Penn State Football: Coaching Has its Own Rewards for James Franklin
Only two reporters and two photographers were watching the Penn State first-string defense in the waning minutes of practice inside Holuba Hall on Wednesday.
There were, it seemed like, 122 more at the other end of the field watching the offense.
With the Nittany Lions these days, chicks -- and writers, cameramen, broadcasters and bloggers -- dig the long ball.
(And why not? Quarterback Trace McSorley’s 16.17-yard per-completion average tops the nation, while his 20 completions over 40 yards ranks No. 2.)
James Franklin noticed the full-court press: “I was helping the scout offense against the defense and all the cameras were down with the sexy offense,” he said afterwards. “Which is awesome. But I think our defense is playing really well.”
That Franklin was down at the defensive end of the field says something about the Nittany Lion head coach. That he was helping to run the scout team says even more.
After 22 years; 12 jobs in two countries and eight states, two pro leagues and eight conferences; and six years as a head coach – three at Vanderbilt, three at Penn State – there’s one thing Franklin likes more than anything else.
“Coaching,” he said without hesitation on Wednesday night.
Which ain’t easy to do when you’re The Head Man.
“When you become a head coach – depending on how you do it – you start dealing with a lot of other things,” Franklin said. “Academics, issues off the field and administrative duties and things like that. You have to be careful, you can get removed from it.”
A REWARDING AWARD
On Monday, Franklin received validation that he is moving just right. That’s when the 44-year-old, who has guided Penn State to eight consecutive victories, a 10-2 record and a berth in Saturday’s Big Ten Championship game, was voted as the Big Ten Coach of the Year by the league’s media. He split the award: Paul Chryst, the head coach of Wisconsin, Penn State’s foe in Indy, was named COY by his conference coaching peers.
Franklin, who took the baton from Bill O’Brien on Jan. 11, 2014, and has guided Penn State back into the national spotlight after a half-decade of scandals and sanctions that included identical 7-6 seasons in 2014-15, has earned a reputation as a CEO. A recruiter. A big-picture guy who works the numbers, the crowd, the parents and the media. But, God forbid, wouldn’t dirty his hands with the scout team.
Certainly, Franklin had to play the big, tough boss in the offseason. He made the tough decision to fire longtime friend and colleague John Donovan. He pulled the trigger on a new all-in-one O-coordinator, QB coach and schemer in Joe Moorhead, as well as offensive line coach Matt Limegrover and safeties coach Tim Banks, while promoting Brent Pry to D-coordinator.
Tough decisions. For those alone, and how they turned out (Saquon Barkley is Moorpoints’ fourth-straight conference player of the year, BTW), Franklin earned the award. Not to mention that also he micro-manages the Penn State program, ala early Joe Paterno – who, in the 1960s to ’80s, would pick who was on the cover of the stadium program in the fall, redesign the defense in the offseason and monitor team haircuts year-round.
Franklin does much of the same, building the brand, rebuilding Lasch and Holuba, Tweeting birthday greetings and “#WeAre…Better”s when recruits verbal and thinking of #unrivaled slogans day and night.
But on Wednesday night, the Coach of the Year was in the thick of it. Coaching. Even if most of the visiting media was at the other end of the field, checking the MD status of Barkley and the RPO prowess of McSorley.
Franklin was coaching up the scout team – not quite a Star Wars collection of characters, yet not exactly all-conference players either. Franklin would peek over the top of a huddle of players, read the designated play-card being held by a graduate assistant, then pick a player or two to receive one-on-CJF coaching as the scout-teamers were going up against the Nittany Lions’ No. 1 defense.
WHAT CJF SAYS:
Here’s Franklin’s rationale for spending his time there and with the offense as well:
“I like being with the offense for the majority in practice,” he said, “but what I try to do when I’m with the offense is give Joe some things from a different perspective. I usually hit Joe in the morning with a few things one-on-one or I meet him at night. After everyone leaves I’ll mention something to him, just from a big picture perspective.
“Defensively, I try to mark a few periods down and try to get three or four team periods with the defense at the end of practice. The best thing I can do to help those guys is to coach the scout team so that we’re getting good looks. You’d be surprised: A lot of times defensive coaches think the offense is trying to do one things and they’re really not. And vice versa.”
Franklin likes that as head coach, he can pick and choose where to spend his time, find his battles and give his input and direction. He can see things from 30,000 feet then parachute in how and when he likes. He is a notorious after-hours texter, to coaches and staffers alike.
“I’ll have weird things where I’ll wake up in the middle of the night,” he said, “and I’ll be thinking about something and I’ll jot it down or send a text or something – something that for whatever reason, like I’ve seen on film or it hits home with me.”
He also likes being himself. Giving hugs and fist-bumps and saying things like how cool it is to be the guy in charge. Clips of him dancing to the Blue Band, rejoicing after a locker room wastebasket basketball dunk and exploding after a big hit in practice populate the web. James is neither shy nor – the hot seat days now a distant memory – retiring.
“The cool things about being the head coach is that you get to sit in both (offensive and defensive meeting) rooms and kind of hear what they’re saying,” he said. “…I like the fact that you’re able to bounce back and forth. You learn a lot more big-picture stuff about what’s going on and how it all fits together. I like that.”
We haven’t heard much lately about Franklin’s game management skills. Doesn’t happen, really, when you win at home in overtime, then beat the No. 2 team in the country, replenish depleted linebacking and offensive line units without fear or favor, and rip off consecutive second-half scoring outbursts of 45, 17, 31, 30 and 35 points.
(Of course, being in a position where you have to do that is another story. Just not for today.)
TIGHT END: LOOSE COACH
We do hear how close-knit the team is, how focused it is, how #awesome the camaraderie is. Franklin’s style has resonated, with no one louder than tight end Mike Gesicki – who, in a lot of ways, is emblematic of the Nittany Lion program. Gesicki’s 2015 season was like a lamb; now, he’s a Lion. Franklin, too.
“I’m very, very happy for Coach Franklin,” Gesicki said on Wednesday. “I’ve said it from the time I’ve been here: I love playing for Coach Franklin. He’s always had my back. I’ve talked to him about facing adversity and he’s always been there for me. I’m appreciative of him for that. For him to come in and have the success that he’s had and this team has had, I think he really deserves that award. I’m happy for him.”
“What,” I asked Gesicki after practice on Wednesday, “makes Franklin a good coach?”
“I would say his energy and his confidence and all that kind of stuff,” said Gesicki with a huge grin. “It’s contagious to the guys around us. You’ve seen him after a guy scores a touchdown. You would think he scored the touchdown. He’s running around, chest-bumping people. It’s fun to see that out of your head coach.”
Now, as Penn State travels to the state of Indiana for the third time in 2016, Franklin is on the hot streak of his life.
Now, Penn State is No. 7 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings after starting the season unranked and unproven. Penn State’s eight-game string is the best of Franklin’s head coaching career (Vandy won seven straight in 2012) and matches the eight-game streak Maryland had when he was an assistant in 2001. He has a while to go, though, for a lifetime best. As a quarterback for Neshaminy High School in 1988, Franklin helped lead his team to an 11-0 start (before losing to Cedar Cliff and its junior tight end, Kyle Brady, in the PIAA play-offs).
And this is not to be denied as well: After 1,055 days, $13.5 million and 38 games (24-14, a .632 winning percentage), in the very volatile world is college football, he is a Big Ten veteran coach. Three years = stability. Overall, with the firing of Indiana’s Kevin Wilson on Thursday, Franklin – already – ranks No. 5 among the most veteran coaches in the Big Ten. Wow.
(The list: Kirk Ferentz (19), Iowa; Pat Fitzgerald (11), Northwestern; Mark Dantonio (9), Michigan State; Urban Meyer (5), Ohio State; Franklin (3), Penn State; Jim Harbaugh (2), Michigan; Mike Riley (2), Nebraska; Chryst (2), Wisconsin; Tracy Claeys (1.5), Minnesota; Chris Ash (1), Rutgers; D.J. Durkin (1), Maryland; and Lovie Smith (1), Illinois. Both Indiana and Purdue are head coach-less.)
CASH, NOT CREDIT
Franklin, for his part this week, has been crediting his staff for his Coach of the Year Award. Which is nice, and is true in many ways.
But the $100,000 contracted bonus for being COY goes to Franklin. Unless, of course, he truly does make it a staff award – and divvys up the cash among his nine assistant coaches or, even further, his support staff as well.
If James does decide to put his Franklins where his mouth is, and shares the wealth, we know one thing:
He won’t be the only one fist-bumping in Lasch Building.