Penn State football: James Franklin has built something in Happy Valley that will outlast him
James Franklin will leave Penn State someday. And it’ll almost certainly happen before 2059. Head coaches just don’t stick around for 46 years anymore.
But would he exit during or immediately after this season? With his No. 7 Nittany Lions seemingly perpetually on the brink of a breakthrough and the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class set to arrive next year? Is Penn State’s 8th-year head coach California dreaming as his current program progresses through its bye week?
While we’ve got some time to kill, let’s speculate.
A top candidate for USC
Rumors have been swirling, off and on, for several weeks now because USC dumped Clay Helton in-season. And those rumors make sense. James Franklin would be a good fit; he checks a lot of Southern Cal’s boxes.
He’s got charisma. He’d be plenty comfortable rubbing elbows with doppelganger Keegan-Michael Key and the rest of the Hollywood crowd. He’s proven he can resurrect a storied program, and do so quickly. He can sell recruits and fans on his vision, and coax 105,000-plus into a home stadium on a regular basis. He puts an entertaining brand of football on the field, as USC fans saw first-hand in the 2017 Rose Bowl (Trojans 52, PSU 49).
Plenty of coaches have been enthralled with USC’s mystique down through the years, including Joe Paterno way back when he was an assistant at Penn State under Rip Engle.
Would he go?
It’s not obvious that USC would check Franklin’s boxes. Maybe.
His wife, Fumi, grew up on the West Coast and graduated from Washington State. Early in his coaching career, Franklin spent a year at Washington State (1998) and a year at Idaho State (1999), so he’s not solely an East Coast guy despite his Pennsylvania roots. But he has spent the vast majority of his life east of the Mississippi. After growing up in Langhorne and spending 4 years as a quarterback at East Stroudsburg, it’s hard to imagine he’s suddenly sick of The Keystone State.
Penn State’s administration seems to have given him carte blanche when it comes to hiring staff and upgrading facilities. It’s hard to imagine USC topping his deal, which runs through 2025, considering the Pac-12 doesn’t generate near the football revenue the Big Ten does. Then again, colleges don’t always make rational financial decisions when it comes to football.
For love or money?
I can’t put myself in Franklin’s shoes financially. It just doesn’t compute. I’d be on the deck at my oceanfront beach house, sipping a margarita and watching the waves crash on the shore. Enjoying retirement at age 49.
Coaches at this level have enough money. They have second homes in Florida. They have nice things. Franklin, Fumi and their 2 daughters don’t need this job.
But he loves it. By all accounts, he loves everything about the game. And I don’t mean just Saturdays in the fall. He loves it all: the planning, coordinating, staff-building, recruiting, creating a family atmosphere, changing lives, give-and-take with the media. Rumor has it, he doesn’t have many hobbies.
He doesn’t need USC’s boatload of money. But the affirmation that comes with it, that might be hard to resist. Dollars convey love, appreciation and status. Alabama didn’t land Nick Saban solely with hugs and kisses, and the Tide are loving him at the rate of $9.3 million per year right now. Based on guestimates, Franklin is about 10th in the country making $6 million a year. Helton was roughly 20th at $4.5 million when the axe fell on Sept. 13, just 2 games into USC’s season.
Is it about chasing national titles?
For as long as Franklin stays at Penn State, he’ll run into the same road block every year on the drive to the CFP. Ohio State is in the way, and isn’t budging anytime soon. And now it looks like the rest of the B1G East is set up to be a gauntlet going forward. But the challenge provides the springboard — beat the Buckeyes, win the league championship, go to the Playoff.
The calculus will change if the Playoff goes to 12 teams, or even 8. But Big Ten teams will continue to have favor over Pac-12 programs.
The Pac-12 has a reputation problem. No Pac-12 team has played in the CFP since the 2016 season. Since the Playoff era began, only 2 out of 28 semifinal slots have gone to Pac-12 teams. (Those went to Washington and Oregon, not USC.)
So, the Pac-12 might have less traffic in its standings, but Franklin would have to navigate through it more cleanly. The narrow losses would be all the more haunting, and Franklin has had at least 2 setbacks in each of his 10 full seasons as a head coach.
On the other hand, USC claims 11 national championships in its history, including 2 this century (2003, 2004). Penn State hasn’t won it all since the 1986 season.
What would the PSU fallout be?
If Franklin leaves, the biggest immediate worry is: Who goes with him? Among assistant coaches, players and recruits, how many would trade small-town college life for a big city 2,500 miles away? Would 4-star 2022 QB recruit Drew Allar (Medina, Ohio) swap State College for Los Angeles to follow Franklin? Trace McSorley followed the coach from Vanderbilt to Penn State, but jumping 3 time zones and at least as many levels of culture shock might be a whole other story.
Penn State can find another coach. Its track record is minimal but impressive. After 46 years and 409 wins under Paterno, the administration hit on Bill O’Brien for a solid 2-year bridge — under brutal circumstances — to Franklin. Those were good hires, any way you slice it.
Now, the program is a regular in primetime on various networks, with legendary White Outs at Beaver Stadium and yearly appearances on College GameDay. State College is the best college football town in America. PSU draws more fans for home games than anyone other than Michigan. If the head coach position comes open, there will be no shortage of top-notch candidates to fill it. James Franklin helped restore the roar, making the job he holds one of the premier ones in the country.
Joe Paterno built the program. James Franklin has helped remove the Sandusky tarnish, restore the luster and give it a modern look.
I hope he stays, but …
But as with any coach, there is legitimate criticism. The harshest of Nittany Lions fans think he’s very average as a game-day coach. They’ll cite clock management and in-game adjustments as recurring issues. The team seems to have a least one major Achilles Heel every year: Weak O-line play, receivers dropping passes, poor tackling, mass defections through the transfer portal, slow starts, blown fourth-quarter leads, timeouts wasted while the clock is stopped, turnovers, schizophrenic staff turnover, no depth at QB. It’s always something, and Ohio State will make you pay, every time.
Many, but certainly not all, of those issues have been solved this year. Franklin acknowledges the others, particularly that his squad needs to find a way to run a clock-killing 4-minute offense to protect a lead.
He’s a relentless worker. A couple weekends ago, he was in my hometown, York, Pa., to watch QB recruit Beau Pribula play for Central York. That was one of 3 high school stops he made that Friday evening, the day before a noon kickoff at Beaver Stadium. As you’re reading this, he’s in the midst of a 6-state, 3-day recruiting trip. You know, because it’s an “off” week. “Hopefully this won’t be a long answer, because I have a flight to catch,” he said while wrapping up a media session on Wednesday.
James Franklin will do the leg work, he’ll do the PR, he’ll shake the hands. He’ll be “on” 24/7, representing Penn State, selling Penn State.
A couple months shy of his 50th birthday, Franklin is entering his prime coaching years. I think he’s got a lot more to give, so I’m rooting for him to stick around. Others, if Penn State drops a couple more games this season, will be ready to hold open the door and press a prepaid plane ticket into his hand.
But if he leaves, I think Nittany Lions should simply offer a sincere “Thank you, Coach, good luck.” Penn State will be fine, whenever Franklin decides it’s time to say goodbye. And the program will be better for his having been around. It already is.