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Penn State Football Positional Grades: Head Coaching

The role of a head coach in 2023-24 has only been muddled by ever growing staff sizes, an ever growing recruiting and roster retention landscape and a basic fact that nobody can really see what goes on behind the doors of a football building. All of that being said, head coach is still a position, so it needs a grade too.

The Grade: B

The Good: In the final 20 years of Joe Paterno era, Penn State won 10 or more games on seven occasions with three of those seasons coming in his final 10 years as head coach. So far through 10 years of James Franklin, Penn State has hit that mark on five occasions, a pace which includes one COVID-19 shortened campaign and a smattering of seasons early on saddled with significant scholarship restrictions. [Although as Mike Poorman points out, Franklin gets the benefit of longer seasons/schedules than Paterno did.]

Whatever shortcomings Penn State has under Franklin – real or perceived – the Nittany Lions have by and large maintained a standard which allows the program to continue to be in relevant playoff, Big Ten and recruiting conversations. Buried in some of the disappointment of Penn State’ failure to get over the hump yet again is the fact James Franklin has managed to win 10 or more games with a brand new starting quarterback for all three of his quarterbacks post Christian Hackenberg. This, coupled with the fact Penn State once again managed to navigate any truly disastrous pitfalls before the biggest games of the year is a credit to Franklin’s consistency. Franklin also gets credit for – so far – losing none of his roster’s biggest pieces to the transfer portal as the job becomes about retention as much as acquisition.

In 2023 there might not be a moment in which James Franklin showcased his program managing acumen but – the three losses aside – there was still an above average standard maintained. Whether or not you’re satisfied with Penn State getting to 10 or 11 wins on an annual basis is secondary to the fact that getting to 10 or 11 wins is generally not an easy feat. If there is going to be a knock on Franklin for what doesn’t happen, there should be some credit for what does. This grade is also padded by the fact that the decision to move on from Mike Yurcich was the right one and all three coordinator hires look – on paper – to be among the best available to be made. How much of this translates into the new Big Ten and expanded playoffs is very much to be determined.

The Not So Good: The paradox of James Franklin criticism is often the fact that when things don’t go well he’s accused of meddling and accused of not doing enough. Franklin’s biggest knock is the fact that he has been unable to get past Michigan and Ohio State on a semi-regular basis in spite of having fairly comparable recruiting success. For Penn State in 2023 the main criticism is the fact that the Nittany Lions knew what their weaknesses were going to be, and generally speaking those problems did not get better over the course of the year. Where Franklin fits into this equation depends greatly on how much you think he should or should not be involved in the small details, and how much you think he should be the guiding force of the entire program and less so the sole architect of its schematic and developmental plans.

Wherever you fall on this judgement there is an undeniable sense that Franklin can only skirt so much blame for so long. Mike Yurcich was hired to do a job – by Franklin – and was seemingly not good at that job in the moments when it mattered most. The blame on this front lies with many people, but generally speaking it’s fair to say that when Penn State has faced visible issues, that Franklin doesn’t provide the kind of public-facing problem solver confidence that some of his contemporaries might. All of this is exacerbated by a defense that was maybe the best in the nation paired with an offense that couldn’t do anything against its two biggest opponents. The Peach Bowl opt outs put that game in a different bucket, but Penn State’s production against Michigan and Ohio State was bad enough to raise an eyebrow and to get someone fired over it. All of this was made even worse by the sequencing of those games – a poor performance against Ohio State raising red flags – and then seemingly no productive changes against Michigan a few weeks later.

To some extent “can’t beat two very very good teams, including the national title winner” isn’t an outright sign of coaching malpractice, but put on the growing resume of losses against those two programs it only hurts the cause. All said and done James Franklin might not be the reason Penn State struggled offensively, but the buck stops with him, and if nothing else he didn’t make those problems go away either. To what extent that is a reasonable expectation in the first place is somewhat subjective.

Overall: Penn State won a lot of games and lost the ones that everyone cared about the most. That’s consistency in both directions, but winning is harder than losing so the grade leans in that way.

See all of the Positional Grades HERE.