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James Franklin Talks Race, Politics, Growing Up And Keeping The Door Open

Ten years before Jackie Robinson ever pulled a Dodgers jersey over his head and walked onto Ebbets Field, representatives of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation scoured the country, collecting data that would accurately illustrate the nation’s inner cities and the neighborhoods surrounding them.

Their objective: to assess insurance risks, the potential for development and the racial composition of nearly every major city. The metric used to determine such things was clear and often stated within the government’s own literature. Simply put: white was good, everyone else was a financial gamble.

Those maps, and the birth of redlining — a policy that can broadly be defined as the denial of real estate and financial services based on the racial composition of neighborhoods and communities — can still be found online. There is no hiding from this chapter of American history, a time when segregation was state-sponsored and constitutional rights were trampled thanks to decades of legal gymnastics.

The Pittsburgh neighborhoods that James Franklin grew up in were no different. The Fair Housing Act, passed in 1968 just four years prior to Franklin’s birth, finally abolished the practice of redlining, but the maps tell the story of how we got here, their summaries as blatant as the policies they aided.

“Future of this area is uncertain, negro encroachment threatening,”  reads the summary of section C17, the Pittsburgh neighborhood where one of Franklin’s aunts lived.

D10, a different Pittsburgh community, this one the home of his grandparents: “Concentration of negroes and undesirables, very congested.”

In 1972, Franklin was born into the remnants of that world, and while the government’s words nearly 40 years earlier may have lost their weight, their economic impact and long-term effects are still felt to this day. Franklin was welcomed to an America eight years removed from the Civil Rights Act, but the nation’s march toward true equality was still ongoing, the impact of segregation still so prevalent that you might wonder if anything had really changed. The Ole Miss riots of 1962 and their tie to football were then as memorable as Selma just a year later.

Two Americas under one flag.

There might not be a more insightful way to experience that contrast than how Franklin did. Born outside of Philadelphia to a white mother and black father, Franklin was a product of those two different Americas. When his father (who met Franklin’s mother while stationed at an Air Force base in Manchester, England) became an absent participant in Franklin’s life, the contrast was only stronger. Pittsburgh was the home of his black roots, the emotional center of what family he had left, all the while his white mother, still close to her now former husband’s family, was raising Franklin across the state. Train rides between his two homes were essentially a portal between two worlds.

“I think for me in a lot of ways it is magnified because of how I grew up,” Franklin said early Thursday morning, years, miles and millions of dollars later.

“So for me it’s kind of interesting because you’ve got people that grow up in White America, you’ve got people who grow up Black America and you’ve got myself, who kind of grew up in a mix of both. The Pittsburgh that I grew up with, I thought growing up that Pittsburgh was Atlanta. The area that I spent my time in Pittsburgh it was [mostly] African-American.

“But I [also] grew up in a predominantly white area in a suburb just outside of Philadelphia. My mom’s house was probably three miles from the Northeast Philadelphia border and that area was predominantly white. I was raised [by my mom] but my family in the United States was all black… It was pretty obvious to me at a very early age that there were differences. But the interesting thing for me is that became my normal.”

Of course normal is not the same thing as easy. The attitudes toward multiracial families then are not what they are today. Skin color is only a part of how a person can be identified, and in an era still reeling in racial tension, to be biracial was to be different from almost everyone else. In the eyes of some you are not quite white, not quite black.

A redlined map of Pittsburgh, communities in red were deemed risky investments for development projects and financial loans. Generally, black and minority communities were found within redlined areas. Redlining was a government supported practice for much of the reconstruction era and the 1900s.

In 2019 the idea of a multiracial family is far less divisive than it once was, and in turn those experiences have helped Franklin in life more than he might have ever imagined, well after the long days and nights. Sometimes painful, in more ways than one.

“It was very early on that I realized that I was different,” Franklin said. “I got into a lot of fights in elementary school and got in some fights in junior high. It was obvious that I was different.

‘I always identified as African-American and I think that’s because all of my family was. I realized that it was a blessing, that it was a positive, but growing up, yeah, it was hard. It was hard, it was challenging. There was a lot of conflict. There were a lot of tough conversations.

“It’s amazing to me how common [multiracial families are] nowadays and I think it’s one of the more positive things and one of the more hopeful things that I have for our country and our society. I just think over time the races are going to continue to mix and I think it’s going to bring more openness. I think it’s going to bring more understanding. You have no choice.

“I think in a lot of ways it allows me to see the world and have perceptions that very few people can have. You know I can see things from both perspectives, which I think is very valuable in a lot of ways.’

All of this is the setting for Franklin’s improbable journey to where he is today, seated at a long table inside the building’s biggest office, at the head one of the most prestigious college football programs in the nation.

And within Franklin’s lifetime, that scene was one nearly impossible to imagine.

When Franklin was three, Frank Robinson was hired by the Cleveland Indians, the first black manager in Major League Baseball history, breaking a new barrier in the sport some 19 years after Jackie Robinson had retired from the game.

Or if you rather, Franklin was four when Penn State hired Don Ferrell, the university’ first black head coach. Ferrell first oversaw bowling en route to a three-decade long tenure within the athletic department.

Perhaps most importantly, Franklin was seven, 40 years ago on the nose, when Willie Jeffries, the first black Division I-A head football coach, was hired to work at Wichita State.

In essence, “James Franklin, head football coach at Penn State” wasn’t even an option when he took his first steps. It wasn’t a dream to have, a goal to chase, a career path to ponder. Even as Jeffries took to the sideline, nobody knew how it would go, or how long it would be before another black coach would lead a football team at the D1 level.

“This was a dream job for me. But in a lot of ways it wasn’t, because I didn’t know if it was a real possibility,” Franklin added, now entering his sixth year on the job. “I didn’t know if it would go outside of the family you know, the Penn State family, and the coaching tree that was here. And then you know obviously, [when I was younger] you just didn’t know if there would be someone that looked like me in this job or in this position… I try to avoid politics as much as I possibly can. But in a lot of ways, whether you agree with a lot of the policies or not, having a guy like Obama in office I do think changes things.

“It allows kids growing up in this country — men, women, black, white, whatever your background is — that you could be the president of the United States. And I think it opens up a different perspective… it opens up a different mindset and I think in a lot of ways that’s the same thing when someone gets a job like head football coach at Penn State. It opens up a bunch of young assistant coaches across the country that feel like that’s a possibility for them one day. I think for our players to be able to look up and see people in positions of power and in decision-making positions is important.

For Franklin, the importance and impact of that diversity goes beyond his own team and beyond race.

‘We have a female athletic director in Sandy Barbour, which is not common within the industry, and an African-American football coach, which is not common,’ he said. ‘So I think for all of our female student-athletes to look and see her in her position… I think it is empowering for all of our student-athletes [and] to see someone, you know, like me sitting in the head coaching position it is empowering.’

There is a pressure that comes with this honor though. There are no trailblazers for white head coaches — they have simply always existed. There are no new white faces setting the racial achievement bar higher for people like them to chase and beat. To be a minority hire is to carry the heritage of those who came before you and the pressure of keeping the door open behind you.

This is not a phenomenon unique to sports, but few occupations allow for such exposure. Few allow for failure in front of so many people. Everything is magnified, especially when you exist against the grain, against what has always been the safe hire.

“I’ve talked to [Stanford head coach] David Shaw, a good friend of mine and a number of other coaches and I do think that a lot of the [minority] coaches carry a little bit of extra pressure,” Franklin added.

“I think a lot of people that are in this type of position, they know that there’s a little extra emphasis there. They know if they’re successful it’s going to open up opportunities for more [minorities]. It’s amazing how many older assistants in the NFL that reach out to me and say that to me in college ‘You know that when [minority coaches] are successful at a place like Penn State it’s going to open up opportunities for more people.’ 

“I wouldn’t describe it as weight but it’s something that I’m very aware of. It’s something that I’m conscious of. It’s a responsibility that I think I have. You know, and the good thing is, that responsibility aligns already with what I’m doing.”

Four decades removed from Jeffries’  hire the world of sports is still a long way from where it could be and the examples are plentiful. There are two black head coaches in the NFL. The 2018 TIDES report, which grades race and gender hires in sports, gave the collegiate level a C for its racial diversity in head coaching hires and an F for gender diversity. When Mike Brown was acting head coach for the Golden State Warriors, opposite Cavaliers’ coach Tyronn Lue in the 2017 NBA Finals, it marked the first time since 1975 that two black head coaches had met in the Finals. The NHL is almost exclusively white with nine black coaches having been a part of an organization in any capacity, and, as of 2018, just 87 black players having seen the ice at the sport’s highest level.

The Big Ten’s selection of Kevin Warren marked the first Power Five conference to hire a black commissioner, albeit in a position known for longevity, but a first nevertheless. Where sports as an institution has been eager to embrace the skills and entertainment of the black body, the acceptance of the black mind in higher profile roles has been far slower. By Dec. 30, 2018 there were just 10 black head football coaches within the Power Five conferences with only a few more in total over the span of 130 programs nationwide.

“I think what everybody ultimately wants is getting to a point where it’s not a discussion, you get to a point where that whatever your background is, that people are being hired on merit and that’s it,” Franklin said. “There’s no advantage from [your race] but there’s no disadvantage either, you’re just being hired on your ability to do the job.

“I don’t think we’re there yet. I think the numbers show that. And I think sometimes where people get skewed with the numbers, you always hear them talk about the number of athletes. And I think that’s an important piece… the number of athletes that make up the sports and the breakdowns, but also that you never hear people talk about the number of assistant coaches. I think that’s an important number to talk about when you talk about the percentage of coaches out there.’

The good news for Franklin, his program has been able to expand that diversity as Penn State employs four different black assistant coaches with a handful of behind the scenes contributors as well. A brief glance across the conference and those figures are comparable with Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan and Iowa all having at least three assistant coaches of color. 

“So I think more progress needs to be made. Diversity is important. I look at diversity on our staff. Diversity is important because I’ve got a team of 125 kids, from all different backgrounds — rural, urban, black, white, Catholic, Jewish and everything in between. And where the diversity is important is that there’s someone on the staff for all of those kids to feel comfortable going to talk to maybe about sensitive subjects or things that they’re struggling.

“That’s where diversity is important, no different than the decision making process. Diversity is important so that you’re able to see and hear different perspectives so that you can ultimately make the best decision for the organization. And the funny thing is in our country whenever you say ‘diversity’ people go right away to black or white. And a lot of times you know, again, it’s so much more than that race does play a part of that. Religion plays a part in that. I think geographic [plays a part in that]. Backgrounds play a part in that, age, experience all of it. But I think I think you’d love to get to a point where there’s more people with diverse backgrounds in decision making positions. That’s presidents of universities. That is athletic directors. That’s GMs. That’s owners. You know, that’s all of it. I think that’s important for our society and that’s important for our country. But again I don’t want it to be artificial. I don’t think that helps anybody.”

There is no quick and easy fix for the issue, no straightforward answer to how you continue to diversify the coaching ranks at every level and within every sport. Like most things, it is a matter of opportunity, even if that simply means getting in the door.

Leery of the media, or in the very least the Internet’s ability to twist quotes, Franklin is content with keeping most of his political opinions to himself. Although there is an eagerness for a time when that isn’t the case. And if he can come across as guarded, it’s not for a lack of wanting to share. If nothing else, his decision to keep his opinions private is a pragmatic business move given the political landscape that surrounds Centre County, one of only nine Pennsylvania counties Donald Trump failed to win despite winning all seven that border it by a wide margin. Franklin has never indicated who he voted for (or if he did), but there are a myriad of reasons to think his political leanings might run counter to the natural majority of rural America and rural Pennsylvania. And if they don’t, he would have to contend with State College’s status as a blue town. In either case, politics is an arena where the risk can often outweigh the reward.

So for now, those thoughts stay between him and his innermost circle.

“I’d love to be one of these guys that says so much that you can pretty much say anything and it doesn’t faze anybody,” Franklin said with a laugh. “I would love to have more open discussions about politics. I’d love to have more open discussions about race. I’d love to have more open discussion, and I’ve had them with the team. I have them with my close friends, I have them with the staff, with a small circle, and with my wife, you know things like that.

“One of the things that I am a big believer in is that you can really have disagreements. You can even have confrontations. And that’s a healthy thing in any relationship in life with your friends, with your team, as long as it’s done in a respectful manner. I think that’s the greatest opportunity for growth is when you’re having those discussions.”

If Franklin ever starts those discussions remains to be seen, though in all likelihood that day will never come.

And in many ways that makes sense. Perhaps Franklin’s greatest cultural contribution to sports is being a member of a small club of coaches that act as lighthouses, a reminder that you too could be the next David Shaw, the next James Franklin, the next Willie Jeffries.

There is no controversy in that, just hope — a hope that didn’t really exist 40 years ago.

“I didn’t grow up in Pennsylvania thinking I could be or would be the head football coach of Penn State,” Franklin said as the fog rolled across Mount Nittany on the horizon. “But the neat thing is there’s kids now that are viewing it that way.”