Penn State Football: James Franklin’s Top 9 Hiring Tips
February 09, 2020 7:15 PM
by Mike Poorman
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The hiring of John Scott Jr. as Penn State’s next defensive line coach is just the tip of James Franklin’s hiring iceberg.

No doubt, it’s a strategy that would do Kevin Bacon and his six degrees of separation proud.

Franklin made the weekend hire in just two degrees: Scott played and worked for Nittany Lion defensive coordinator Brent Pry at such not-hotbeds of college football as Statesboro, Ga.; Lafayette, La.; and Cullowhee, N.C.

But, that friends and family plan is hardly Franklin’s only approach to filling vacancies on his staff, be they created due to pushes, promotions or CJF’s worst enemy — lateral moves.

Franklin, now entering his seventh season at Penn State, has a variety of strategies for filling open positions.

And, there have been more than a few openings lately, in case you haven’t noticed.

The Nittany Lion boss has had to make 10 assistant coach hires in the last three off-seasons. All have come from outside the staff at hand, save for the 2018 promotion of Phil Galiano from non-coaching defensive consultant to special teams coach after the NCAA upped the number of on-the-field coaches from nine to 10.

Of the 10 slots on the staff, only three have remained stable in those 1,000-plus days, all on defense: Pry and secondary coaches Tim Banks and Terry Smith.

It’s almost a cottage industry these days — a Penn State assistant departs, for myriad reasons, and now who will James hire to replace him?

Not counting interims, as Franklin begins his 10th season as a major college football head coach (Vanderbilt, 2011-13; Penn State, 2014-20), he has had 26 different full-time, on-the-field coaching assistants. That’s 26 hires — enough data to make the following review (somewhat) statistically valid.

When Franklin put together the staffs at Vandy and Penn State, he retained just one assistant from the previous regime — that was Herb Hand at Vanderbilt, who was hired as the Commodores’ offensive line coach the year before Franklin arrived.

How did he fill the other 25 slots? In a word: Networking. It’s the most powerful hiring tool in sports and out. Dr. Bob Orndorff, head of Penn State’s Career Services and a serious sports guy, told my class last fall that 70-80% of all jobs are the result of networking.

Knowing that, here are a few of the Franklin Formulas for staying linked in and following his own best hiring practices:

1. MY REFERENCES ARE BETTER THAN YOURS

“I’m not into calling your references,” Franklin said this week. “Like, you’re giving me the names; they’re all going to say wonderful things or you wouldn’t give me their names. So, I’m going to call people that I know.”

Case in point:

New offensive line coach Phil Trautwein, who was coaching the O-line at Boston College, was on Franklin’s screen to succeed Matt Limegrover. He could have called Trautwein’s list of references — which no doubt included his old Florida head coach Urban Meyer (who texted Trautwein congrats after getting the PSU job) and his college O-line coach, Steve Addazio, who was also Trautwein’s boss at BC. LOL: “Hi Urban, it’s James…”

Franklin opted, instead, to call Frank Leonard, who has been the tight ends coach at BC since 2013. Trautwein was a grad assistant at BC from 2013-15, and returned to Chestnut Hill in 2018 to coach fulltime.

So, who’s Frank Leonard? We’ll, he’s been coaching for 40 years and among his stops was Kansas State, where he was tight end coach in 2007. Guess who was K-State’s offensive coordinator that season. Yep, James Geoffrey Franklin. Frank, obviously, gave Franklin his thumbs-up.

This one goes all the way back to Year 2 at Vandy: Franklin needed a DB coach. George Barlow’s name popped up on his screen. Barlow had spent most of the 2011 season as interim head coach at New Mexico, after Mike Locksley was fired. Franklin, who had previously coached with Locksley at Maryland, made the call and Barlow ended up in Nashville.

2. HAVE A STORY THAT SELLS

More and more, Franklin is concerned about how his new assistant coach will play on the recruiting trail.

Want to make serious inroads into the Florida high school ranks? Hire Ja’Juan Seider, a native of Belle Glade, a Jake Glaither award-winner for Florida A&M as a quarterback, a former coach at three Florida high schools, and a former assistant at the University of Florida.

Want to impress current players, recruits and their parents that your next wide receiver coach really knows all about catching the football in the big-time — especially because you’re on your fourth WR coach in as many years? Hire Taylor Stubblefield, who was a consensus All-American wide receiver at Purdue, whose 325 career receptions were at one time an NCAA record and whose 3,629 receiving yards are still a Big Ten mark. (His predecessor at PSU had 15 career receptions as a college WR.)

Want an O-line coach with chops, given that your last two guys there — while great teachers — played their college ball at Hamilton and Chicago (both of which, while they are terrific musicals, as colleges do not pump out pro linemen)? Hire Trautweina captain on Florida’s two-time national championship squad and who is Tim Tebow’s guy, in addition to spending time in the NFL as a player.

3. COUNT ON ANALYTICS

At Vandy, Franklin needed a defensive coordinator, and Bob Shoop's defense at William & Mary was annually ranked atop the FBS charts. At W&M, with Shoop as DC the Tribe gave up 12.1 points per game in 2009 and 16.7 ppg in 2011. That was an easy and smart hire. Franklin also needed a secondary coach and hired Wesley McGriff, who had guided the No. 2 pass defense at Miami (Fla.) — and was only in the market because his Hurricanes boss, Randy Shannon, had been fired. 

At Penn State heading into 2016 season with his seat hot and the offense running cold, Franklin needed an offensive coordinator with a history of putting points on the board. Franklin turned to SportsSource Analytics – an Atlanta-based firm built by a Vanderbilt grad — to help make the hire of Joe Moorhead.

“For me, it was the data,” Franklin said of the move to add JoeMo. “...I have a list (of potential coaches) at each position, but with the coordinator positions you want to study data…

“At the end of the day, you take all of those guys on the list and you run all of that data. You look at third-down percentage, scoring offense, red zone and every other piece of information you can get and you look at who is consistently at the top of each of those categories. Joe kept jumping out in almost every single category and I was very impressed.”

So were the folks at SSA. On Monday, Dec. 14, 2015 – with Moorhead firmly committed to Penn State and the hiring process complete -- @SportSourceA Tweeted out these Moorhead stats:

Compared to prior 5 yrs, @BallCoachJoeMo increased avg scoring O at Fordham by 61%, yds per play by 20%, rush yds by 14%, & pass yds by 25%. 

5 years before Moorhead, Fordham scored 30+ pts 23% of games & 40+ pts 4%. Under Moorhead, scored 30+ pts 71% of games & 40+ pts 49 of games #PennSt

Lastly, Franklin knew about his new O-coordinator, Kirk Ciarrocca, a number of ways (see also #4, #8). Analytics reinforced what Franklin saw first-hand in the Twin Cities on Nov. 9, 2019): Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan completed 18 of 20 passes for 339 yards and four TDs. According to Pro Football Focus, it was the highest-rated performance by a quarterback against a Power 5 opponent in 2019. 

4. HE’S MY FRIEND, TOO

Ciarrocca was on Franklin’s screen — and cell phone — for a number of reasons. One of Franklin’s BBFs, Mike Santella, is the OL coach at East Stroudsburg. Santella is also good friends with Ciarrocca.

“Some of my closest friends in the profession are his closest friends,” Franklin said of Ciarrocca. “We really didn't know each other that well, but my college roommate, Mike Santella, at East Stroudsburg, they worked together at University of Pennsylvania.”

With Ciarrocca, Franklin’s K-State ties came into play again. In addition to Frank Leonard, Franklin worked with Dave Brock in 2007 at Kansas State. Nearly 30 years ago, Brock coached also with Ciarrocca at Western Connecticut State. They’ve stayed in touch; Brock is now the wide receivers coach for the Atlanta Falcons.

“Dave Brock, who worked for me at K-State, is one of his close friends,” Franklin said, “so we were both able to kind of talk. (Ciarrocca) was able to talk to them, I was able to talk to them — kind of to see if it made sense for each other.” Which it did.

5. LET’S STAY IN TOUCH

In 1998, Franklin was a GA and coaching wide receivers at Washington State. Larry Lewis — now a Penn State analyst — was the assistant head coach and special teams coordinator under Mike Price. 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 Joe 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.

For almost two decades, the two of them got together every winter at the annual American Football Coaches Association convention. Last 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 recalled last spring. “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.”

In the three years before he came to Penn State, Lorig was making his mark by making Memphis State a national leader on special teams. “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.”

Another one: While coaching at Air Force, Taylor Stubblefield came to Penn State to study how the Nittany Lions do things. Afterwards, he stayed in touch with Franklin. “We’d text each other back and forth, like ‘Good game’ and stuff like that like,” Stubblefield said.

Those texts, we now know, led Stubblefield back to Happy Valley. This time, for a new job.

6. THE (FORMER) OFFICE

Lorig fits the bill here, too. But let’s begin with Franklin’s previous institution:

When Franklin first filled his staff at Vanderbilt, his initial coaching staff as a head coach included five coaches and key staffers he worked with as an assistant at Maryland — assistant coaches John Donovan and Charles Bankins, key administrators Jemal Griffin and Kevin Threlkel, and strength and conditioning guru Dwight Galt — as well as Rick Rahne, who was his GA at Kansas State. In addition, current tight end/co-offensive coordinator Tyler Bowen was a student assistant at Maryland.

When he came to Penn State, Franklin brought all of the above sans Bankins, as well as four additional assistants from Vandy: Pry, Hand and current Michigan assistants Shoop and Josh Gattis. He also added Charles Huff, who Franklin coached with for a year at Maryland.

When Shoop left Penn State after the 2015 season, Franklin again reached back to his Maryland days to hire Tim Banks. In 2004, under head coach Ralph Friedgen, the Terp staff included Franklin, Banks, Donovan, Galt and a running backs coach named Bill O’Brien.

This avenue extends to quality control assistants, analysts and staffers, such as Lewis and longtime PSU analyst Sam Williams, who worked for Franklin at Vanderbilt.

7. YOU GUYS KNOW ANYBODY?

Among Penn State’s analysts last season were Pat Flaherty, who played and coached at East Stroudsburg, as well as at Penn State in the 1980s and for the NFL Giants. Thorugh his days in the NFL, Flaherty surely knew of Trautwein. Bill Lazor was also an analyst for Penn State last season, aiding Rahne. Lazeor had preceded Rahne as the quarterback at Cornell, then coached him at the Ivy League school. Lazor signed in the offseason as the Chicago Bears’ offensive coordinator.

The Nittany Lions’ wide receivers coach in 2019, Gerad Parker, coached with Seider at Marshall before he came to Penn State. In the weeks after Moorhead was hired as Penn State’s O-coordinator, Moorhead vouched for the hiring of Limegrover; both are Pittsburgh products who knew each other way before coming to Penn State.

Then there’s David Corley, who worked with Shoop at William & Mary, coaching quarterbacks (Corley was a four-year started at QB at W&M). Though Franklin hired Corley after Shoop had departed for Tenneesee, Corley was first interviewed by Franklin back in the days when Shoop was on his staff. Corley didn’t get the job then; Gattis did. 

Sean Spencer first worked for Franklin at Vandy in 2011, but Chaos had been Rahne’s boss at Holy Cross in 2004, when he was the defensive line coach and Rahne was his assistant. Pry coached Scott, Spencer’s successor, two decades ago at Western Carolina.

8. LOOK AT THE OPPOSITE SIDELINE

Franklin saw how Minnesota’s offense, guided by Ciarrocca, eviscerated the Nittany Lion defense last fall. Franklin saw how Purdue gamely played Penn State to a 17-17 halftime tie in West Lafayette in 2016, before falling 62-24 under Parker, who wad the interim head coach that fall for the Boilermakers.

And he saw how West Virginia handled Maryland in 2010. When Franklin needed a receivers coach at Vanderbilt in 2011, he remembered Chris Beatty. Beatty coached the running backs and slot receivers for West Virginia in 2010 — when the Mountaineers decisively beat Maryland, where Franklin was the O-coordinator, and 31-17 to WVU with a Mountaineers offense that amassed almost 470 yards.

9. COME (BACK) TO PENN STATE

Terry Smith, the Nittany Lions cornerbacks coach and defense recruiting coordinator, was a Penn State co-captain in 1991. Bowen was a GA in 2014, then left for Fordham and Maryland before returning in 2018 as a fulltime coach.

In the Franklin era, administrators and/or GA’s Ben Neff, Will Reimann, Matt Fleischacker, Andrew Goodman, Justin King, Kevin Reihner and Ty Howle all worked or played for Penn State — then came back. Same goes for John McNulty, a volunteer offensive analyst for Penn State in 2019 after being fired by Rutgers. He played at PSU, and was recently hired to be the tight ends coach for Notre Dame.

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

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