B1G debate: Should Penn State fans be excited about the James Franklin extension? And should they be optimistic about the future?
Editor’s note: Ryan O’Gara and Connor O’Gara grew up following sports in suburban Chicago. The brothers, separated by 20 months, debated about their favorite teams and players so often that their father would often have to remind them, “This isn’t PTI.” Each Friday, they’re bringing that debate to you, centered around the Big Ten and college football as a whole.
This week’s debate: Should Penn State fans be excited about the James Franklin extension? And should they be optimistic about the future?
RYAN: I didn’t see this coming at all. I thought Penn State and James Franklin were heading toward a mutual separation. Then Penn State announced a 10-year extension this week, right before the regular season finale.
I thought this thing was headed the other way for a few reasons.
For one, Franklin is in his 8th season at Penn State, and in this era, that’s just rare. There are only 11 Power 5 head coaches (plus Notre Dame) who have been with their program longer (Nick Saban, Mark Stoops, Kirk Ferentz, Pat Fitzgerald, Mike Gundy, Dabo Swinney, Dave Doeren, David Cutcliffe, David Shaw, Kyle Whittingham and Brian Kelly), and only 16 FBS head coaches who have been with their programs longer. Franklin is in rarified air in that sense. Usually by this time, one side gets sick of the other and the coach either gets fired or jumps to another program.
Speaking of that, with Franklin constantly being mentioned as a prime candidate for other jobs, I thought he would make a move eventually. Those rumors don’t get put out there accidentally, especially with the frequency Franklin is mentioned. Someone in his camp wants his name out there. Oh, and it just so happened that he changed agents to power broker Jimmy Sexton in the offseason.
And it seemed like both sides were getting tired of each other. Franklin took a not-so-subtle jab at the boosters a few weeks ago about funding for the program, and fans are always quick to jump on the coach for his in-game decision making. Plus, Penn State has a very real chance of going 4-5 in the Big Ten for the second straight season, provided they lose at No. 12 Michigan State on Saturday.
With all that said, I think Penn State fans should be excited he is staying and absolutely be optimistic about the future. This sort of commitment should put a halt to Franklin constantly being linked to other jobs, and that will be a much more palatable situation for both parties.
Has this season gone as planned? No. I think Franklin botched the QB situation in not replenishing the depth he lost to the transfer portal, and that came back to bite him in a major way when Sean Clifford got hurt. But Penn State still is the only program that can play Ohio State close, and its other 3 losses all were by 4 points or less.
And the future looks bright. The 2022 class is ranked 5th nationally and features 4 top-75 recruits, including QB Drew Allar, whom Ohio State has not-so-subtly tried to flip.
Also, it’s important to remember that the grass isn’t always greener. Franklin can absolutely build a program and he can absolutely win games. His 3 years at Vanderbilt and 8 years at Penn State have proved that. Starting over with a new head coach may seem like a good idea, but who is out there that would do a better job than Franklin? When you add in that Florida, LSU, USC, Washington and Virginia Tech are all open, that’s some stiff competition.
CONNOR: Let me start off by saying a couple non-Franklin things. I like that you went back to the point I brought up with Scott Frost about the market being especially crowded. No matter who you are in this market, that’s something you have to take into consideration. It certainly feels like a lot of those programs made moves, and not necessarily with some home-run hire on deck. Also, props to you for looking up all of those FBS coaches and providing that context.
(If I didn’t know any better, I’d assume you got those notes from Sexton himself. Kidding. I know you were also intrigued by the idea of Matt Rhule taking Franklin’s job.)
That’s key to remember in this whole thing. Penn State is a program that strives for stability. This isn’t the SEC, where 10 programs have made coaching changes in the last 2 years. This is Penn State, where ideally, you spend multiple decades. Bill O’Brien, they hoped, would be that guy. I think despite all the frustrations of Franklin’s association with these other jobs, there are Penn State fans who want him to be the guy even if he makes that hard sometimes.
On the surface, you’d think that would make this 10-year deal — with $80 million guaranteed — a win all around. You’re right that in theory, the speculation about him leaving should settle. I mean, Penn State has never had to pay a buyout for a head coach. I don’t think they’d break that seal by forking over $32 million when there’s still 4 years left on the contract, which is sure to be renegotiated the next time Franklin gets insecure about something (Jimbo Fisher restructured his initial 10-year, $75 million deal after Year 3). It’s OK to be both relieved that a deal is done with one of the better coaches in the sport while also being a bit annoyed by what it took to get here and what the future could potentially present.
Franklin is now making big boy bucks. Like, the type of money that says you can’t just beat Ohio State once in every 8 years because of a flukey blocked field goal that bounced the exact right way. If Franklin is getting a raise, he needs to show a higher ceiling. His in-game decision-making must be better. He must figure out the true offensive identity of his program instead of hopping from offensive coordinator to offensive coordinator in hopes that they’ll overcome what he lacks in that department.
I don’t know how Franklin suddenly figures those 2 things out. He’s 8 years in at Penn State. This is Year 11 for him as a Power 5 head coach. He’s 28-26 in 1-score games in his career. Against ranked teams at Penn State, he’s 10-18. Against Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State, he’s 8-16. Eight years into the job, I’d be frustrated by those things if I’m a Penn State fan. I’d be worried that they won’t be improving, too.
Franklin has been there longer than all of those respective coaches. Is Franklin a better coach than Ryan Day, Mel Tucker or Jim Harbaugh? He’s certainly not better than Day, and I’d argue the jury is still out on him vs. Tucker and Harbaugh. But for $80 million guaranteed, it feels weird that we’re even asking that about a coach.
RYAN: In regards to Frost, I don’t think this is the same situation at all. With Frost, my argument was that you’re just delaying the inevitable. With Franklin, yeah, he’s not perfect, but he’s damn good at his job, and it doesn’t make sense to look elsewhere when there are actually a few jobs out there that may be more desirable than Penn State and could attract the top candidates.
Comparing Franklin to Day isn’t fair. Day has done a terrific job, but he took over a juggernaut. Franklin built Penn State into a very good program that regularly wins double-digit games. I do agree that Franklin (and Tucker) will need to beat Ohio State making that kind of money. But you know this as well as I do; no one has given Ohio State as tough of games as Penn State. Even when the Nittany Lions aren’t as good, like last year and this year, they still hang with Ohio State. Basically, it’s Clemson and Penn State who have given the Buckeyes a run for their money on multiple occasions in the last 6 years (and Iowa could join that list if they ever play again. Seriously, how have they only played once in the last 8 seasons?). I think that Penn State’s administration knows that it needs a coach that can go toe-to-toe with Ohio State, and Franklin is one of the few who can do that.
The ceiling point is fair. That 2019 squad was really, really good, and the 2020 squad was going to be really, really good, too. But then COVID happened, their best player (Micah Parsons) opted out, their best RB was medically disqualified, the star TE got hurt and they didn’t catch a single break. Excuses, I know.
On a year-in, year-out basis, though, Penn State is the one program that Ohio State is looking over its shoulder at. Penn State is the one program that Ohio State fans will check to see where they are on the schedule, because that is going to be a battle. There is something to be said for that.
Now, Penn State fans are justified in being frustrated with how losses seem to spiral under Franklin. In 2018, they lose by a point to No. 4 Ohio State, then they follow it up with a loss at home to unranked Michigan State. In 2020, they lose a heartbreaker on a controversial call at Indiana, then they follow it up with 4 more losses. This year, they lost by 3 in a top-5 matchup at Iowa, then lost at home to unranked Illinois in their next game. The bar needs to be higher now.
Penn State has to figure out its offense, no doubt. This is its third offensive coordinator in 3 years, and Mike Yurcich’s offense is currently 96th nationally in yards per play. Penn State needs to get better up front, and it needs to figure out how to run the ball.
It has to say something about Franklin, though, that even through a couple rough seasons in which there has been rampant speculation about him leaving, he still is able to bring what is currently a top-5 recruiting class for 2022. That’s pretty remarkable. And that gives me as good of an indication as any that Penn State will be back competing for East titles soon enough.