By Harry Allison
It’s only the second game of the season, but a lot of Nit-heads are having a crisis of confidence about coach James Franklin.
Last Saturday’s 27-10 blowout at Temple was hard enough to swallow.
But there is a lingering suspicion that Penn State has taken a step back from last season’s 6-6 team that won the Pinstripe Bowl.
Which makes today’s home opener with Buffalo a must-wipeout game!
Considered an expert program builder after lifting Vanderbilt’s program, Franklin left Nashville for Penn State, and all the fanfare the job carries with it.
“We’re going to build it the right way, and we’re going to build it for the long haul,” he said at his introductory press conference. “We plan on being here for a very, very long time. This is my dream job. This is where I want to be.”
This is what Franklin is best at: Telling people what they want to hear. And in this case, after more than two years of turmoil, it was exactly what the Penn State faithful needed to hear. They had a first-rate recruiter. They had a coach who did it right. They could believe that Penn State football was back on track.
Fast forward to last Saturday. One year into Franklin’s tenure, with a five-star, future first-round NFL draft pick quarterback at the helm, his team lost in embarrassing fashion to Temple—TEMPLE—for the Nittany Lions’ first loss to the Owls in 74 years. Penn State and all of its five-star recruits were blown out, 27-10, and gave up a whopping 10 sacks, one of which came when Temple only rushed two players.
Franklin is big on cliches and mottoes, one of which is “Dominate the State.” Franklin considers Maryland and New Jersey to be part of Pennsylvania for recruiting purposes, and he has done a good job of dominating those areas when it comes to selling himself and Penn State, bringing the charisma he has always shown at press conferences and public speaking events.
But despite the talent differential, Franklin clearly isn’t going to dominate his state on the field this year, and he’s already lost to both Temple and Maryland—two programs, combined, with less than half the tradition of Penn State—since he arrived in State College.
So here we are 20 months after the Nittany Lions pulled off the hiring coup of the 2014 season, asking a question with an answer that has always been taken as fact, without much critical analysis: Is James Franklin actually a good football coach?
It appears a number of former Penn State players, some of whom played for Franklin, think otherwise.
During and after the Temple loss, some former players called out the offensive coaching staff, and the offensive performance in general. Former offensive lineman Donovan Smith, who left for the NFL after last season, said “this is the exact reason” why he departed. Former defensive lineman Tyrone Smith was more direct about what he thinks the issues are:
Best players should play no matter what. That politic stuff is what gets you 21d by Temple
— Tyrone Smith (@_Eighty88Eight_) September 5, 2015
The fans are angry, too, summed up best by Matt de Bear at the fan blog Black Shoe Diaries:
After the game, James Franklin said it’s tough to run much when you can’t block much. Forgive me, coach, but I refuse to believe that Penn State’s offensive line is so bad, that our student-athletes are so incapable, that we can only run a telegraphed jet sweep, a fake jet sweep power play, a straight RB power play out of the pistol, or a five yard out/hitch/slant.
This is a legitimate criticism. How has Franklin not developed his linemen or wide receivers? How has quarterback Christian Hackenberg—whose brother also called out Penn State’s offensive game plan following the Temple loss—seemingly regressed ever since Franklin got to campus? How the hell can this talent collectively be this bad?
Perhaps Temple is better than expected, and Penn State had one of those inexplicably bad afternoons, and in two months all of this will be forgotten. But maybe Franklin and his staff just haven’t coached very well since their arrival in Happy Valley, squandering the on-paper talent they’ve accumulated. And maybe we should have seen this coming.
For all this talk of program building, Franklin never really took Vanderbilt to the heights he’s often credited with reaching. He recruited well, and Vanderbilt was fine, but its record was almost always overinflated. In his two 8-4 seasons with the Commodores, Franklin only beat one ranked team, and he mostly took advantage of a down SEC East and incredibly weak non-conference schedules. And for all the talk of fearlessness, he cancelled non-conference games against Ohio State and Northwestern at the last minute in favor of easier games in the 2013 season. That likely made the difference between 8-4 and 6-6.
Even Franklin’s authenticity—his trademark when trying to fire up the fan base—has been questioned. He reportedly tearfully told his Vanderbilt players he wasn’t leaving for Penn State, then up and left after the bowl game. Said Commodores player Adam Butler:
“He was a big camera guy. He loved the camera, absolutely. Coach Franklin was true, no doubt, but I feel like some of it was a little bit more than what it had to be. There was a little bit of acting going on.”
And so, it’s not too early to reconsider what Penn State really has in Franklin. It has a good recruiter who almost can’t help but improve the program with the caliber of players he’s bringing in, but it also has a “camera guy,” who says what people want to hear, and a coach who has never really proven that he knows how to, you know, coach at the highest level.
Franklin won’t be fired this year, nor should he be. But if the Temple game and the reaction from those closest to the program are any indication, things are really bad in Happy Valley. And despite the rhetoric that Franklin loves, there’s really no indication that it’s going to get better anytime soon.