One red flag regarding Franklin

James Franklin celebrates Vanderbilt's win in the BBVA Compass Bowl. Four of the former Neshaminy star's playershave been charged in an alleged rape of a Vanderbilt student in June.
James Franklin celebrates Vanderbilt's win in the BBVA Compass Bowl. Four of the former Neshaminy star's playershave been charged in an alleged rape of a Vanderbilt student in June. (   BUTCH DILL / Associated Press)
Posted: January 11, 2014

The sky had opened in a torrent of rain and thunder on a June afternoon in 2001, sending dozens of University of Maryland football recruits scurrying for shelter under the Byrd Stadium stands, leaving Jeff Hollenbach to wonder whether his son Sam should just forget about coming back to College Park.

A Division I quarterback prospect at Pennridge High School in Bucks County, Sam Hollenbach had whittled down his college choices to Michigan State, Illinois, and Maryland. The main reason the Terrapins were still on his list was the charismatic wide receivers coach who had recruited him: James Franklin, the man who, by all indications, will be Penn State's head coach by Saturday.

Now the weather had cut short Sam's junior-day tryout, and Jeff, his father and Pennridge's head coach, was telling Franklin that if Maryland's coaches wanted Sam, they'd have to figure out a way to see him work out then and there.

"Follow me," Franklin said.

So the Hollenbachs and Franklin dashed through the downpour to a nearby basketball gym, where they found some students playing pickup ball. Franklin asked them to clear the court, offering to buy them pizza for their trouble, then ran pass routes as Sam's receiver. A few days later, Sam Hollenbach accepted Maryland's scholarship offer, and his father saw bigger and better things ahead for Franklin.

"In my little corner of the world I remember telling people, 'This guy is going to be a head coach someday. He's going to be a heck of a head coach,' " Jeff Hollenbach said in a telephone interview. "You just knew it."

All these years later, in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, the death of Joe Paterno, and the abbreviated tenure of Bill O'Brien, Penn State is counting on Franklin to infuse its program with the same dynamism he displayed in winning over the Hollenbachs.

He is 41, young and energetic, and as the head coach at Vanderbilt for the last three years, he has managed to turn what had been a perennial SEC bottom-feeder into a respectable program.

The Commodores went 9-4 in each of the last two seasons, winning two bowl games to boot. If Franklin can spearhead that sort of renaissance in the country's top conference, at a university that calls itself the "Harvard of the South," it stands to reason he can succeed in the Big Ten at a school with similar academic rigorousness.

"I don't think people realize what a tremendous job he's done at Vanderbilt when you take into account who Vanderbilt can recruit and who they can play against," said Phil Savage, the executive director of the Senior Bowl and a radio analyst for Alabama's football team. "It's been quite an accomplishment."

Yes, from his local roots as a quarterback at Neshaminy High School and East Stroudsburg University, through a career in which he has spent 18 of the last 19 years coaching and recruiting at various levels of college football, Franklin would seem to have the perfect pedigree for Penn State. He promises the stability that the program and its supporters would want after O'Brien jumped to the NFL, and he could deliver the fresh approach that Penn State needs to make a clean break from the Paterno era.

That's the idyllic way to look at the hire. That's the football-first way to look at the hire. But Franklin would come to State College with at least the perception of some heavy baggage. Four Commodores football players were charged in August with raping and sexually battering a 21-year-old female Vanderbilt student on June 23, and a fifth pleaded guilty to trying to cover up the alleged rape. All five were subsequently dismissed from the football program.

Tom Thurman, the deputy district attorney who is prosecuting the case, said in a telephone interview Thursday that he has found no evidence that Franklin "was involved in any way whatsoever in covering it up or anything like that. He's been up-front with us at all times. There's no indication of his involvement as far as doing anything improper."

The case is scheduled to go to trial this August, and given the stain that the Sandusky scandal left on Penn State, its trustees would be beyond delinquent in their duties if they did not do all they could to make sure Franklin was as blameless as Thurman says he is.

"I would be highly, highly, highly surprised if James did not handle that the correct way," said Jeff Hollenbach, who has stayed in touch with Franklin since Sam finished his career at Maryland. "He's an up-front person. He's an honest guy. I know there are other people in the public eye who do things that you really are like, 'Whoa.' But I would be very, very surprised if he did not handle a tough situation the right way."

That has to be the hope for an institution that can't afford to have its good name sullied again so soon. For the sake of its football program, its reputation, its future, Penn State has to hope that James Franklin really is a man who knows what to do when a storm rolls in.


msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski

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