Penn State football: 4 things to be thankful for about the James Franklin era
No coach is immune to it. Start a season 0-5, and there starts to be speculation about a hot seat and moving on from the team. James Franklin has certainly heard the clamoring this year.
While this season will always be a blemish on the Franklin resume, let’s no forget how far Penn State has come in so little time. The program is just 5 years removed from when 7 wins was considered getting the job done.
Now in Year 7 under Franklin, Penn State has gone 56-28, has won the Big Ten Championship Game and won a pair of New Year’s 6 bowls. That’s pretty elite company. So although there’s no reason to be satisfied with how 2020 is unfolding for the Lions, take a step back and be thankful for all the things Franklin has done returning this program to national relevance. These are the 4 things I’m most thankful for in Franklin’s tenure:
1. New, New Year’s traditions
Penn State has been so good under Franklin that it’s easy to take for granted the rarefied air the program is in when it comes to playing in New Year’s 6 bowls. The Lions have been to 3 in the last 4 years, winning both the Cotton and Fiesta as well as losing one of the all-time great Rose Bowls in 2017.
Franklin’s teams have never played in a College Football Playoff, but only 5 programs have played in more New Year’s 6 games — Alabama (9), Clemson (9), Ohio State (7), Oklahoma (5) and Georgia (4) — all of which have appeared in at least one CFP.
Of course the goal is to play for a national championship, but prior to Franklin taking over, Penn State was playing in January games like the TicketCity Bowl and Outback Bowl. You have to go back to 1997 for the start of the last stretch of 3 New Year’s 6 bowl games Penn State played in (Fiesta ’97, Orange ’06 and Rose ’09). While Penn State won’t be playing in a bowl this season, be thankful for the types of games it has played in the last 5 years.
2. Lee Corso crowd surfing
Oh, the excitement when ESPN’s College GameDay finally came back to State College in 2017. It was a crisp autumn morning as Penn State welcomed Michigan to Happy Valley with hundreds of students camped out on the lawn in front of Old Main waiting for the show to begin.
Everyone was waiting for 11:59, when Corso would don the Lion’s head and pick Penn State to beat the Wolverines. No one, however, was expecting how the lovable, then 82-year-old analyst would make his debut.
CORSO JUST CROWD SURFED pic.twitter.com/vpFvdXDbA3
— College GameDay (@CollegeGameDay) October 21, 2017
I may be biased, but this is arguably the greatest moment in GameDay history, and is even more special given Corso’s declining health.
Since then, GameDay has been back to Penn State every season, giving Happy Valley the distinction of being the only host of the show in each of the past four years.
Prior to 2017, GameDay hadn’t been to Penn State in eight years. Franklin frequently hops on different ESPN platforms to offer a quick chat, never missing a chance to pitch his program to potential recruits watching television across the nation. To some, he comes off like a used car salesman, but his ability to put Penn State in the national spotlight clearly works, as he continually churns out one of the best recruiting classes each year.
3. He doesn’t just stick to sports
Most coaches just want to talk X’s and O’s. They get behind their podium and have no problem breaking down their team or opponent. Franklin is different. He’s one of only a handful of African-American head coaches at the FBS level, and he feels a responsibility to champion that fact and fight for more diversity across sports.
Ben Jones of statecollege.com wrote a fantastic piece this summer speaking with Franklin about race, politics and growing up in a multiracial family. In the story, Franklin talks about how important it is for kids to see minorities in prominent coaching roles or a woman like Penn State Vice President for Intercollegiate Athletics Sandy Barbour in a position of power so that they, too, can aspire to similar roles.
Franklin has put action to words as Penn State employs four black assistant coaches. He frequently talks about how special it is that it’s becoming more commonplace to coach against other Big Ten teams with black head coaches like Mike Locksley, Mel Tucker and Lovie Smith.
He was also a huge advocate in helping get his team registered to vote this fall and making sure their voices are heard. Franklin consistently puts his players first. It’s not just about winning. It’s about what best for them, and if that means leaving Penn State early, that player will have no bigger advocate than Franklin.
This season Franklin has had to wave goodbye to his wife and two daughters, sending them south so he wouldn’t have to worry about spreading the virus at home after coming in contact with so many people at Penn State. Most coaches just seem like coaches, but Franklin has a very humanizing quality that makes him endearing to his players and fans.
4. But he does stick to tradition
Outside of maybe Notre Dame, there may not be a program or fan base more glued to their rich history. After almost six decades with Joe Paterno at the helm, fans had become accustomed to a certain set of ways around Penn State. Heaven forbid you add a stripe to the helmet.
A lot of coaches come into their new team and try to implement their flare and completely overhaul the program in a never-ending arms race to recruit talent. Think of all the flashy uniforms, sideline gimmicks and over-the-top facilities.
While Penn State certainly doesn’t hold back in yearly upgrades to the Lasch Building, and it even broke out a Thank You card for turnovers this year (not that they’ve used it too much), but at the end of the day it’s still the “Black Shoes. Basic Blues. No Names. All Game.” mantra that became so synonymous with the program under Paterno.
— Penn State Football (@PennStateFball) July 16, 2015
There’s nothing wrong with all the flash of other schools, but it’s nice to see Franklin keep the status quo at a school so rich in tradition.