Bill Belton was a big-time recruit, a speedster from New Jersey sought by college coaches from Florida to Oregon as a slot receiver, Wildcat quarterback, nickel back and return specialist.
James Franklin gave it a shot. Come to Vanderbilt, he told Belton, and we’ll feature you as a running back. Belton said no, opting for Penn State.
So shortly after Penn State hired Franklin in January, he sought out Belton to say: “I remember you from five years ago. You stiff-armed me.”
And then Franklin smiled.
That’s how he does it. He’s funny and personable, more like a basketball coach than a typically rigid leader of young men prowling the sidelines.
“He’s easygoing,” Belton said. “I connected with him right away.”
At Big Ten media days in Chicago, linebacker Mike Hull listened to Franklin answer questions from a table away. It wasn’t difficult. Franklin’s booming voice can traverse area codes.
“He’s like that every single day,” Hull said. “He’s pretty loud and has a lot of passion. It’s contagious, that attitude.”
Franklin has been crushing it so thoroughly with teenagers and their parents, Rivals.com’s national recruiting director Mike Farrell recently tweeted out this list of the nation’s top head coach recruiters: 1) Nick Saban; 2) Urban Meyer; 3) James Franklin, 4) Kevin Sumlin; 5) Jimbo Fisher.
That’s pretty good company, and it speaks to why Franklin went 18-8 in his final two seasons at Vandy.
Flip side: The Commodores never finished higher than fourth in the SEC East, the weaker side. His 2012 squad beat zero ranked opponents. Last year the defense got pummeled in its four losses, allowing 39, 35, 51 and 56 points.
So is Franklin proven as a game-day coach at the highest level? Absolutely not.
But was the 42-year-old Pennsylvania native the right man for the job? Absolutely.
Not surprisingly, Franklin said “the relationships” are his favorite part of coaching, not the X’s and O’s that turn on NFL strategists such as Bill O’Brien, who left Penn State for the Houston Texans.
“I live a fairly pathetic existence,” Franklin said. “I don’t have any hobbies or anything like that. It’s my family, the coaches I work with and the players. I have a few friends outside (of football) but I love getting to know (players like) Mike Hull and what makes them tick.”
Some of his former Vandy players have taken shots, with one saying replacement Derek Mason is “more genuine” and another tagging Franklin as a “big camera guy.”
Franklin said he’s not trying to put on a show: “I can’t say: ‘No thank you, I’m not going to Big Ten media days.’ So I might as well enjoy it instead of (acting like) I’m coming to the dentist’s office.”