penn State community through hard work, a focus on education and community service, and winning. With that, the board of Penn State’s Renaissance Fund has selected him as its 2019 honoree.

The fund is marking its 42nd year of honoring outstanding community members and helping students in need. The coach is sharing the honor with his family, because they are in this together.

‘125 role models’

Fumi is not the only other Franklin who is a part of the Penn State football family. Daughters Addy, 11, and Shola, 12, have a whole team of football players on their side, almost like big brothers.

“Our girls have 125 great role models and big brothers that are getting a great education, that are making a difference in the community, that are playing big-time football; they are great role models and mentors,” James says. “That is a part of being in the Happy Valley community that we appreciate.”

“It just gives our girls a sense of pride, not only in what’s been accomplished, but how the players mean so much to them,” Fumi says. “You know it’s probably taught them to care about other people more in a lot of different ways.”

Fumi says the amount of time she spends at the football facilities varies throughout the year, but she enjoys being around the team just as much as the kids.

“I get here more often probably in the fall and leading into the spring because James’ hours are so extreme,” she says. “So to see him at that time of the year, we often come here. This time of year (in June), when things even out a little bit, he might get home before 9:30, then we will see him at home. But I like it here. I like the players.”

Fumi has a master’s degree in education administration.

“My emphasis was always that transitional stage for students, sort of transition from high school to college, and so I come hang out in the training room, or the weight room, or the nutrition bar because I like to talk to the players,” she says. “I like the energy. I think it is really incredible to watch the evolution of them from a recruit, to a graduate, to the ones we keep in contact with, when they are having families and having babies and just sort of watch their whole progression and see who they get to be.”

(Photo by Steve Tressler/Vista Professional Studios) James Franklin with his daughters and other youths before a September game at Beaver Stadium.

‘Part of something special’

As they sit together on the couch in James’s office, with a sweeping view of Mount Nittany through the windows behind them, they talk about what being at Penn State means to them, and how they got here. They take time to look each other in the eye and laugh together at inside jokes. Being the wife of a big-time college football coach can be challenging, with the long hours and heavy commitments, but Fumi says they have found their sweet spot in Happy Valley.

“I went to school at Washington State and this reminds me of Pullman, so this is a good speed for us. I like that we can get to James pretty quickly and pretty conveniently,” she says. “Because sometimes he’ll have free time and call and say, ‘What are you guys doing, can you come up for dinner?’ And we have lived places where that is a 45-minute drive, versus a 10-minute drive. So for our family, it works really well.

“It is nice; it is a small community, it is easy to get around, parents and kids know each other,” she adds. “Sports teams, you kind of know the coaches. It works for us. Especially with where our kids are right now, it is a good fit.”

Fumi says she probably has a thicker skin than most others when it comes to dealing with some of the negative talk that comes with the territory.

“I’m a big believer in sort of living in our own world where the things that define James to us are different than the job that he does,” she says. “I always say that being a football coach is what he does, but being a father and a person is who he is.”

She adds later, “I think of the conversations that we have with our kids. One’s in middle school, the other one’s going to be starting middle school, and so they are kind of at an age where they hear the positive and the negative. So we have a lot of conversations about leading the right way and that their dad’s commitment is to the person and the young man that they’re mentoring and that he will never sacrifice their well-being off the field or on the field for the game.

“Our fear with our kids was always the amount of time that James would have to spend away from home because of his career. And I think being somewhere that has been so accepting of our family and that is a community that is so supportive of the university in general and of the football program, sort of validates what he does for our girls. And I think that that makes them feel very much like they’re a part of the program. It is not just what happens here, but out in the community when people have nice things to say and they get to hear that or they see that football poster on the wall in places around town, it makes them feel like they are part of something special.”

And while James might be perceived as the tough-minded football coach, Fumi says he is the more sensitive parent.

“He is pretty similar (as a parent) to the kind of coach he is,” she says. “He cares a lot. He is in the details. He’s paying attention. He is ambitious in his career, but I think he’s equally ambitious to provide a happy home for me and for our girls and a stable home for us. So I think with James, what you see is what you get. I mean, he’s the nicer, the more sensitive one of us, the warmer, the less sarcastic one of us. So, I would probably say the more patient one of us.”

“It is funny though,” James says, “because I don’t know that people would think that when they think of the football coach. People will come up to Fumi all the time and say, ‘Is he yelling and screaming and running around?’ because that is how they view me or view a coach, and it’s very different than that.”

“Yeah. I mean, James at home is pretty easygoing. I mean, he still has some OCD tendencies, but I just ignore them and at home he just has to let it go,” Fumi says with a laugh.

(Photo by Steve Tressler/Vista Professional Studios) James and Fumi Franklin share a moment before a recent game.

Philosophical alignment

In his first eight years as a college football head coach, Franklin mentored 68 student-athletes who went on to play in the NFL, and hundreds of others who have become leaders in their chosen fields. Under Franklin’s watch, Penn State football student-athletes have achieved an 82 percent graduation rate and a program-record number of Academic All-Big Ten selections.

“James has united Penn Staters around the world,” George Henning Jr., president of the Renaissance Fund’s board of directors, said in the university’s announcement of the honor. “But his legacy at the university is best reflected in the lives of the student-athletes he teaches, mentors, and inspires. James leads by example and is a great choice for this year’s award.”

Franklin says he feels “fortunate that I am at a place that I feel aligned with in terms of philosophy. This is not a university that is a win and win at all costs. And that kind of aligns with who I am. We understand the importance and significance of winning here at Penn State. I don’t want that to be misinterpreted. But for us, we got into this profession and this career to make a difference in people’s lives. And you are using the game of football to do that, to teach lessons, whether it mental toughness, whether it is physical toughness, whether it is sacrifice or leadership or all the wonderful things that I think you learn as being a part of college athletics or even at the high school level. You are taking all the wonderful lessons that you learn in the classroom and you are complementing it with a real life experience.

“Yes, Beaver Stadium, and the games and the wins and all of those things are awesome and they are wonderful, but it is really the impact that you are making on the other days of the year that are really the most profound. It is what our guys are doing in the classroom, it is what our guys are doing in the community, it what our guys are doing for our daughters, it’s all those other things.”

Long a hallmark of the program, Franklin has made education a priority for his team.

“I think that he really does emphasize the student portion,” Fumi says. “And so I think that it’s nice to sort of have that piece of what he does acknowledged because most of the focus is what’s happening on the field, but there’s a huge portion that happens off the field that’s equally important.”

The Franklins say they are pleased to have an endowed scholarship fund created in their name as part of the honor. Renaissance scholarships are directed to high-achieving students with great financial need. During the 2017-18 academic year, more than 640 undergraduates across the university received more than $993,000 in support from the Renaissance Fund scholarships. The Renaissance Fund is accepting contributions to the Franklin Family Renaissance Fund.

James, a first-generation college student who in 1995 earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology at what he calls the “Harvard of the PSAC” – East Stroudsburg University – knows the impact an education can have on a young person’s life.

“You know, I got a little small football scholarship (he played quarterback at East Stroudsburg) and that helped. So that is significant because I think me and Fumi understand what education did for us and our families,” says James, who later earned a master’s in educational leadership from Washington State.

Community impact

Along with the emphasis on class work, Franklin ensures that members of the Penn State football team also give back to the community. Franklin and his student-athletes have devoted hundreds of hours each semester to community service, both to teach the importance of civic duty and provide lasting benefits to local residents. As a capstone to students’ volunteer experiences, Franklin leads an annual team trip to the Penn State Children’s Hospital at the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center to spend time with children battling pediatric cancers.

“Coach Franklin embodies the values and ideals of a true Penn Stater,” university President Eric J. Barron said in the announcement of the honor. “He is as committed to the transformative power of higher education as he is passionate about Nittany Lion football. Through his hard work on the field, attention to his student-athletes’ academic paths, and his service to the community, James proves that how we win is just as important as the numbers on the scoreboard.”

“We’re big believers in servant leadership,” Franklin says. “Whether that’s me serving the student-athletes, whether that is our team serving the campus, whether that is our team and coaches serving the community. To me that’s what’s special about being a part of college athletics, the sense of community, the sense of family, that you’re a part of.”

Restoring the roar

The football program has come a long way since Franklin arrived in Happy Valley from Vanderbilt in January 2014. In the wake of the Sandusky scandal, the program had managed to make it through two seasons of NCAA sanctions under the leadership of Bill O’Brien. But with sanctions still lingering and O’Brien off to a coaching job with the NFL’s Houston Texans, questions remained about whether Penn State would be able to fully rebound.

Since then, under Franklin’s leadership, Penn State football has moved back into national prominence, highlighted by a 2016 Big Ten championship and a trip to the Rose Bowl, followed by a Fiesta Bowl victory the following season. His record at Penn State stood at 52-21, including a 38-9 mark since the start of the 2016 season.

Franklin, who is always thinking ahead, sometimes needs to be reminded about what he has accomplished and how far the program has come.

“Fumi tells me all the time that I don’t take enough time and sit back and appreciate the wins, or appreciate graduation day, or a Big Ten championship, or back-to-back New Year’s Six bowl games, or things like that,” he says. “[I] probably don’t take enough time to do that. But I am very proud to think about when we got here, at a very challenging time in our school’s history, and to think about how people were talking about the program at that time and how long it was going to take to get back. And to think how in year three we won a Big Ten championship. We are one of only six programs in the country to have the type of success we’ve had over the past three years; it is pretty amazing. I am proud of the players. … I am very proud of the staff and the administration and what we have been able to do. I also think it speaks to how special this place is. I don’t know if there are too many places, or schools, or programs that could rebound as quickly as we have rebounded.”

But the coach continues to look ahead.

“I know we still have a lot of work to do moving forward, so there is always that balance of how do you take time to appreciate what you’ve done and continue to grow and evolve,” he says. “I knew, but I learned even more coming to Penn State, that it not just the wins, it’s how we win. It’s not just the graduation rates, it’s what our guys are getting degrees in. It is all of it. So I think that has been important and significant to me.”

To learn about making a gift to the Franklin Family Renaissance Fund, visit or contact Kathy Kurtz, associate director of annual giving, at [email protected] or (814) 863-2052. For tickets to an October 30 dinner in the Franklins’ honor, contact Kurtz.

Vincent Corso is a staff writer for Town&Gown and The Centre County Gazette

Vincent Corso is writer for Town&Gown and the Centre County Gazette.
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