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Penn State Football: As Franklin’s Name Floats Around, There Is An Easy Next Step

by on December 02, 2019 7:50 PM

I will be the first to admit I was unsure how much of James Franklin’s initial enthusiasm for the job was genuine, let alone whether or not he could actually achieve the goals he set in the face of crippling NCAA sanctions.

Now once a Big Ten title winner and twice a top five team, Franklin has engineered one of the most successful stretches in Penn State’s history.

So consider that question answered. At least in my eyes.

In a similar vein, it is fair to have broad questions about Franklin and his staff. The Nittany Lions have reached great heights only to fall from them. They have seen great success but have come up just shy of even greater history. For a second straight year Penn State’s offense has operated at a high level but not without substantial bumps in the road. They are better than most, and better by a fairly substantial margin, but they are not quite the program the Nittany Lions are hoping to become.

Equally true, it is not unreasonable to wonder if Franklin’s CEO role atop the program has its limits. While one would have a hard time arguing against the growth of the Penn State program under Franklin’s watch, he has no (known) moment of coaching genius that elevates him to a level relative to his more revered peers. This might be an entirely unfair reputation, especially with the relative success Penn State has had against everyone, Ohio State included, but it is an impression not uncommon among onlookers.

But in reality these issues — however accurate or impactful they might be — are happening within a greater context. Penn State is not Ohio State, it recruits well but not quite as well. Penn State’s coaching staff has been very good, but has lost its greatest assets at a higher rate than it has cultivated them. Penn State’s facilities are solid, and ever-improving but still lifting the weight of late Paterno-era priorities.

If 2019 was proof of anything, it was that Franklin can make 10-win seasons out of something that looked more like eight or nine five months ago. In a cyclical sport, Penn State appears well positioned to maintain an above-average level of success and capable of turning the 2019s into more 2016s without much of a leap beyond the fortunes of scheduling and personnel. At worst the Nittany Lions appear destined for seasons where they just aren’t always as good as Ohio State, but better than everyone else. In the grand scheme, that is a far more tenable circumstance than the vast majority of coaches in America.

The question is what Penn State needs to make that next step. The answer is admittedly a collection of things, all of equal value. Franklin will need to make hard choices. Penn State will need to make investments. Both will have to find an extra gear that turns already high-level success into high-level results.

Which comes back to Franklin.

Penn State is not going to find someone to do this job, in 2019, or the foreseeable future, any better than it is being done right now. Thoughts of hiring Matt Rhule someday may prove to be prescient, but Rhule is as much a vague (intentional or not) appeasement of Paterno-era loyalists even if he is a legitimately sensible hire. If nothing else, at 44 he is only a slight reiteration of what James Franklin once was, young and promising, hoping to turn into what James Franklin has become three years his senior.

It would be foolish to assume that anyone truly knows what Sandy Barbour’s short list of coaches might look like if James Franklin were to leave tomorrow. It's also foolish to assume anyone fully understands Franklin’s ambitions and the practicality of any given request he may make. Coaches are never satisfied, but their demands are not automatically pragmatic. It's also fair to question Franklin's leverage. He has made Penn State very good, his players are excellent representations of the university and he has navigated the waters of being a high-profile coach with perhaps more articulation and nuance than is often required. Even so, he has not quite delivered on everything and one could argue that Penn State's failures, that have come with his greatest teams to date, have been the product of the game on the field more than the litany of infrastructural demands off of it.

Nevertheless, with a contract due to expire in 2022, and his stock only rising for programs whose desperation matches their wallets, Penn State is in a unique position to lock down Franklin for the long term. Not doing so today just kicks the can farther down the road.

And maybe Franklin never gets Penn State over the hump. Maybe 10-2 seasons are the best this program can do in this landscape on average.

But there is no Urban Meyer on line 2, nor some compelling evidence to suggest Franklin can’t do what he’s trying to do. Personal impatience is not proof of failure, nor evidence of incompetence. There can be progress within failure, and at the end of the day this is a job that takes more than wishful thinking and overnight success. If simply wanting to be Ohio State was all it took, then everyone would be.

Even with no dog in the fight, the choice here seems clear. Lock Franklin up for the long term, in whatever form that entails, and let the chips fall where they may.

Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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