James Franklin will find success as Penn State's head coach

Sunday January 12th, 2014

Penn State is giving James Franklin a six-year, $27 million deal, with an annual salary of $4.5 million.
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

On multiple occasions during his introductory press conference Saturday, new Penn State coach James Franklin declared his intent to "dominate the state" and "dominate the region" in recruiting. He promised an aggressive offense and defense. "The way we get off the bus, we'll be aggressive," he said. And when a reporter referred to Beaver Stadium drawing "at least 90,000" fans every Saturday, Franklin cut him off and asked the venue's capacity. It's just over 107,000. "One hundred and seven thousand every single game from here on out," he commanded. "That stadium will be sold out from here on out."

It was a full-on clinic in self-confidence, which his new set of rival fans will soon call out as cockiness. It's the exact same demeanor he carried throughout a three-year run of unprecedented success at Vanderbilt, and that's exactly why he's the coach Penn State needs at this moment in its program.

Penn State is not an easy job right now. Ask Bill O'Brien. The aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal still hovers over the community two-plus years later. A segment of the fan base is still hung up over the school's treatment of the late Joe Paterno. Two seasons remain on an NCAA-imposed four-year bowl ban, and even with last fall's announced phase-out, massive scholarship reductions and reduced scholarship sanctions will likely impact the Nittany Lions for years to come.

And none of it remotely fazes Franklin, 41, a self-proclaimed "Pennsylvania boy with a Penn State heart" (he's from Langhorne, Pa.) who said Saturday: "I think I'm the right guy to come back and unite this state and bring this program back to what I think it can be." The guy won 62 percent of his games at Vanderbilt, a school where all but one coach since 1953 left with a losing record. He beat teams like Georgia and Florida largely with players Georgia and Florida wouldn't recruit.

Decades upon decades of Vanderbilt coaches lamented the stringent academic standards that restricted which players it could sign. Franklin, a then first-time head coach, strode into town and promptly flipped the narrative. "Maybe they allowed [academics] to become an excuse," he said last summer. "In our mind, it's our greatest strength."

So yeah -- about that bowl ban. Pft.

Of course, all coaches speak confidently at their introductory press conference, but if his Vanderbilt tenure was an indication, Penn State fans will soon find out that his tough-talk persona is a 365-day thing. In Nashville he was a relentless self-promoter, never turning down a radio interview, speaking at every fraternity or sorority on campus. On Saturday he said he'll come to birthday parties and fill up balloons if invited. (Careful there, coach. Penn State's got a lot more fans than Vanderbilt. You'll soon have 100,000 birthday invitations.) And the "dominate recruiting" line should not be cast aside. The guy signed a Top 25 class at Vanderbilt. In football.

That doesn't necessarily mean Franklin is going to start beating Ohio State's Urban Meyer and Michigan's Brady Hoke on every blue-chipper for whom they compete. But you can be sure he'll win his share. And the days of Maryland and Rutgers coming in and stealing away Pennsylvania kids are over, even with those programs' moves to the Big Ten. Franklin, formerly the coach-in-waiting during his second sting at Maryland, will own the Mid-Atlantic region if nothing else. And he'll extend Penn State's recruiting reach nationally.

Franklin was much more vague when asked about his vision for the Nittany Lions' on-field product. Xs and Os wise, the former Maryland and K-State offensive coordinator won primarily with defense at Vanderbilt (and he's expected to bring with him outstanding coordinator John Shoop). That wasn't really what stood out about Vandy the past few years. It was the total transformation of the players' attitudes. Many of them had been through a pair of 2-10 seasons prior to his arrival. All of them soon came to believe not even 9-4 was their ceiling. And that started with Franklin, the psychology major and professional motivator.

Penn State has higher expectations, but that doesn't mean the Nittany Lions, 15-9 in two seasons under O'Brien, couldn't use a similar psyche boost. They've spent two years hearing at every turn how they've exceeded expectations just by remaining on the roster. Franklin will ensure more than just freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg believing he can be a superstar.

Franklin's Nittany Lions will achieve success. Just what kind of success is the harder thing to predict. Penn State still fashions itself a national championship contender, just as soon as it can get out from under the sanctions, but in reality Penn State hasn't had that caliber of program for nearly 20 years. With population increasingly shifting away south and west, the talent level in Pennsylvania isn't near what it used to be. Even if Franklin fulfills his pledge to "dominate" recruiting, that doesn't guarantee the Nittany Lions will become an annual Top 10 team. But they'll eventually be a lot better than they are now.

Penn State is making an enormous investment in Franklin. It's giving him a six-year, $27 million deal, with his annual salary of $4.5 million just shy of Meyer's Big Ten-high $4.6 million. That may seem inordinately high for a three-year head coach with a 24-15 record, but it says more about the school's commitment level than it does of Franklin himself. After years of falling far behind the SEC and other conferences, several Big Ten schools have made statements with their wallets recently. Michigan State is doubling reigning champion Mark Dantonio's salary to $4 million. Michigan recently ponied up to land Alabama's offensive coordinator, Doug Nussmeier. These are good signs for a conference that may soon become much more competitive.

And Franklin will be right in the heart of those battles, even if his team isn't eligible to win a championship until 2016. The coach who last year referred to SEC rival Nick Saban as "Nicky Satan" (he apologized) will not back down from Meyer or Dantonio. In fact, he'll very likely get under their skin at times. In doing so he should galvanize Penn State's beaten-down fan base. Which is exactly what they need.

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