STATE COLLEGE – James Franklin grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, a strong-willed if not exactly strong-armed high school quarterback who believed he was good enough to play at Penn State.
Joe Paterno’s coaching staff didn’t exactly agree, and while Franklin’s arm led to him a decorated career at Division II East Stroudsburg (Pa.), his will led him to the place he wanted to be all along.
More than two decades after a futile attempt to draw Penn State’s attention as a player, the university hired the charismatic 41-year-old as its next head coach Saturday.
“I’m a Pennsylvania boy,” Franklin said, “with a Penn State heart.”
One charged with continuing the painstaking and sometimes painful rebuilding process started by Bill O’Brien, who took over in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal more than two years ago.
But O’Brien bolted for the NFL’s Houston Texans New Year’s Eve, opening the door for Franklin, who breathed life into a moribund program at Vanderbilt, winning 24 games over three seasons and leading the Commodores to three straight bowl games.
More will be expected here – eventually. That’s fine by Franklin, who insists he didn’t sign the six-year contract reportedly worth around $4.5 million a season to use the Nittany Lions as a stepping stone.
Franklin littered his hourlong introduction with all the right touches. Wearing a blue suit with a blue-and-white tie, he called Penn State his “dream job” and dubbed Saturday “the best day of my life” before quickly amending it to the “third best” after his wedding day to his wife Fumi and the birth of their twin daughters Addy and Shola.
Pointing to his family as they watched from the front row, Franklin described himself as having “two daughters and 95 new sons.”
Yet, he knows the branches of the family tree run far deeper. He promised to reconnect the glorious past with what he believes is an ambitious future and vowed to have lunch with every provost and dean while pledging not to turn down any speaking engagement.
“We’ll do everything we can to bring this community back together,” he said, “and really take pride in this program.”
A pride still in the process of healing following the shocking revelations about Sandusky’s criminal behavior and the subsequent fallout that included Paterno’s unceremonious firing after 45 years at the helm. Then, there were the NCAA sanctions that stripped the program of dozens of scholarships and barred the school from postseason competition for four years.
As far as O’Brien brought Penn State in two years, leading Penn State to a 15-9 record and ushering the Nittany Lions fully into the 21st century, much work remains to be done. The standard isn’t to merely be competitive.
Scanning a throng that dwarfed anything Franklin ever saw at Vanderbilt in a facility that in many ways rivals the jewels found in places like Alabama and Oregon, Franklin left little doubt as to his intentions.
“Our plan is to go out and win a bunch of games,” he said, “so we can stay here a long time.”
It’s something Franklin insists he planned on doing at Vanderbilt, where he produced one of the more stirring turnarounds in recent college football history. The Commodores went 16-4 over his final 20 games, second only to Alabama over that span in the SEC. Vanderbilt won the final seven games of 2012 and the final five of 2013.
And, Franklin led Vanderbilt into the final Associated Press poll each of the past two seasons, including No. 24 in the rankings released Tuesday.
As impressive as Franklin’s credentials may be, Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner believes they put Franklin through the “most thorough vetting process of any search perhaps of any position at this university.”
One that included delving into rape accusations against four Vanderbilt players last June. Franklin dismissed all four players and a fifth Commodore who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of attempting to cover up the crime. Authorities have not implicated Franklin in any way and Joyner praised Franklin for his decisive action in what Franklin called “the most challenging thing I’ve ever been through personally.”
Other challenges await. There’s the initial scramble to cobble together a recruiting class over the next month before National Signing Day and the assembling of a staff that will help the Nittany Lions take on Big Ten powers Ohio State and Michigan State in a new-look league that will add Maryland and Rutgers.
There’s also finding a way to move forward while paying homage to the past. Franklin mentioned Paterno three times by name and recalled crossing paths with the college football Hall of Famer while out on the recruiting trail as an assistant at Maryland.
“I walked in and had to show my I.D. and do everything I possibly could to get into the school,” Franklin said. “Joe walked in and shut the entire school down. They had an in-school assembly, and I realized I had no chance. I really had no chance.”
Now Franklin finds himself in Paterno’s position, as the face of a program that has ceded some fertile recruiting ground to places like Pitt and West Virginia.
Franklin believes it’s time for the Nittany Lions to reclaim their territory.
“When I say Penn State, that is the whole state,” he said. “That is the whole state. We will recruit every corner of this state, every school of this state, every neighborhood of this state.”
They’re neighborhoods Franklin knows well. While his path through the coaching ranks included stops at Washington State, Idaho State and Kansas State, Franklin always seemed to find his way back to Pennsylvania.
It’s the place he knows best, a place where he watched his mother work multiple jobs to raise a family. He inherited her work ethic when the coaching bug hit after six months trying to play in Europe.
His career began by living in the basement of a friend, realizing the same mental toughness that helped him set records as a quarterback at East Stroudsburg would serve him well on the sideline and in the living rooms of the young men he wanted to lead.
Franklin’s role at Penn State, however, will extend far beyond wearing a headset on Saturdays.
It’s a role the business-like O’Brien did with a determined professionalism. Where O’Brien was taciturn, Franklin is decidedly more energetic, a coach who has no problem getting by on five hours of sleep or glad-handing boosters, alumni, students and faculty alike.
He pledged to “dominate” the state, but do it “the right way.” A way that he thinks will provide a blend of Paterno’s scholarly paternalism with a brash new mindset that produces enthralling football on the field and graduates off it.
“We’re going to unite the coaches, we’re going to unite the community,” Franklin said “and build this program where everybody wants it to be.”