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Penn State Athletic Director Barbour to Learn Relationships are No. 1 for Franklin

by on July 27, 2014 12:05 PM

“Wait,” James Franklin said, standing before two dozen photographers in the south end zone of a sunny Beaver Stadium on Saturday.

“One more photo.”

And with that, the Penn State football coach for all of 202 days, raised his right index finger to form his signature No. 1 (patent no doubt pending).

To his left, Penn State’s athletic director of one day – Sandy Barbour, late of Cal Berkeley – and Eric Barron, Penn State’s new president of 75 days, followed suit.

(By their last day on the job, the combination of Graham Spanier, Joe Paterno and Tim Curley had been at PSU for 115 years.) 

On Saturday, Barbour and Barron paid heed to Franklin, and dutifully hoisted their fingers, proof positive that the gridiron is truly Franklin’s domain, as well as once again showing off his considerable powers of persuasion.

On the football field, the three are a study in contrasts.

Franklin built Vanderbilt from nothing to one of college football’s biggest Cinderella stories, with a 24-15 record and three bowl trips. At Florida State, Barron presided over a national championship in January. At Cal, Barbour fired her head football coach after a 1-11 season in 2012, only to have her new hire go 3-9 in 2013. And last October, Cal was found to have the worst graduation rate in major college football.

Bet on Franklin to be one of Barbour’s biggest assets at Penn State, for raising the school’s profile, raising money and quite possibly raising some conference championship banners.

Over the past half-decade Franklin usually has been No. 1 with his athletic director, wherever he has been and for whomever he has worked. In all, since 2010 at Maryland, Franklin has now worked for five ADs. And much more often than not, those relationships have worked out quite nicely, thank you very much.

Two hired him – David Williams at Vanderbilt and Dave Joyner, Barbour’s predecessor, at Penn State. And one, Debbie Yow at Maryland, promoted him to head-coach-in-waiting. Only one – Kevin Anderson, who succeeded Franklin at Maryland -- didn’t make him their fist-bumping, bro-hugging Main Man. (A decision that Anderson likely regrets, the Terps having gone 13-24 under Anderson’s choice for head football coach, Randy Edsell.) 

Barbour and Franklin spent some time together on Saturday morning, at Barron’s home. With the start of the 2014 season only five weeks away – and Barbour set to begin work Aug. 18 – the session went beyond the typical meet and greet. They forged a small agenda, and outlined some immediate steps for the two of them and the football program.

It was the start of something that all of Penn State needs to be something big. Franklin has made it work before, seemingly possessing a secret sauce that has made him the king of relationships – especially when it comes to working with his bosses. In some ways, she’s a new recruit. And that, more than even his never-ending flashing of No. 1, is Franklin's forte.

With that in mind, we asked Franklin about his recipe for success during a few one-on-one minutes on Saturday. The exchange came after Barbour was announced as Penn State’s new athletic director, the pictures were taken and the Nittany Lion coach had faced his usual media horde. An edited transcript follows: 

What is your “secret sauce” when it comes to your track record of working with athletic directors?

Franklin: “It goes back to what we’ve talked about before. I just don’t give the relationship lip service. That’s important to me. That’s important with my staff, it’s important with recruiting and it’s important for the people you work with and for.

“For us to be able to get things done in these roles, you better have a great relationship with your boss. That’s the president, that’s the athletic director.

“I think with football there is such a responsibility to the athletic department and the whole university, we’ll be able to sit down and talk. I have always used the athletic director as a resource, somebody for me to bounce ideas off of and to get his or her perspective. I’ll certainly continue to do so. (Barbour) has been doing this for over 30 years.

“I hope to become a resource for her. I think in any relationship, it goes in both directions. I think we’re fairly detailed and organized, so what I’ve found over time is that so when it does start to become a back-and-forth relationship, I’m not just throwing out ideas. They’re well thought-out.”

You worked with (Debbie) Yow at Maryland, so you have experience working with a woman athletic director. Is that a non-issue these days?

Franklin: “I think for the most part it is a non-issue. I think it is accurate to say that all of our backgrounds, whatever they may be – whether it’s the region of the country you’re from, religious backgrounds, ethnic backgrounds, socioeconomic backgrounds – have influences on you. There’s no doubt about it. In the big picture, those things make us all unique. I think it’s great."

You and Barbour are now business partners in a way, given the gross revenues you need to generate at a certain net profit for a budget over $100 million. Do you ever look at it that way?

Franklin: “I do because I understand that there is a business aspect to it. But I didn’t get into this thinking about college athletics and being a coach and being a football coach as a business. I got into because if kids.

“I think college athletics, and football, get a bad rap sometimes. I think that’s going on right now. In my experience, 95% of the people who are in this business are in it for all the right reasons – impacting kids’ lives. I think that’s true with most industries – only 5% get into something just for the money. They like what they do."

Still, you do have a big fiscal responsibility.

Franklin: “Certainly there’s that fiscal responsibility. That’s true with all of us, but moreso with football. That’s because we have the ability to make the whole department healthy and we have the ability to give back and help the university as well.

“I understand that. That’s why you see me pushing hard to sell out the stadium. That’s for recruiting and that’s to give our defense an advantage on third down. But that’s also our fiscal responsibility to the whole athletic department.”

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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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