Has the Penn State-James Franklin relationship run its course? The question has been asked more frequently the past month, and not merely by fans.
The College Football Enquirer podcast, which includes Sports Illustrared's Pat Forde, suggested that an amicable split might benefit both parties. And the Associated Press' Ralph Russo wondered, after Penn State's 21-17 loss to Michigan, whether both parties would be better off heading in different directions.
"The odd thing about the Franklin-Penn State relationship right now is, there might never be a better time for the two to go separate ways," Russo wrote.
(Penn State Twitter was less delicate, as compiled by Yahoo! Sports.)
The Lions have lost four of five and are 10-9 over the past two years. They are unranked in the AP Top 25 for the first time this season. And Franklin's record against Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State is 7-16.
A loss to Michigan State on Nov. 27 would mark the fourth time that Franklin goes winless against those three teams (including the sanction seasons of 2014 and '15).
At this point, Penn State aspires to an Outback Bowl appearance at best, with the Music City, Las Vegas and Pinstripe bowls in play as well. For a team that was 5-0 and ranked No. 4 in early October, that's deflating.
And thus the breakup conversations ensue. But ultimately, Penn State and Franklin probably are better off together.
Franklin is in the second year of a six-year contract he signed in 2020, one that includes a hefty buyout clause. Penn State would owe Franklin $26 million by terminating him this year, $20.25 million if it does so in 2022 (though that likely would be reduced if/when Franklin gets a new job). So that's not a viable consideration.
So then the question turns to Franklin's interest in leaving, and the market for him. Franklin has been linked to openings at USC and LSU. He likely would be named as a contender at Florida as well, should the position open. That's what good agents do for their clients.
But Franklin also has maintained his "commitment" and loyalty to Penn State while citing how difficult the future can be to discuss. On a recent episode of his radio show, Franklin went about as far as he has publicly in defining the terms of his negotiations with Penn State.
“College football has changed dramatically, and we have to be willing to change with it in every experience there is," Franklin said. "... I would love to get to a point where I can come out and make a strong statement sooner rather than later. Some of those things are out of my hand."
"Some of those things" involve investment in football infrastructure, coaching and staff salaries and the additional properties that keep programs competitive. Penn State's Board of Trustees went through a public debate this year about approving $48.3 million to renovate the football building, part of a $69 million project.
The board approved the funding by a 27-6 vote but not without questions regarding its merit. Trustee Jay Paterno opposed the project. Trustee Brandon Short said Franklin should get even more.
"There’s a large part of our fan base, and I’m one of them, that has an old-school mentality," Short said in an interview. "But that has to evolve. I love Joe Paterno. He saved my life, and I love him for what he did for this university and for what he’s done me personally. But we cannot make decisions today based upon what we did 30 years ago. The world is different.
"... There's no question that there’s an arms race going on [in college athletics]. And there are two choices: We either compete and win or we choose not to be as good as we could be. And I for one am a competitor, and our fan base wants to compete and win. In order to do that, we need to invest."
Penn State wants to invest as well, which the $69 million project and overwhelming vote in favor of the first-phase funding indicates. But does it want to invest at Franklin's rate and pace? Or is it comfortable investing in a new direction (and a new coach) if Franklin leaves? That new coach certainly won't want less stuff.
The relationship between Franklin and Penn State still feels uncertain. As Franklin has said, "When you’re talking about the future, that can be challenging at times."
But Penn State and Franklin likely are better off figuring this out together. The coach has a highly ranked recruiting class with the quarterback he has sought for years. He got the offensive coordinator he wanted. He's getting some of the renovations he requires.
Now he just needs to win games again.