East Stroudsburg the foundation for Franklin's success

Posted: August 28, 2014

STATE COLLEGE - At East Stroudsburg - like anywhere in Pennsylvania - James Franklin and his infectious smile, confident tone and ceaseless energy radiate for miles.

Since succeeding Bill O'Brien at Penn State on Jan. 11, the 42-year-old has owned rooms and shaken countless hands.

But visiting his alma mater is different.

"He can close his eyes and imagine the early '90s and being a student here," East Stroudsburg offensive line coach Mike Santella said. "That was a very comfortable time in his life."

Santella was Franklin's senior-year roommate.

He saw the then-quarterback throw touchdown after touchdown on Saturdays, was there every night during the week to talk football with him, and the two graduated together in 1996.

But most important, Santella, among others at East Stroudsburg, have seen and helped Franklin evolve from a doctorate degree-seeking psychology major to one of the most impactful coaches in college football.

"He doesn't forget where he came from," Santella said.

And neither do his mentors.

Franklin came to East Stroudsburg with a "Plan A" in mind: earn his undergraduate degree in psychology, then go on and attain a doctorate.

That's according to Dr. Anthony Drago, Franklin's college adviser and the longtime chair of East Stroudsburg's psychology department.

The plan slowly changed as Franklin eventually saw coaching as a way to meld psychology and football together, Drago said.

"He's always had this fortitude and this drive. At first, I think he wasn't quite sure where to go with it," Drago said. "But now it's clearly focused. It's there."

Drago helped Franklin navigate his psychology courses; the professor also taught some of Franklin's classes.

The oft wide-eyed coach was just as engaging in college. Drago said Franklin would be the first in class to share life experiences, and also be an attentive listener to others' stories.

The department chair also noted that Franklin, who was in East Stroudsburg's counseling concentration, learned and excelled in what he calls "active listening skills" and "establishing rapport."

Both are vital to being a therapist, but the same can be said for a coach.

"The type of therapy you practice isn't as important as the relationship between the therapist and the client," Drago said. "The ironic thing is, he probably applies more psychological principles on a daily basis than most psychologists do.

"He deals with 120 20-year-old male athletes."

But before Franklin joined the coaching ranks, he was one of those 20-year-old kids a coach had to deal with. That coach was Denny Douds.

The East Stroudsburg head coach has brought in 41 freshman classes.

Yet, he distinctly remembers the first time he saw Franklin play at Neshaminy High in Langhorne.

He came back to his assistant coaches impressed with the quarterback's athleticism and excited about an opportunity to bring Franklin into the fold.

Douds' assistants asked the head coach whether Franklin could throw.

"He threw it 38 times," Douds said at the time.

"In a game?" his assistants asked.

"No . . . in a year," Douds replied.

"Are you crazy?" was the question posed by the assistants.

Douds, a man who has won 244 games in 40 years of coaching, knew what he was doing.

"He's a good athlete, a leader, has a passion for the game and when he speaks people follow him," Douds told his assistants. "We need those kind of guys in our program."

Douds' instincts paid dividends. Franklin was a two-time All-PSAC quarterback and set or tied 23 school records under center at East Stroudsburg.

That was Douds and Franklin's first marriage. The second came several years later.

The spring after graduating, Franklin spent a semester at Kutztown University as a graduate assistant. That season, East Stroudsburg hosted Kutztown for a regular-season game.

At the end of the day, East Stroudsburg was a winner. And so was Franklin.

"After the game, we talked, he had some concerns and I said, 'Why don't you come coach with us next year? Be a GA [graduate assistant],' " Douds said.

The coach said Franklin was in an uneasy state at the time. Douds thought his former player was seriously starting to think about whether he wanted to become a coach.

But the summer of 1996 helped give Franklin clarity.

Franklin started as a graduate assistant and lived with Douds. The coach had some spare beds, an empty playroom and an understanding wife, so he had no qualms about opening his home.

The two would wake up, go to work, come back to the house, head out to the deck, eat some ice cream and talk about life. That was a normal day, Douds said.

He noted that those discussions meant a great deal to both of them. Douds said he was there to answer coaching questions, whether that was X's and O's or philosophies.

Almost 20 years later, the tone of conversation between Franklin and Douds hasn't changed.

"It would be like if your son came back," Douds said. "You just started talking to him about something."

When Franklin does return to East Stroudsburg, Santella said he can talk about something other than Penn State and isn't hounded for autographs left and right - even though he'd likely sign them, anyway.

Franklin returned to his alma mater rather recently - giving a commencement speech on May 10, and came back later in the month for a Penn State Coaches Caravan stop.

He stays connected with his alma mater that way and by staying in touch with those who helped him throughout his time at East Stroudsburg.

Drago said that since the spring graduation, the two have been in touch, while Santella said he talks to him almost daily.

Douds, like those talks on his deck in the summer of '96, speaks to Franklin about life in general. That includes football, of course.

Sure, Franklin isn't a graduate assistant anymore. He's the head coach of one of the country's largest college football programs.

But to Douds - and all those he encountered at East Stroudsburg - it's as if nothing ever changed.

"When he comes back here, he's just a part of the family," Douds said. "It's not like, 'Oh, here comes the head coach at Penn State.' He's one of our kids. You welcome him home."

On Twitter: @jmcgonigal9

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