Penn State Football: Just How Far Does James Franklin’s Loyalty Extend?
Loyalty, loyalty, loyalty.
James Franklin’s players know this line.
It’s from rapper Kendrick Lamar’s hit of the same name, which has been viewed on YouTube more than 167 million times.
(Watch it here, featuring Rihanna; careful…it’s R-rated.)
It's a secret society
All we ask is trust
(All we ask is trust)
All we got is us
Loyalty, loyalty, loyalty
Loyalty, loyalty, loyalty
• • • • •
On Wednesday, when Franklin was asked about firing assistant coach David Corley, the Penn State head football coach said:
“I'd love to go through my whole career with never doing that. I've done it now; in nine years I've done it twice.”
That would be Corley on Jan. 2, 2019, and John Donovan on Nov. 29, 2015 — 1,130 days apart but connected by two under-performing units.
Firing Donovan and hiring Joe Moorhead likely saved Franklin’s job at Penn State. Firing Corley, not a good fit with Franklin in a number of ways, may have saved his sanity.
They were not a good fit.
Although Franklin says he loathes to coach his coaches on the field, I recall a mid-season practice this past fall when Franklin pulled Corley aside and had an extended, demonstrative conversation not too far behind the line of scrimmage, with a bit of CJF gesticulation. In warmups, and in downtime on the road, Corley seemed a bit disconnected to the bouncy, huggy, high-energy vibe that Franklin typically exudes.
These may have been tell-tale clues as to why Corley was dropped from the staff beyond the fact that his wide receiving corps was dropping passes left and right, and high and low.
Franklin shared as much on Wednesday when asked — adroitly and succinctly by Josh Moyer of the Centre Daily Times, as well as the owner of a master’s degree from the Columbia School of Journalism — why the head coach kept special teams coach and D-line assistant coach Phil Galiano on board despite a season that if not disastrous for the Penn State special teams was at least far from productive, save for the work done by K.J. Hamler and, on occasion, Blake Gillikin and Jake Pinegar.
Galiano shares a work history with Sean Spencer, has spent some time in the NFL, has a strong personality and for at least part of the 2018 season, shadowed Franklin on the sidelines. At one point last season, Franklin said that one of the advantages of the NCAA allowing a 10th full-time assistant was for him to have someone to bounce things off of on the sidelines (i.e., Galiano).
Read between the lines of what Franklin said on Wednesday and you can see that Phil phit in, while David did not.
“I don’t make decisions just based on one area,” Franklin said. “It’s a body of work. It’s how are they with the players. It’s how are they in terms of the staff. It’s in terms of development of the individual players. It’s in development of the scheme. It’s in production on game day. It’s in organization and practice. It’s the type of role model they are for our players. It’s all of it.
“For me, it always comes down to: Is this the right thing to do for our program long term? And is the investment that we’re making, are we going to get a return on that investment and how long are we going to have to wait for that return on that investment?
“So for me, the guys that we have on our staff and the guys we have in our organization, we feel very confident in. And, again, there’s a lot of different paths and there’s a lot of different journeys to get there.”
Here’s the kicker:
“Some guys are going to walk in and there’s going to be an immediate impact,” Franklin added, “and some guys, it’s going to take a little bit more time. And I get that, I understand that. I’m a big believer in the men that we come to work with every single day — and that’s our players and that’s the coaches and thats all of us. So that’s where we’re at, at this point with our staff and with our players.”
Which, in kind of a roundabout way, leads us to Tommy Stevens.
• • • • •
In many ways, Franklin’s a very loyal guy. Look at his strength guru, Dwight Galt, who has been with him since his Maryland days. As has his chief of staff, Jemal Griffin. Safeties coach Tim Banks also coached with Franklin at Maryland.
Offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne and director of football administration Kevin Threlkel worked with Franklin eons ago when he was at Kansas State. Brent Pry knew CJF when he had hair and Spencer has been with Franklin for nine seasons, as have his recruiting director Any Frank and his right-hand man, Michael Hazel.
Franklin still hurts that Josh Gattis left.
Stevens has been with Franklin longer than any other player on the Penn State roster. By several months. Through thick and thin and thin and thin.
Franklin likes Stevens — it’s hard not to. He’s puppy dog charming, a fan and coed favorite, and has acres of potential.
But, he’s hurt (or coming back from an injury; we’re all left to guess) again, and rarely has he been 100% healthy on the practice field yet alone the playing field over the past calendar year. He’s thrown just 41 passes in his Penn State career and the last time he played more than a quarter as a quarterback goes as far back to the fall of 2014 — as a wishbone quarterback at Decatur Central High School in Indianapolis. Five years ago, come fall.
Who knows, really, if he’s the guy to succeed Trace McSorley — let alone replace him. Sean Clifford has an arm, a near-maniacal will to succeed (in both football and life) and some real savvy. But has no real college game-time experience, although he can sure chuck it.
Which is why I believe determining who will be the starting QB will be the No. 1 question for the Nittany Lions beginning now and through the 29-week run-up to the 2019 season-opener against Idaho.
Which is why on Wednesday, I asked James Franklin, “Will Tommy Stevens be listed as your No. 1 quarterback on the spring depth chart?”
Franklin hemmed: “So obviously, we're not in a situation to name a starter really at any position.”
But he didn’t haw. Instead, he said:
“But, yeah, when we start out, you know, you've got to put them in order. Tommy will be No. 1 and Sean will be No. 2 and (Will) Levis will be No. 3 and so forth down the line.”
That line will include two dynamic freshmen quarterbacks (Taquan Roberson and Michael Johnson Jr., whose dad now works for Moorhead), who have already started their Penn State careers after they early enrolled in January.
• • • • •
Stevens will be No. 1 on the initial spring practice depth chart in March. But will he be No. 1 when summer camp opens, when it closes, when the season begins and when it ends?
There’s no telling.
“At every position, we have an open competition and guys will have to battle,” Franklin said on Wednesday. “That’s even for returning starters. Returning starters have got to go out and they’ve got to prove that they deserve to come back and be the leader at that position. So that’s across the board.”
The theory goes that Franklin owes Stevens first shot, somewhat as a lifetime (waiting for) achievement award, somewhat out of loyalty and somewhat out of the fact that hey, Tommy can run the heck out of the ball and has a pretty good arm — maybe even moreso than McSorley, in at least one of those two areas.
That’s where Franklin’s loyalty to Stevens begins, I think.
But I think it ends, based a bit of what we heard from the head coach on Wednesday, on the accumulated savvy of Franklin, who is now a head coaching veteran, entering his ninth season as the head of a Power 5 program and already the fifth-longest tenured head coach in Penn State’s 133 years of playing intercollegiate football.
Given months and months, rather than a few tense seconds with Galiano over his shoulder in the fourth quarter, Franklin will find his way to the right decision.
• • • • •
Four things lead me to believe that Franklin will ultimately pick the starting quarterback who he thinks gives his team the best chance to win, rather than picking based on (fifth-year) seniority:
1.) Here’s what Franklin said on Wednesday about retaining Galiano and hirings and firings — and I think it pertains to selecting the starting quarterbacks as well:
“I’m a relationship-driven guy. Whether that’s with the players, whether that’s with the staff, whether that’s with my family. Those things are really, really challenging for me.
“I still struggle with that today because I understand the impact that it has. I look at the whole picture of it. But I also have a responsibility to the other coaches and staff members in my program. I also have responsibility to our players. I also have a responsibility to the lettermen and to the fans and those types of things. You’ve got to balance that. But it’s not an easy decision. I never make these decisions on an island and it still bothers me. It really does, and again, I got to have loyalty to a larger group as well.”
2.) Franklin shared that Stevens pondered leaving last spring and poked around a bit, to see what his options were. He eventually stayed in State College, but his willingness to depart showed that Stevens can — and should, rightly — look out for what is best for him. Loyalty Avenue is a two-way street.
3.) The transfer portal. It’s not a good look, in some ways, that so many players have been taking busses out of town, rather than sticking around. Penn State is losing some really quality young men, who can aid the program and the university in myriad ways. It’s also a sign that Franklin won’t often play upperclassmen just because they’re older. They have to be better. And, maybe, much better. Franklin will continue to play newly-minted and younger players — even at QB.
4.) And, finally, there’s Saban and Dabo and Brian Kelly. They opted for younger QBs over older guys, with more experience, more years in the program, more snaps, more wins.
Franklin is big on bench-marking. He doesn’t always lead the way as far as trends go, but he’s right behind. It’s safer that way. And, often, it’s better than what is in his own DNA.
So, while Franklin may be loyal, he won’t be loyal to a fault.
At quarterback and special teams in 2019, especially, that mindset — and Franklin himself — will certainly be tested.
Ultimately those decisions are at Franklin‘s feet. As Shakespeare wrote for Cassius, ”The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars...but in ourselves.”