Penn State Football: There’s No Buffaloing Franklin…Bison Alum Pry’s His Guy
You can’t buffalo James Franklin.
A prominent alum of Penn State’s opponent on Saturday is a big reason for Franklin’s success, 70 victories into his ninth season a head coach.
That would Brent Pry, University of Buffalo, Class of 1993.
And James knows it.
Pry has been with Franklin every step of the way since January 31, 2011, when CJF announced his hire at Vanderbilt two days before the national signing date. Franklin was just six weeks into his tenure at Vandy.
“Yeah, he's been phenomenal,” Franklin said this week. “…He's just been a phenomenal asset to our program and to our university. And Brent is family. Brent is family to me in a lot of different ways. That's his mom, that's his dad, that's his wife, that's his kids, that's all of it.
“And then on top of it, he happens to be one of the best if not the best defensive coordinators in college football.”
Pry lettered at defensive back at Buffalo before suffering a career-ending injury, then he started his coaching career early as an undergraduate while earning his B.A. in history.
And although Pry — in his unique Central PA Southern drawl — is too modest to say it, you can’t tell the head coaching history of James Franklin without a good bit of Brent Pry. It’s not a coincidence that in the Penn State media guide, Franklin’s bio ends on page 133 and Pry’s appears on 134.
Among on-the-field coaches, only Pry, D-line coach Sean Spencer and O-coordinator Ricky Rahne have been with Franklin since that first 6-7 season at Vanderbilt in 2011. Bob Shoop ran the defense at Vandy and then the first two seasons at Penn State.
But, since Shoop left to go to Tennessee in January 2016 — less than 24 hours later, Franklin famously says, he walked down the hall and promoted Pry — the Nittany Lion D has been Brent’s Baby. (He also coaches the linebackers.) Since then, Pry has developed a fully mature defense that will likely be ranked in the Top 10 in 2019.
As the chart below shows, the improvement of the Penn State defense under Pry’s guidance has been steady.
In 2018, the Nittany Lion defense was ranked in the Top 25 in a multitude of key categories — sacks (1st), tackles for loss (4th), red zone D (11th), passing D (15th), third down conversions (19th) and points allowed (23rd). In 2017, Pry’s guys were ranked No. 17 overall in total defense.
EAST STROUDSBURG ROOTS
“Brent has been really kind of (with us) from the very beginning,” Franklin said on Tuesday. “Brent's dad (Jim) was my offensive coordinator in college. We go way back. His first year in coaching was my last year playing (at East Stroudsburg). When I got the Vanderbilt job, he was one of the first people that I called. And he's just been phenomenal.”
Pry’s resume is lengthy. Counting Buffalo, Penn State is his ninth coaching stop. He’s tutored defensive backs, linebackers, the D-line and special teams. He’s been an assistant head coach and an associate head coach (Penn State, 2016-17, until yielding to Spencer in a collegial move to keep Chaos from departing). He’s been a defensive coordinator or co-coordinator at four schools: Louisiana-Lafayette, Georgia Southern, Vanderbilt and Penn State.
He’s also been in demand. As recently as two off-seasons ago, you could almost count the number of schools that were interested in him as a head coach on one hand. But, he’s stayed at Penn State.
Pry, Spencer and cornerbacks coach Terry Smith have been with Franklin for all six seasons at Penn State. Safeties coach Tim Banks is in his fourth season at PSU, giving the defensive staff a serious look of stability.
DOLLARS AND SENSE
A few years ago, Franklin was concerned that both money and opportunity would drive Pry out of town, no matter how deep his loyalties ran. According to a filing by Penn State, required by the PA Right-to-Know Law that lists the top 30 earners in the Penn State system, Pry’s base salary — sans bonuses — was $693,503 in 2017-18.
That was three years ago.
A lot has changed. Now, it’s safe to say that Pry is earning almost double that. There’s a reason you haven’t heard Franklin talking publicly lately about the compensation levels for his assistant coaches. They have made a big jump.
As Penn State vice president for intercollegiate athletics Sandy Barbour noted in the days before the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, “James and I — together, as partners in this — have looked at where we need to be. He asked for a number. I gave it to him.”
According to informed sources, Pry’s compensation is now on par with many of the top defensive coordinators in the Big Ten Conference and the SEC — in the neighborhood of $1.4 million a year.
In the Big Ten, that list is headed by Michigan’s Don Brown, who makes $1.5 million per year ($1 million base, $500,000 retention bonus), according to the Detroit Free Press. Ohio State’s former D-coordinator, Greg Schiano, made $1.5 million in 2018. The Buckeyes’ new defensive coordinator, Greg Mattison — who jumped from Michigan in the offseason — will make $1.1 million in 2019, according to Cleveland.com.
In the SEC, LSU defensive coordinator Dave Arenda is the highest paid assistant coach in major college football at $2.5 million, according to USA Today. Kevin Steele, D-coordinator at Auburn, makes $2.05 million, while Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mike Elko makes $1.8 million. Alabama’s Pete Golding, in his first season as the Tide’s sole defensive coordinator and the fourth coach in that spot since 2015, makes $1.1 million.
Brent Venables, the longtime defensive coordinator of defending national champion Clemson and the gold standard for D-coordinator, makes $2.2 million.
JAMES AND BRENT: FROLLEAGUES
Franklin, no doubt, thinks Pry is worth every penny. And that’s true even if Pry, 49, wasn’t one of the 47-year-old Franklin’s best friends.
“He's also a guy that I can go in and run things by and get his perspective,” Franklin said this week.
“I think sometimes I think you have to be careful in business mixing friends and business, personal and professional, together,” Franklin added. “But when you can do it and it works, there's probably nothing better.
“And he's been great. He's a guy that I think because not only has he had a career that has kind of spanned three conferences and coaches and people and ups and downs and twists and turns like we all have. I think he appreciates being at Penn State.
“I know I appreciate him.”
No buffaloing there.