“My greatest strength is my passion and my drive,” he says as he goes to head to head with Maryland, Rutgers for blue-chip recruits. “My greatest weakness is my passion and my drive.”
By Michael Callahan
James Franklin walks the fine line between obsessiveness, compulsiveness and obsessive-compulsiveness, firm in his belief that winning is in the specifics but aware that too narrow a focus could ultimately derail his plans for successfully leading the Nittany Lions through the final stages of NCAA sanctions.
“I do know that I struggle because there’s things that I want to do or want done a certain or whatever it may be, and it’s that fine line of how much do I keep pushing and how much do I have to kind of stop myself,” Franklin said. “I think there’s that constant battle that I struggle with about how much I’m pushing, and I don’t want to push so much that I wear everybody out and drive everybody crazy.”
“My personality is ‘do more,’ and that’s not always the answer, to do more. I’m constantly in internal conflict with that. And the staff kind of knows that’s who I am as well, so they help manage that.”
Franklin “likes to be involved with everything,” offensive coordinator John Donovan said. “He’ll admit it. He wants to know everything. He wants to know it all.”
In short, Penn State has hired a coach who will bend one of the most successful programs in college football to his detail-oriented vision, and not vice versa – meaning a program known for decades in simple, old-school terms has quickly, suddenly and successfully turned over a new leaf.
“My greatest strength is my passion and my drive,” he said. “My greatest weakness is my passion and my drive.”
Well, he’s not alone: Franklin is just the latest in a line of dominating, possessed, buck-stops-here coaches across college football, a style popularized on the college level by Alabama’s Nick Saban and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, to name a pair – while naming a pair of Franklin’s perceived on- and off-field rivals.
Franklin has merely drawn more attention than most, partially due to his success at Vanderbilt – a place where no coach had won consistently in decades – and the nature of a controversy that has lingered beyond his stay in the Southeastern Conference.
Last June, four Vanderbilt players were dismissed from the program amid rape allegations; a fifth player pled guilty in August to attempting to cover up the incident and was also dismissed. In April, filings issued by the defense attorneys for one charged ex-player discussed interaction between Franklin and the alleged victim – though Franklin’s decision to reach out to the alleged victim was “probably a pretty nice thing to do,” according to a Nashville district attorney.
“We get asked the question, I address it and answer,” Franklin said. “They ask the question because they have to ask, which I understand, I answer the question and people are very comfortable and move on.
“It hasn’t been an issue. Do people use it against us? Yeah. Do people send me awful things on Twitter and other things? Yeah. Is it disturbing? On a lot of levels. But I think like most things, if you’re open and up front, you’re honest and transparent as much as you possibly can be.”
Franklin and his staff have plenty of opportunities to be that way, because regardless of the time, the place or the weather, they are doing one thing: recruiting.
“Everyone’s a Penn State fan,” Franklin said. “And if they’re not, they will be when I’m done talking to them.”
It’s the Vanderbilt blueprint: Penn State’s plan is to hit the road harder than any program in the region, quickly allowing Franklin and his staff to create inroads and relationships with high school coaches, families and recruits within a 400-mile radius of campus.
This approach has placed PSU on the radar and in the crosshairs. At an event in Baltimore on May 7, Franklin said of Maryland, “I consider this in-state. I consider New Jersey in-state.” In turn, Rutgers coach Kyle Flood has taken to referring to Penn State as the “team from Pennsylvania.”
Penn State’s current recruiting class, set to enroll in 2015, ranks second in the FBS, trailing only Alabama, and includes 16 verbal commitments, the most in the country. Of those 16 commitments, only one – a four-star linebacker from Merrillville, Ind. – hails from outside that 400-mile recruiting window.
“We had the No. 1 recruiting class in the country for a while there, but then Alabama had their spring game,” Franklin said. “During the spring game they convinced five current NFL players to commit to them, and they passed us by. So we’ve got a little bit of work to do now.”
Two factors have contributed to Penn State’s effective start on the recruiting trail. The first is continuity, in a sense: Seven of Penn State’s nine assistants worked alongside Franklin at Vanderbilt, meaning each understood the program’s approach despite an unfamiliarity with the general recruiting region – though several coaches, like offensive coordinator John Donovan, are either from the area or scouted local prospects while with the Commodores.
Second, per Franklin’s demand, each assistant coach is active on social media, using the direct-message tool to keep in constant contact with committed and uncommitted recruits. Assistants recruit an area – splitting New Jersey into three zones, for example – but no one coach handles a single prospect alone; each potential signee builds a relationship with several coaches, sometimes on separate sides of the ball.
It’s about checks and balances: Penn State’s recruits must pledge their commitment to two coaches, for example, and not just one, while Franklin signs off on each potential new addition to the program. The staff has been able to connect with recruits by layering relationships, Franklin said; the location has changed, he added, but the message hasn’t.
“The thing about James is, no one’s going to recruit harder than him, and it’s all about relationships,” said East Stroudsburg University offensive line coach Mike Santella, Franklin’s college roommate.
“And that’s not just lip service with him. He believes that. That’s what makes him different than a lot of people. He’s going to want to get to know everything about you.”
And, as such, the details make the difference.
“You’ve got to know how to sell that university, what makes that university special compared to somewhere else,” quarterbacks coach Ricky Rahne said. “You’ve got to be able to embrace those and sell those things. You’ve got to know the little things, and that’s probably the hardest.”
The Penn State players returning from last season’s seven-win finish have spent the first four months of the offseason playing catchup on the same concepts the coaches are selling to high school football players on the recruiting trail.
When starting quarterback Christian Hackenberg missed a class during the spring, a step-into-my-office offense for Franklin, he quickly admitted his mistake but still was penalized with an early-morning run.
“I’ll tell you what, the freshman third-string-whatever, he sees Christian Hackenberg running, it sends a message to everybody: You better go to class, you better do what you’re supposed to,” Franklin said.
“I say this to the guys all the time, we’re going to hold everybody accountable — that’s the players, that’s the administrative staff, that’s the strength and conditioning. But I want them to hold us accountable. I really want to create that type of environment.”
But with early recruiting successes notwithstanding — and not to belittle the importance of these off-field wins — Franklin enters the heart of the offseason with two questions outstanding:
Can he translate offseason victories into Big Ten championships?
And: Is he real — or authentic, put another way — and if not, where goes Penn State?
As for the former, Franklin seems to waffle between day-one pragmatism and down-the-road positivity. This year’s team returns 15 starters, fourth-most in the Big Ten, but will again struggle locating depth as a result of scholarship reductions. The Nittany Lions will have 75 scholarships in 2014, 80 in 2015 and the full allotment of 85 scholarships in 2016.
But in front of alumni groups, for example, Franklin will say his goals for the program include the top team-wide grades in the country, the top graduation rate in the country and, last but not least, Big Ten and national championships.
At the same time, he clearly bristles at the idea that he and his staff are recruiters, not talent developers, player evaluators, offensive masterminds and defensive technicians — all-around coaches, basically.
“I get concerned a little bit when people say, ‘Oh, they’re just good recruiters.'” Franklin said. “It’s not one thing or another. I hope over time that people just say, ‘They’re good coaches.’ And good coaches are good recruiters, good developers, good Xs and Os, good schemes, the whole package. Because the most successful programs, they do it all well. It’s not just one thing. It’s the whole organization.”
His non-stop, energy-driven, minutiae-motivated personality is new to Penn State, as it was to Vanderbilt, and as such could be viewed with a slight sense of reservation – as Franklin himself admits, if struggles to understand.
“I kind of have a personality a little bit where people say, ‘Is this guy real? Is he real, is he this passionate, is he this emotional? Is it real?'” he said. “I think in a lot of ways, we’ve had some early success, so people right away will say, ‘Maybe this is too good to be true. I don’t want to get too caught up with it. There’s going be a disappointment coming.’ It’s a shame that we have to live that way. I don’t want to live that way. I want to enjoy every moment.”