James Franklin’s Latest Hire for Penn State: The Idaho State Ties that Bind(er)
March 14, 2019 7:15 PM
by Mike Poorman
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James Franklin supposedly keeps a binder full of names of potential hires in case he has an opening on his staff.

Over the past four seasons, that binder has to have come in handy — in that time, the Penn State head coach has hired nine full-time assistant coaches. (A full staff these days is only 10.)

Franklin didn’t need that binder when he brought on his newest assistant, special teams coordinator Joe Lorig.

Instead, Franklin had to dig back into his memory bank from 20 years and 2,013 miles ago.

(That mileage? The distance forom Beaver Stadium to Poscatello, Idaho.)

That would take the 47-year-old head coach back to 1999 in Idaho State's Holt Arena, the site of his first full-time football coaching job. Franklin was Idaho State’s wide receivers coach that season, the first for head coach Larry Lewis with the Bengals.

In 1998, Franklin was a GA and coaching wide receivers at Washington State. Lewis was the assistant head coach and special teams coordinator under Mike Price at WSU. When Lewis got the head job at Idaho State the next year, he took Franklin, then 27 years old, with him.

Among Lewis’ first hires his first season with the Bengals was Lorig, a 26-year-old with a masters in correctional administration who had spent the previous two seasons coaching the secondary at his alma mater, Western Oregon. That initial season at Idaho State, Lorig coached the ISU cornerbacks.

He also roomed with Franklin.

SMALL POTATOES

Pocatello wasn’t a big town — then (52,000) or now (55,000). Idaho State had fewer than 10,000 students.

Franklin, far from home and driving a beat-up 1988 White Honda Accord with close to 200,000 miles on it, wasn’t rolling in the money. Lorig, also single and living in a state not named Oregon for the first time in his life, connected with Franklin. Joe, the West Coaster who coached the defense, and James, from the East Coast coaching the offense, became roomies.

Back then, Franklin had hair. And he also had “it,” Lorig recalled this week. You know it by now: Franklin with the-recruit’s-mom-loves-him charm and the backflip-out-of-bed mentality. It was there two decades, even among all those potatoes.

“I knew he was special from the (beginning),” said Lorig. “You can just tell the minute he walks in the room. He’s extremely bright, very, very ambitious. Always has been very ambitious. Dominates the room when he walks in. We all knew back then that he was going to do something special. I didn’t obviously know where it would end up being. Pretty cool for him from where he’s from to have this opportunity.”

For his part, a few years ago Franklin looked back on his years in southeast Idaho, located about an hour north of the Utah state line, with fondness and a bit of awe. He remembers how his mother, Jocelyn — a native of England, who met Franklin’s African-American father when he was serving in the military there — visited him in Pocatello and ended up cooking for not only Franklin, but also a number of black players from California. And Lorig, as it turns out.

"Just like I do now, I had the guys over for dinner," Franklin recalled, noting some of the dinner guests were from Compton.

"What's funny is, when (my parents) first came to this country they lived in Pittsburgh. They lived with my grandmom,” Franklin said. “So my mom's first introduction to this country was nothing but black people, in the Hill District, on Bedford Avenue, learning how to cook soul food and everything else. And my mom is as white as your shirt. She was really fair. She went grey really early. But she had red hair, fair-skinned, that whole deal.

The meals that Jocelyn Franklin made two decades ago for her son and those kids from Compton (and Lorig, too) featured collard greens, black eyed peas, macaroni and cheese, ham, and sweet potato pie.

"I remember the kids looking down at the plate and looking up at my mom, and looking down at the plate, and looking up at my mom. They could not figure this out," Franklin recalled. "So it was this really weird dynamic. A really, really weird dynamic."

BACK EAST

In 2000, Franklin headed back east, to Maryland, for the first of his two stints with the Terrapins — hired, in fact, by former Penn State linebackers coach and ex-Terps head coach Ron Vanderlinden. Lorig stayed in Pocatello, working for Lewis (who these days is a football analyst at Penn State, working for Franklin, in an odd twist).

After two seasons coaching Idaho State’s cornerbacks, Lorig coached the linebackers for two years (2001-02), before Lewis named Lorig Idaho State’s defensive coordinator for four seasons, from 2003-06.

In 2006, Idaho State finished 2-9 and Lewis, Lorig and the whole staff got fired. Lorg moved on to UTEP, Central Washington, Arizona State, Utah State, Memohis State and then — in January and February 2019 — to Texas Tech.

But he stayed in touch with that King of Relationships, James Franklin.

A CUP OF JOE

During that time, Franklin never offered Lorig a job, either at Vandy or Penn State. But every year at the annual American Football Coaches Association convention in January, James bought Lorig a cup of Joe.

“He had not offered me a job in the past, but I felt like it was coming,” Lorig shared this past week. “There's a coaches' convention every year. Every year him and I would bump into each other, grab a cup of coffee and stuff. I knew he was following what I was doing because he would always say, ‘Hey, I saw your game against Houston’ or ‘I saw your game against Stanford’ or whatever it was.”

Franklin works hard on that kind of stuff. For example: At Wednesday’s spring practice-opening presser in the bowels of beaver Stadium, Franklin complimented veteran beat writer Rich Scarcella on his beard, And he asked 247 reporter Tyler Donahue how his spring break trip to England was. (Actually, Donahue went to Cuba, while CDT beat guy and soccer fanatic Johnny McGonigal was the one who went to England. But you get the idea: Franklin is a schmoozer.)

You had to figure that James had Joe his hip pocket, or up his sleeve, for a couple of years now. We do know that at 7 a.m. on the Sunday after Phil Galiano tendered his resignation Franklin & Co. were already interviewing his potential replacement.

A TIGER AT SPECIAL TEAMS

Lorig had made his special teams mark at Memphis State.

In three seasons there under head coach Mike Norvell, Lorig’s special teams twice ranked in the Top 5 in kick return average and ranked three times in the Top 20 for kick return defense. During his stint with the Tigers from 2016-18, they did not give up a kickoff or punt return for a TD. (The last time Penn State did that? Uh, 73 days ago in the Citrus Bowl.) Memphis’ star returner, Tony Pollard, took four kickoffs for a score in 2017.

Franklin was watching, from afar, his binder at the ready with a special section on “Lorig, Joe.” (Wonder if it noted if Lorig left his socks on the floor or didn't pay his half of the phone bill.) 

“I knew he was following my career,” Lorig said. “He had said good things to Mike Norvell, who was my head coach there in the past.”

When Galiano, the Nittany Lions’ beleaguered special teams coordinator who had a devil of a time in Happy Valley in 2018, left for New Orleans to be the Saints’ assistant special teams coordinator, Franklin was ready.

Galiano’s departure opened the door for Lorig — who was actually in Lubbock, Texas, at the time. In January, Lorig had accepted the job as special teams coach for Texas Tech.

Then Franklin called. His old roomie couldn’t say no.

“I felt my opportunity would probably come at some point,” Lorig said. “But I just didn't know when.”

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