Franklin may be Penn State's first modern football coach

James Franklin escorts his daughters, Shola, 6, left, and Addison, 5, right, to the Beaver Stadium field after he was introduced as the school's new football coach on Saturday Jan. 11, 2014, in State College, Pa. (AP Photo/John Beale)
James Franklin escorts his daughters, Shola, 6, left, and Addison, 5, right, to the Beaver Stadium field after he was introduced as the school's new football coach on Saturday Jan. 11, 2014, in State College, Pa. (AP Photo/John Beale) (AP)
Posted: January 13, 2014

James Franklin has familial roots in Pittsburgh, was born in Langhorne, went to high school at Neshaminy, and went to college at East Stroudsburg. His is an early personal history of immersion in Pennsylvania football, and he called on all that history Saturday, his first day of walking a fine line as Penn State's new head coach.

"I'm a Pennsylvania boy at heart," he said. "This is my dream job. This is where I want to be."

He spoke eloquently of his affection for his home, for tradition, but make no mistake: Franklin is a thoroughly modern head-coaching hire, and this alone makes his arrival fascinating. Joe Paterno was old-school even in 1966, and for all the good he did as a two-year bridge to Franklin, Bill O'Brien always had his eye on the NFL as his long-term goal.

Now here is Franklin, who said he wants to stay at Penn State forever, who until Saturday had been familiar with the program, had admired it, even loved it from afar, but who had always been outside of it.

He did not play for Paterno, as had two other high-profile candidates for the job: Al Golden and Mike Munchak. Either would have been a safer choice, a more palatable hire for those alumni, boosters, and fans who believe that Paterno and his way have been, are, and should always be the lodestar by which the program sails. What would Joe do? For a generation, that question defined how Penn State would choose the coaches who came after him.

So give the university's power people credit for this: They heard O'Brien blasting the "Paterno people" to the Harrisburg Patriot-News - bemoaning those who cling to the old days when the players' uniforms didn't have names on the backs and wonder why things can't be that way now - and they bucked that sentiment.

For Franklin, they bucked it to the tune of a six-year contract worth $25.5 million in base salary. In 2011, Paterno earned $1.04 million in total compensation. Franklin will make four times as much this year, and it's telling that Penn State is paying so much money for someone who has been a head coach for just three years.

President Rodney Erickson and athletic director David M. Joyner lauded Franklin for his character, for his ability to strike a balance between athletics and academics at an elite university such as Vanderbilt, but there's no mistaking to what side those scales tip. This is a university still getting over the worst scandal sports has ever seen, and in many minds, nothing will heal those wounds faster than a few 10-1 seasons. Erickson, Joyner, and Penn State's trustees didn't hire Franklin because he coached at Vanderbilt. They hired him because he won there.

"The interesting question is that sometimes coaches have a certain template that works at School A but won't necessarily work at School B," said former NFL scout and executive Phil Savage, a radio analyst for the University of Alabama's football team. "When you're at Vanderbilt, it's a different circumstance there. Will he take that same template - because Penn State does have academic requirements that need to be met - or does he adjust? I think he's smart enough to adjust."

Franklin addressed that question, noting that though he was loyal to the members of his staff at Vanderbilt, it might not be the worst idea if he retained a few coaches who were intimately familiar with Penn State's culture. "You'd better have a plan that's specific to that institution," he said, "and when you have people who have a history and understand a place, they can help with that."

There's that fine line again - between the familiar and the unfamiliar, between the past and the future. James Franklin delivered the goods on Saturday. He dropped the phrase "dominate the state" so many times that someone watching the news conference surely logged on to to buy the domain name. He told stories of crossing paths with Paterno at coaching conferences and on the recruiting trail - showing up at a high school and handing over every piece of identification in his wallet to prove he was there to visit a prospect.

"And then Joe walked in, and they shut the entire school down," he said. "They had an in-school assembly, and I realized I had no chance."

He was charming and enthusiastic and was canny and a little corny in how he ended his remarks: "We are Penn State." Then he stopped talking, and cameras started flashing, and the real work in his fresh, new era of Penn State football began.


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