James Franklin's family situation should serve as a reminder not to judge CFB coaches too harshly in 2020
James Franklin didn’t put on a front when he spoke with reporters during his weekly press conference Tuesday. His honesty and openness about his personal life is something many in that position would not be comfortable sharing.
Penn State is 0-3. That’s been the topic of conversation that has poured out of State College and has been absorbed by the national media. One of the perceived contenders to the College Football Playoff is winless one-third of the way into the season. But it’s far from the most bothersome thing Franklin is dealing with right now.
Franklin is in Happy Valley, preparing and planning like crazy, trying to figure out a way to lead the Nittany Lions to a win over Nebraska in Lincoln on Saturday afternoon. His family is in Destin, Florida, watching from afar instead of sitting behind him inside the stadium.
The decision was made over the summer that Franklin would remain in State College and coach a Penn State team that ranked No. 8 in the country before its season opener against Indiana, while his wife, Fumi, and daughters, Shola and Addison, stayed in the family’s home in Florida.
Protecting Addison, who suffers from sickle cell disease and is more susceptible to complications with the COVID-19 virus, was the family’s top priority. It was a difficult decision several months ago, and Franklin revealed Tuesday that he’s still struggling with the distance.
“I’ll be honest with you, one of the things that I have not done a great job of handling, personally — that I have to be honest with myself and honest with the team and honest with you guys — is that I have not done a great job of managing my family being gone,” Franklin told reporters on Tuesday. “I have not. They’re my fuel. I go home, they’re able to pour into me, and I’ve not done a great job of that.”
Franklin let the public into his private life, and what it’s been like coaching during a pandemic. Suddenly, Penn State’s 0-3 record doesn’t feel all that damn important. In fact, the number of tallies any team has in the win column feels pretty insignificant.
The experience for Franklin over the last several months should serve as a reminder not to judge head coaches too harshly for the product in 2020. Sacrifices made this year are quite a bit different than the ones coaches understand they’re accepting when they pursue a career in this already-grueling field.
It’s not just happening at Penn State, either. In October, just a few weeks before the B1G season was kicking off, Ohio State’s Ryan Day said some coaches on his staff weren’t sleeping at home, for fear of spreading the virus to their families or to the team.
“This has been a difficult time,” Day said. “I don’t know if anybody realizes the sacrifices everybody is making to play this season.”
Criticism comes with the territory for a head coach at a major program. Franklin isn’t oblivious to the continued “What’s wrong with Penn State?” banter that occupies 10-minute segments on FOX’s Big Noon Kickoff and ESPN’s College GameDay. As the 7th-year head coach repeated multiple times Tuesday, a lot of the questions being asked “are fair questions.”
And this is college football — high-level college football at that. When a team isn’t performing up to its potential, the head coach is going to catch the heat. Nobody can defend Penn State’s lackluster effort in a 35-19 loss to Maryland last weekend. It’s almost impossible to explain how one of the most talented teams in the conference is still searching for its first victory four weeks into the year.
Franklin knows it’s unacceptable. He’s trying to figure out what’s gone wrong with this once-promising season. But he’s also trying to cope with the 1,100 miles that separate State College and Destin, and the 6 months and counting between when Franklin last saw his wife and daughters.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m good,” Franklin said when asked how he was feeling. “All things considered, again blessed and good, but saying that I’m good is probably not an honest answer.”
Franklin was the coach willing to talk about the difficult circumstances and the struggles he’s facing. My guess is he’s not the only one dealing with this kind of challenge.
Maybe, just this one season, we should ease some of the pressure placed on college football head coaches. Even if you’re not the biggest fan of the number of tallies in the win column at the end of the year.