One-on-one with Penn State's James Franklin

James Franklin on the first day of Penn State's spring practice.
James Franklin on the first day of Penn State's spring practice. (JOE HERMITT / PennLive)
Posted: July 24, 2014

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - James Franklin acknowledges that he has the type of personality that makes him a little difficult for others to follow at first.

"I think, in the beginning, I'm a little bit hard to figure out," Penn State's first-year head coach said while sitting at a conference table in his office in the Lasch Football Building on Monday. "I'm so emotional. I'm so passionate. I'm kind of a psycho. So, I think a lot of people think, 'This guy, is he for real?' "

In the six months since he became the Nittany Lions' fourth head coach in the last four years, Franklin has shown players, fans, alumni, media, and the person on the street that this is who he is - an enthusiastic and intense coach who developed his personality as the son of a single parent living in Langhorne, Bucks County.

So far, it has helped Franklin handle the myriad issues he has faced since taking over. He has assembled a consensus top-five recruiting class for 2015. He has seen his players overcome frustration at needing to make yet another transition and buy into his approach and philosophy, although they still won't play an official game until Aug. 30.

And his style and personality may serve him well in a Happy Valley environment still fractured by the events that were ignited by the November 2011 arrest of former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky on child sex-abuse charges. The firing of Joe Paterno, the Freeh Report, NCAA sanctions, and subsequent lawsuits have kept the community from uniting.

Franklin, 42, admitted he strongly considered the edgy atmosphere before taking the job, even soliciting the thoughts of former coach Bill O'Brien. O'Brien, who accepted the Houston Texans' head coaching job on Dec. 31, often complained about the unwillingness of the community to look forward.

Franklin, however, hopes it will be different soon.

"I believe that football has the ability to bring a community together like nothing else," he said. "I know I'm biased, I'm a football coach. But I believe football has that special ability.

"Saturday afternoons, people come together to be a part of something bigger than just themselves," the former Vanderbilt coach said. "So, I think we can hold a special role in that, and I think it's time.

"The thing that's always made Penn State special is that we're family and people are very proud of being a part of this university. And I think it's time for us to get back to that, get back to being a family. The way I look at it is, let's put the university first and, more importantly, let's put the kids first."

The coach says he got the emotion from his mother, Jocelyn, a native of Manchester, England, who met his father when he was stationed there in the Air Force. When the marriage dissolved after the couple moved to Langhorne, she worked different jobs to support her two children.

Franklin called his mother, who died of cancer in 2007, "fiercely loyal and passionate."

"We're very emotional," he said. "We can get real angry, but once we get it off our chest, we can move on. I have guys on the staff say that's one of the things that they find really interesting about me, that I can get real mad about something and deal with it, and I've moved on.

"They haven't moved on, and they're like, 'What's wrong with this guy?' But the passion, the emotion, I get that from my mom."

Franklin's childhood saw him influenced by women - his mother, sister, and aunts on his father's side of the family. That has helped in recruiting high school players from different surroundings.

"The fact of how I grew up and where I grew up, I think I'm very, very comfortable in so many different settings," he said. "It can be a really rural area. It can be a really urban area. It can be upper class or upper middle class. It could be middle class. It could be people that are really struggling and challenged.

"I'm really comfortable in those really diverse backgrounds. The fact that I'm biracial, I think in a lot of ways allows me to relate to a lot of different people, and the fact that coming from a single-parent home also helps."

Not everyone, however, likes the emotional Franklin. He drew criticism for two statements he made during the Penn State Coaches Caravan in May, suggesting that New Jersey and Maryland were in-state and that the two newest Big Ten members - Rutgers and Maryland - "don't have a chance" against Penn State in recruiting.

Franklin said the first quote was taken out of context, and the second was a case of going overboard trying to fire up his audience.

"What I was saying was, we were going to treat six hours from campus as an in-state area in terms of resources, in terms of manpower, in terms of our approach," he said. "The second part, I was speaking in front of fans and boosters, and I got carried away. You feel like you're talking just in front of your fans and you forget that there may be a media person in there."

Franklin also didn't endear himself to players at Vanderbilt after leaving them to take the Penn State job. One player accused him of "a little bit of acting" after he broke down in tears when he told them he was staying, but then left a short time later.

Franklin said he was so torn about leaving that he almost stayed.

"People are going to believe what they want to believe," he said. "But leaving there was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. Right up to the last minute, I almost didn't do it. It really had nothing to do with anything else but the people, the players. I know there's hurt feelings and that's natural. I hope, over time, people realize how much I do care and always will."

At Penn State, Franklin is being watched closely, and it's not all about football. Much of it concerns the No. 1 question fans ask him:

What about the uniforms, the iconic blue and white jerseys that had names on the backs for the first time during O'Brien's two-year run?

"That comes up the most," he said. "I've made a decision. I don't know when we'll announce it, or whether we'll announce it at all, or just come out the first game."

Just another issue for the new coach to handle.


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