Penn State Football: Judge James Franklin By The Company He Keeps
August 27, 2015 11:25 PM
by Mike Poorman
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James Franklin has his limitations.

But being afraid to surround himself with good people is not one of them.

Witness the final stages of Penn State’s practice early Wednesday evening.

Clad all in blue, Franklin was firmly planted on the one-yard line near the right hash marks, at the north end of the field under the shadow of the goal post.

The Nittany Lions were working on their punt return game, closing out a considerable time period spent on special teams – an area that save for Sam Ficken turned Franklin blue for most of last season.

All the while, for several minutes, seven other members of the Penn State football program talked and worked and played within 10 yards from Franklin. Or closer. Much closer.

It was like all you need to know you learned in kindergarten. All you need to know about James Franklin were those moments, as the sun was literally setting on practice. His vision and goals, his management and interpersonal styles, what type of people he likes to recruit and hire. They were all right there, personified at the far edges of the Penn State practice field.

Franklin had his inner circle closest, to be sure. But to the south and the east Franklin’s sphere of emphasis – and interest -- was also quite clear.

BIG AND LITTLE

With Franklin, little is left to chance. James is a multi-tasker as a Rebuilder of Penn State, in myriad ways a micro-manager the way Joe Paterno was when he was the Builder of Penn State. Do this for the visiting group of State College Little Leaguers, Franklin says to a staffer. I want you to be positioned there on a punt return, he points to the 5-foot-6 little running back.

As Joe himself famously said, Take care of the little things and the big things will take care of themselves.

As Franklin and his team face the 2015 season-opener in just a little more than a week from now against Temple at The Linc in Philadelphia, little is big and big is little. To be Franklin with you.

“To build a successful collegiate program,” Franklin said on a newly-released promotional video hyping the Lasch Building renovations, “it’s not just one thing – its everything. Every area…every detail…needs the same type of attention.”

On Wednesday, the Franklin Seven were paid all kinds of attention. They are a diverse group, to be sure. The youngest is 18. The oldest 59. There was one Penn State grad and three PSU undergrads. They came from Kansas, Virginia and North Carolina, with two each from Maryland and Pennsylvania.

There were three punt returners, one part-time team consultant, one special teams recruiting assistant for quality control, one director of football administration and one director of player development and community development. I hope Sandy Barbour doesn’t pay them by the word.

Only one has worked with Franklin on staffs at Kansas State, Maryland, Vanderbilt and now Penn State. Three others – two players and the consultant, who just so happens to be a former NFL head coach – are working with Franklin, who is a 21-year coaching veteran, for the first time this season.

CRUISING ALONG

There were lots of moving parts and roles and conversations and multiple-star recruiting ratings. Each person related to and augmented Franklin, the hub of the Penn State football wheel, in his own particular way. They fill in some of his gaps, as well as the program’s. He’s OK with that, obviously – he hired or recruited all of them. They help fulfill his vision. For Franklin, they are the Renee Zellweger to his Tom Cruise in “Jerry Maguire”:

“We live in a cynical world,” said Cruise-as-sports agent. “A cynical world. We work in a business of tough competitors. I love you. You…complete...me.”

Counting Franklin, the eight almost fit in a single snapshot (almost; see the photo above, where only Haslett and Mark Allen are missing). Together, they comprised a group shot of how James Franklin is running Penn State football these days. If a picture is worth a thousand words, this one spoke volumes about Franklin.

First, there were two staffers. They were either close talkers or cared nothing about personal space. Both were within inches of Franklin. Practice was going on, but he called them onto the field for a not-so-quick confab. They’re two of Franklin’s five or six octupusian right-hand men (not counting the coach’s administrative assistant or social media aide, both females).

Kevin Threlkel, who first worked with Franklin as an undergrad at Kansas State, heads football administration. He’s the ultimate nonplussed detail guy with two degrees to show for it. He also shows how Franklin values loyalty. 

The third man in the conversation was P.J. Mullen, who heads community relations and focuses on off-the-field opportunities for the players. He’s also a teacher, broadcaster, Penn State alum and master networker. He’s Franklin inside guy, the conduit to the community who helps his boss connect with fans and alumni in the same smooth manner he already does with recruits. If Franklin was going to hire one Penn State person to be his pipeline to the Nittany Nation, P.J. was it.

Off five yards to the left of Franklin stood Jim Haslett, the former NFL star and coach who is working for peanuts to offer his two cents, at times whether Franklin wants it or…well, he wants it. That’s why Haslett signed on. While Franklin may have an ego of a major college football coach, he’s also humble enough in the meeting room to know that Haslett knows and has seen and has coached things that no one has.

Haslett spent the entire punt game session “consulting” with Sam Williams. Like Haslett, Williams is not an official member of Penn State’s nine-man assistant coaching staff (the NCAA limit). But he has a huge hand in the special teams, where the Nittany Lions were handcuffed last season. Williams spent 2012 season as an offensive quality control aide under Franklin at Vanderbilt. This offseason, Franklin hired Williams away from Rutgers, where at age 32 he was a grad assistant. At Penn State, Williams is not saddled with any classroom work of his own – other than making special teams special.

Williams’ hire was typical Franklin – equal parts loyalty, staff upgrade and a stealth maneuver.

THE PROOF IS IN THE PUNTS

Which brings us to the three people were just a few yards in front of Franklin during that chunk of time on Wednesday – Allen and DeAndre Thompkins, both redshirt freshmen, and true freshman Brandon Polk.

The three are slated to be the Nittany Lions’ punt returners in 2015, and they personify Franklin’s recruiting emphasis on speed guys from the DMV with great high school credentials who can make an impact early in their college careers. Polk, a wide receiver from Virginia, runs a 4.36 40. Allen, a running back from Maryland, runs a 4.40. And Thompkins, a receiver from North Carolina, has run a 4.38. 

They give Franklin options, depth and speed. No wonder the head coach stayed close by on Wednesday, occasionally offering pointers and punchlines. They’re at the center of his plan to restock Penn State football. 

“Last year we went with a situation where reliable guys, guys that were going to be safe in terms of fielding the punts and making great decisions,” Franklin said after practice on Wednesday.

“This year, we’re in a position where we feel confident with those guys fielding the balls and communicating. They also have the ability to make some plays.”

Are there fewer limitations, once again? Yes, indeed.

And in practice, Franklin is not afraid to surround himself with good people – and, potentially – great players.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions of the authors expressed therein do not necessarily state or reflect those of StateCollege.com.

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