Penn State Football: Franklin Talks Fatherhood, Loneliness in Coaching and a Desire to Find Common Ground Again
May 19, 2020 9:00 PM
by Ben Jones
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Sitting at home behind his desk, James Franklin listens to the question.

And then he pauses.

“I think [in general] these jobs are lonely,” he says.

Therein lies an interesting truth underneath all of the money and fame and success that comes with being a major Division I coach. Nearly everyone you come in contact with wants something. Nearly everyone has a fire to be put out, a question that needs to be answered, a photo that needs to be taken. And in the case of Franklin, the staff he put together at Vanderbilt and took with him to Penn State has largely made its way elsewhere.

For a coach who has built a career off the importance of relationships, one might imagine that if tallied up, most of Franklin’s would be a one-way street headed away from him, resulting in far more giving than taking.

Such is life atop the mountain.

“I think the other thing is that the natural people for you to be able to talk to you can't talk to because most of them are rivals,” Franklin added during a Zoom interview with StateCollege.com on Tuesday. “So the people that truly kind of understand the job — because as an assistant coach, even myself, everybody thinks you know what it's like to be the head coach or what you would do and all that kind of stuff — you sit here, it's different.

“If you're fortunate enough to have buddies in the NFL...the NFL is a place where I think that helps. That's why a lot of guys will clinic with NFL guys because the NFL guys are comfortable talking to you and you're comfortable talking [to them]. I think that's where agents sometimes become that confidant because it's someone you can talk to that understands the business.”

Of course -as Franklin notes- he has his family, a trio of women to keep him in check: his wife Fumi and their daughters Shola and Addison. If there is a silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic, it might be that working from home has brought some people under the same roof for longer periods of time than usual. The office is now a few steps from the living room, a goodnight kiss just a brief walk down the hall, no longer a drive across town.

Enter coaches' guilt, a feeling that you spend too much time at the office and not enough time at home. It’s a fact of life in the coaching profession, but something that hits closer for a father of two who largely grew up without his own father in the picture.

The result is a balance, one that is divided between being the person you’ve always wanted to become, without turning into the father you have never wanted to be. All of this happens while being part of a profession that is unkind to those who are not all in, during a time when his girls might need him the most.

“I think [coaches' guilt] magnifies in middle school because I think middle school is tough on everybody,” Franklin said. “It's just such a huge transition. And I know, like for me personally I know the impact of having a dad around or not having a dad around. And I think that experience that I had growing up probably plays a big part in it, because of how I grew up and how I was raised, having a father around was so important to me and being a great father was so important to me.

“You're constantly being pulled in 60 different directions. And if you're not careful, it's easy to get so occupied in your job... and then lose your family. That's somewhat more common than you’d like. You'd like to see more examples of people finding a way to be successful at both. It takes work.”

There is a payoff to be found in this dynamic of coaching and parenting. Wanting to win and wanting to raise children the right way. Wanting to be perfect but letting everyone be human. Maybe you don’t yell at your kids quite like you yell at your players before a key third down, but the themes aren’t all that different and if it comes from a place of love, the motivation is not all that different either.

Maybe, finally, there's a street that goes both ways.

“I actually think being a parent, becoming a parent makes you a better coach,” Franklin said. “I think until you have your own kids you don't necessarily truly understand all that goes into it. And it gives you just a little bit of a different perspective. So I think actually becoming a parent has made me a better coach. I'm one of those guys where I kind of pick and choose my battles because I'm a little bit of a perfectionist and I want to correct everything, and you can't do that with your with your kids or you'll drive them crazy. You can't do that with players; you'll drive them crazy.”

There is no limit to the number of obstacles involved in doing this balancing act correctly. A meeting with a player on Tuesday might have to be cut short in favor of a parent-teacher conference. A practice might conflict with a birthday, or a recital might end a film session a few minutes early. But it’s the cost of doing both things well, especially when both things matter.

It would be natural to assume that this sort of thing would wear on a person. Coaching is a line of work that demands long hours and even longer travel. Coaching is done by well-known individuals but they are not superhuman. They are super busy. Franklin is, by his own admission, an early riser, and judging by his own accounting of his day, not to bed so exceptionally early that eight hours of sleep is a luxury he is often afforded.

In turn, it’s not hard to see how some coaches have slipped into bad habits or bowed out earlier than they otherwise would have liked. Of course getting paid well helps, but it doesn’t give you the energy to get out of bed.

“It takes a certain type of person,” Franklin said of coaching. “You’ve got to have a certain drive, you’ve got to have a certain determination and you just have to have the ability to be able to work long hours on not a lot of sleep... I've always been high-energy. I've always been passionate. I've always been emotional. I've always had those things in me. But the other thing is, I've never been a sleeper.”

But back to the money. Franklin has taken a road traveled by many but rarely finished, from the bottom of the ladder to among the highest paid coaches in America. He has gone from not much to almost too much. There is a nostalgia in those memories, a time when the struggle was different, a time when the future was uncertain. A time when James Franklin was nobody.

Maybe a time he's more familiar with than the time he lives in now.

The question is simple to ask, but the meaning is far deeper: What do you miss the most about having less? What do you miss about being a graduate assistant just trying to keep the lights on?

And there is a nerve struck inside of Franklin to the order of those words. A little switch seems to flip at the notion money somehow making everything better, that money is the factor that makes early mornings simple, or that money is the reason to get into coaching.

“I know this is gonna sound crazy: I didn't mind that grind,” Franklin said. “Maybe part of it was, that's just kind of what I knew. That was not a whole lot different for me my whole life. For me to make $5,000 a year or $1,200 a year or whatever and find a way to make it work... It’s at East Stroudsburg and being friends with the lady at the cafeteria where she let me in, and that's where I ate my meals. Or whether it's making a thing of spaghetti on a Sunday night and literally that's what you ate all week long. You'd be amazed if you really gotta make it stretch, you can make it stretch, and for me, I just was comfortable with that.”

The other thing that irks him: that money is how you should look at people, more to the point, how you should look at him.

And that opens another door of emotions, memories flying out of Franklin as he recalls a different time in his life when things weren’t so fancy and the house wasn’t so big. Times where he almost quit football. Times when things were hard in a different way than they are today.

“I remember in college, almost quitting my senior year because every year I would go back home, and I would work three jobs in the summer,” Franklin said. “I worked either two or three jobs from seven in the morning to like 11 o'clock at night. One of my neighbors had a tree and lawn company so I would do that from like seven in the morning till four every day and then I’d go, either deliver pizzas from five to 11 o'clock at night or whatever it was, and I did that all summer to help my mom pay bills and then I always had this huge guilt going back to college because I knew I wasn't there to help my mom.

“I remember, I worked for two summers for the water and sewer authority. I mean literally jackhammering the streets open fixing like sewer that burst and all that kind of stuff. And I remember it was $13.25 an hour and it was like, I never made that much money, and considered quitting [school] and not going back to college one year because I thought I was making pretty good money, and just the idea of kind of leaving my mom and not being there to help.”

Franklin continues, bouncing from memory to memory, thought to thought. And he begins to find the thing that irks him the most.

“I don't like how the money in major college athletics, and specifically in football has people always view it in that light,” Franklin says, stopping for a moment.

“I'm not finding the right term or word to say...”

And then he does.

“It kind of cheapens it. Like do you truly care about the kids and or do you truly care about [coaching] or is it just about the paycheck? I don't like that.”

Wealth is complicated, especially in a time where so many people are struggling and in a time when most of the money in college athletics doesn’t go to the athletes. Franklin’s occasional renegotiation of his own contract is a reminder that while he might not be in it for the money, that for better or worse college football is driven by it.

At the same time Franklin and his fellow college football coaches are among the most accessible and recognizable public spokespeople universities have. For as much as James Franklin is a coach, he is a brand and a daily representative of Penn State at large. In turn perhaps coaches are underpaid, or perhaps we just care too much about football.

As a spokesperson, but also as a citizen, another hurdle lies ahead in November off the field. Franklin — who has often been eloquent when asked about things beyond football — is not short on private opinions, but is not short on the motivation to keep them to himself either.

And this irks Franklin too, for different reasons.

“What I worry about in our country now is, it seemed like when I was growing up, that it was OK to have different opinions and different beliefs. And you may not agree with that different opinion or belief but you respected it,” Franklin said. “And to me that's my biggest concern right now, is there seems to be a lack of respect for differences of opinions. It's almost like you have to belittle people that have a different opinion than you and I don't understand that.

“Obviously Republicans and Democrats are gonna have very different views on things, but the world I grew up in the Republicans respected the Democrats for those opinions and the Democrats respected theirs, it was a different way of thinking and, you know, I just see less of that. And for me, I guess that's what I struggle with. It makes it even more challenging to have conversations like this because people just explode. And to me that there used to be healthy dialogue in the past...God forbid somebody brings up a different way of thinking or looking at something and that you might learn something. You go ‘Wow I never thought about it. That's a great perspective.’ To me that is ultra healthy, for everybody.

“So I worry about that and as the head football coach at Penn State I'd like to be able to do more of that but I worry about the impact of it. I worry about how it affects our players, I worry about how it affects our staff, worry about how it affects the athletic department... That's the hard part — I just don't see healthy discussions anymore. I see fights. Why did both experiences have to be so extreme and so radical? Isn't there a place where we can meet together? We used to always do that before. We found common ground.”

As Franklin finishes up, he laughs. The interview has gone on longer than it was planned for, and there wasn’t a single question about football as it pertains to Penn State, at least not about Xs and Os or depth charts. It was different, fitting for different times.

When it’s all said and done, it is hard to paint a person who is doing exactly what they’ve always wanted to do and getting paid very well to do it as an everyday, sympathetic figure. Franklin would probably be the first to say that the loneliness of coaching and the uncertainty of our times does not make him all that different than the rest of us.

But perhaps that’s the lesson, not that Franklin’s challenges are different than everyone else’s, but that in many ways they’re the same.

And if there’s anything to take from a few months spent hiding in our homes, worried and uncertain, it’s that we’re probably more alike than we are different.

Something worth teaching to our kids when we get home from work.

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