Penn State couldn’t be in better hands than those of 50-year-old James Franklin, who is embarking on his 10th season at the helm of the Nittany Lions’ football program.

In saying that, I know I’ll be hearing guffaws from at least 1 of my 5 siblings, at least a couple old Pennsylvania high school friends and a few readers and social media buddies. As Franklin himself is wont to say, “I get it.”

With nothing more than 3 decent years at Vanderbilt for heading coaching experience, Franklin arrived at Penn State ahead of the 2014 season and almost instantly became the tail wagging this major university dog.

He and his staff butchered the end-games of 1-point losses to Ohio State in 2017 and 2018, blowing double-digit leads both times, not to mention the OT loss at Indiana to begin the 2020 season. He was blatantly outcoached in 2021’s 9-OT loss to Bret Bielema and Illinois.

Shortly thereafter, he ask for and got a significant raise and contract extension during the least successful part of his tenure. He insisted that the program needed facilities upgrades, and rallied a plurality of board of trustees members to his way of thinking.

If we do a show of hands on who thought, at the time, that this came across as money-grabbing and excuse-making, mine would be up.

But brothers and sisters (assuming you’re not an uber-rich super donor), this — for the most part — is not our money. I buy a sweatshirt now and again, and occasionally trek up to Dear Old State for a game. Some part of what I pay for Hulu I guess goes through the coffers of the various TV networks lining up to shower the Big Ten with billions of dollars.

Penn State football remains, though, essentially free entertainment for the average fan. And the entertainment has been pretty darn good for the most part since 2016. Franklin has rebuilt a program that faced brutal sanctions and a tarnished reputation.

Bottom line, Joe Paterno would be proud of where the program stands and what it still stands for. Franklin is bridging the gap between tradition and a constantly shifting modern reality. He hasn’t done it perfectly. In the first 2 years of the transfer portal (2019-20), Penn State lost 33 players and brought in only 1 of any usefulness (P/K Jordan Stout).

But despite the dip following the 2016-19 return to prominence, Franklin and company are right back on the verge of a breakthrough. The next 2 seasons will establish if it’s real, but things couldn’t look any better right now.

Here’s what’s going right:


Last year’s recruiting class produced instant-impact freshmen in 1,000-yard back Nick Singleton and sack leader Abdul Carter at linebacker. Drew Allar prepped for his takeover of the QB spot seeing action in 10 games as a 5-star backup to Sean Clifford. Several others from the No. 6 class in the nation played key roles on an 11-2 squad.

This year’s class comes in at No. 14 according 247Sports’ composite rankings, but includes the 2 best offensive line recruits the program has brought in this century. It also boasts a top linebacker out of Virginia.

The trend is this: Penn State owns the Eastern Seaboard from Maine to the South Carolina border. It kills Virginia and Virginia Tech in their home state, and should continue to do so with the addition of new WRs coach Marques Hagans off the Cavaliers’ staff. Franklin and crew also win a few battles in Michigan (Kalen and Kobe King), Texas, Georgia, Florida and elsewhere. And not just for the leftovers; the Nittany Lions bring in 4-star or better athletes more often than not.

Transfer portal

After a wretched start to the portal era, Penn State has found a philosophy that works and fits the program. Franklin targets players to fill positions of need, with a narrow focus that produces win-win situations for guys such as Arnold Ebiketie, Mitchell Tinsley and Chop Robinson.

Those who leave are mostly those who should. Keyvone Lee and Christian Veilleux weren’t going to see much playing time this coming season. DB Marquis Wilson and LB Jamari Buddin might have worked into the rotation, but incoming recruits/transfers will more than offset their loss. Freed-up roster spots are not a bad thing.


Left tackle Olu Fashanu, guard-center Hunter Nourzad and LB Curtis Jacobs are among the key NFL Draft-eligible players who are running it back in 2023. Parker Washington and TE Brenton Strange exited early for the pros, and they will be missed. But the program is retaining almost all the top-level talent it could hope to. And a couple of incoming transfers, including Dante Cephas from Kent State, have filled the WR void.

The coaching staff, as of now, returns intact except for Taylor Stubblefield, the WR coach fired ahead of the Hagans’ hire. That indicates that Franklin is willing to make cold, hard decisions to have exactly what he wants in each and every personnel slot.


It’s hard to know exact details, but the collectives/agencies servicing Penn State athletes are apparently putting together packages appealing enough to sell players along with the academics and culture. Penn State seems no worse off in the major college pecking order than it was prior to the advent of the laissez-faire business model.


The vibe around the football facility seems as positive as it has been in a while. Transfers come and go without hard feelings, facilitated by honest and direct communication. Players seem to have a bond with each other and the PSU experience.

Former players turned mega-NFL stars such as Saquon Barkley and Micah Parsons have been great ambassadors. Program alumni are heading up various NIL groups to keep the program relevant.

The on-field offensive scheme works much better than it did a couple years ago. OC Mike Yurcich really settled in this past season and the attack should be even better balanced in his upcoming Year 3. Gone are the days of all-shotgun and an anemic running game. The offensive line has improved and should continue to improve under Phil Trautwein, with top level recruits arriving.

On the defensive side, Manny Diaz in his first year turned an already stout unit into a fun-to-watch aggressive bunch, delivering on his promise of more sacks and tackles for loss.

Bottom line

For those who measure in Playoff appearances and national titles, Franklin might always remain Fraudlin. Penn State could max out its potential and still fall short of Michigan and Ohio State, not to mention Alabama, Georgia, Clemson and others. As someone old enough to have enjoyed Paterno’s 2 national championship campaigns, I know it takes some luck and certain circumstances in other places for the magic to happen. That’s what makes it so sweet when it does.

I easily can see Penn State reaching the final 4 in either or both of the next 2 seasons. The roster looks that good.

More importantly, the program seems to have stabilized. Franklin has a great working relationship with new AD Pat Kraft and has enough trustees on board to steer the program forward with resources only a dozen or so college programs can match.

The uniforms remain plain, with no names on the back. On and off the field, there’s a good mix of swagger and class.

What Franklin said about Clifford after the Rose Bowl epitomizes it for me:

“He’s kind of seen it all in his Penn State career, and at Penn State it’s important not just how we do it on the football field but in the classroom and in the community, and he’s done it with utmost class the entire time. That’s what college football is about, and that’s what Penn State is about.”

If that’s too hokey, you could just adopt Alabama. But you’ll risk missing out on something really special.