A Nashville perspective on new Penn State coach

Posted: January 14, 2014

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - When James Franklin's coaching stint at Vanderbilt began in December 2010, most fans hoped there would be at least incremental improvement in a program where five wins constituted a good season. If he could eventually make the Commodores competitive in America's toughest college football conference, the SEC, that would be a bonus.

Now, with Franklin gone to Penn State, any objective look at his three seasons would conclude he accomplished that task. A 24-15 record, back-to-back 9-4 seasons in the final 2 years, and consecutive bowl wins (three straight bowl trips overall) all greatly surpassed expectations.

But his impact off the field might have been greater. Franklin urged Vanderbilt, a private school with a glittering academic reputation, to be equally concerned with achievement in football. He didn't ask for massive concessions in regards to admissions, but he did seek substantial improvement in facilities.

Vanderbilt now has a $31 million indoor practice facility, and athletics director David Williams says long-needed stadium improvements will be made as well. Franklin went into the dorms and fraternity houses urging student involvement in the program. He was a tireless advocate on radio and TV for fans filling the stadium every Saturday, whether the opponent was a Top 25 team or an FBS doormat.

Also, as Vanderbilt's first black head coach, Franklin's message to recruits that you could excel both on the field and in the classroom resonated within the African-American community. You could see Vandy bumper stickers and hear as much Commodore talk at black barbershops or throughout North Nashville as you could on sports radio or in West End.

On the sideline, Franklin is energetic, demanding and passionate. He would be the first to congratulate players when they did well, but he got right up in their faces when they made mistakes. There were no shoving or pushing incidents, but he believed in accountability. Franklin never dogged any player in print, nor demeaned them. He managed the difficult feat of being both a "players coach" and insisting on excellence.

Of course, no one is perfect, and Franklin had his detractors, some of whom are speaking louder since he's gone. He annoyed some media members with his habit of refusing to look long range regarding his schedule. If he were playing Austin Peay on Saturday, then Florida and Georgia back-to-back, he'd entertain no questions about anyone other than Austin Peay, even if his team was a 40-point favorite.

Also, frequent comments that he wasn't using Vanderbilt as a steppingstone are being brought up as evidence of insincerity and duplicity. I remember sitting in his office in 2012 and asking him whether he would be tempted to leave for a bigger job in a couple of years.

"I want to build my own tradition," he responded. "I want to be part of something special here at Vanderbilt."

It didn't escape scrutiny that he used the phrase "dream job" Saturday at his first news conference as Penn State's new coach. A front-page column in the Tennessean by David Climer included this quote, from Franklin's introductory news conference at Vanderbilt: "This is not a steppingstone for us. This is a destination."

The other issue concerns the ugly situation that exploded before the start of last season. Four Commodores were accused of rape and booted off the squad by Franklin. A fifth was later dismissed due to taking a guilty plea regarding his involvement in a botched coverup. Franklin never has been tied directly to the case; the Nashville district attorney in the case said there was no evidence he did anything wrong. And Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner was quoted saying the school's vetting process was thorough and did not find anything that would disqualify Franklin for the position.

But that scandal, coupled with some unfortunate remarks he made on a Nashville talk radio station about judging his assistant coaches by assessing their wives (Franklin later apologized for those comments) led highly regarded USA Today columnist Christine Brennan to deem him unfit for the Penn State position, and to brand him (inaccurately in my view) as a relic from the '50s.

James Franklin is anything but some retro type. His players love him, and he truly believes in the concept of student-athlete, a notion often ridiculed and/or dismissed in the universe of big-time college football. I believe Penn State is the only place he would have left Vanderbilt for right now, and his willingness to take the job despite the school still facing bowl bans and scholarship sanctions speaks volumes for how he regards it.

Lastly, when I brought up to him how proud Nashville's black community was over his achievements, his response came quickly. "That's great, and I am aware of the symbolic importance of my hiring. But I'm a football coach, and I want to be judged most on the performance of my teams on the field."

I have no doubt he'll have that same attitude in regards to being Penn State's first black head coach, and that he will ultimately succeed there as he did at Vanderbilt, though he also knows 9-4 won't be the benchmark of success for the Nittany Lions' fan base.

Ron Wynn is the sports editor of the Tennessee Tribune and a contributor to the Nashville Scene, Jazz Times, Nashville Arts magazine and artsnash.com.

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