In the midst of coaching Vanderbilt’s football team to a previously undreamed-of string of victories, James Franklin never hesitated to state his career goal.
Franklin said it all the time, to anyone who would listen: He wanted to win a national championship.
That goal, and a contract worth $4.25 million annually for six years, has led Franklin back to his home state. Pennsylvania State University’s new football coach, a Lower Bucks County, Pa., native, is a 41-year-old Neshaminy High graduate, a former East Stroudsburg University quarterback.
“I’m a Pennsylvania boy with a Penn State heart, and I’m so excited to be here,” Franklin said during his introductory news conference at Beaver Stadium on Saturday.
In his three seasons at Vanderbilt University, he built a winning program, as well as a kind of wild and crazy public image — mimicking kissing a Vanderbilt player in the 2012 Music City Bowl after a big play, saying (jokingly, he said later) that he judged his coaching assistants partially by how good-looking their wives were.
Behind the scenes, however, Franklin was a demanding boss. One assistant told an acquaintance he hadn’t had a day off in 21/2 years. Franklin became known as a guy who wouldn’t take no for an answer as he pushed his school for changes that would let Vanderbilt compete in the big-time and stop being the doormat of the Southeastern Conference, home of seven of the last eight national championship teams.
His communications skills had been honed at an early age.
“If you’re a CEO or a guy walking down the street, he can stop and talk to you, and have a good conversation, and probably sell you on his mission statement,” said East Stroudsburg coach Denny Douds, who talks of sitting on his back deck eating Klondike bars one summer with Franklin, talking about the world.
In his new job, Franklin said Saturday: “We will not turn down a speaking engagement. ... People who call to blow up balloons at their kid’s birthday party in the backyard, we’ll do that as well.”
What people don’t see when they focus only on his sales skills is his work ethic, said a friend since his Neshaminy High days, Guy Horton.
“If I want to talk to him, it’s at 4 a.m., and he’s on the way to work,” Horton said. “I’ve been to see him. I’ll drive him to work, to get there at 4:15. Then I’ll pick him up at 12:20 a.m.”
“Nobody gave James anything,” Douds said from his office in the Poconos. “He wasn’t full scholarship; he got a buck or two here. He was in a single-parent family. His mother worked at Neshaminy High.”
More recently, Franklin’s passionate style and ability to sell the formerly lower-tier Vanderbilt program spread fear among rival recruiters in the football-talent-rich South.
One highly rated recruit from a little town about an hour outside Nashville seemed destined to be a Tennessee Volunteer. Both his parents had gone to the University of Tennessee. His basement was wallpapered in Orange, the Volunteers’ color. That player chose Vanderbilt over Tennessee and the University of Alabama, the defending national champion.
The new man coming to State College led Vanderbilt to a 24-15 record, including bowl wins the last two seasons. This happened at a school where football has never been king, where is was an activity the blue-blazered Phi Delta Theta boys across the street would stop in to check out for a while with their dates.
“He would say, ‘We’re not going to back down to any team in the SEC even though we’re Vanderbilt.’ He brought a swagger about him,” said former Vanderbilt player Eric Samuels, now in the Canadian Football League. “We’re just so different than we were.”
In the locker room, Franklin knew how to find the right tone, win or lose, cursing a blue streak if he thought players had taken their success for granted. Once, explaining why he wasn’t doing that, he said the players needed to put the loss they had just experienced behind them.
“Who do we play next?” he would say, reinforcing his mantra that the game right in front of them was the only one that mattered.
“He’s a crier, too,” said Horton, who owns a car dealership in Bridgeton, N.J. “He cries every day. You ask anybody. If you’re in the locker room, he’ll start talking about how much he loves his kids. He’ll start crying.”
At Vanderbilt, success brought more demands from Franklin. Not just for an increased salary, although he eventually was making more than $3.5 million a year. An indoor practice facility had to be built, NOW ... NOW, NOW, NOW. It was.
Assistant coaches needed more money. They got it.
Franklin’s defensive coordinator, Bob Shoop, a Pittsburgh guy (from Oakmont, Pa.), had a chance to go do the same job at Florida State after last season. He stayed with Franklin and Vanderbilt. The bump in salary could not have hurt Vanderbilt’s ability to keep him.
Franklin built a staff full of men from the mid-Atlantic region. Three, including Shoop and offensive coordinator John Donovan, a New Jersey native, made early career stops at Villanova University.
His own first coaching stop had been at Division II Kutztown University. He said the $1,200 a year job included filling campus soda machines in the morning. After that, he was a grad assistant at his alma mater. Then to James Madison University; a year at Washington State; more responsibility at Idaho State; a stop at the University of Maryland as receivers coach and recruiting coordinator; a season with the Green Bay Packers as a receivers coach; a major promotion to offensive coordinator, then assistant head coach and offensive coordinator, and eventually “coach in waiting” at Maryland. When Vanderbilt called, he stopped waiting.
John Chaump, Franklin’s coach at Neshaminy, knew Franklin’s mother, Jocelyn, before he knew James. Josie, who passed away less than 10 years ago, had emigrated from England, Chaump said.
His father, James, had been in the Air Force, Franklin said Saturday. He met Josie in England, they “eloped to Ireland,” then settled in Bucks County after his father took a job with GM in Trenton, N.J. After his parents broke up, he’d spend holidays with his father at home in the Hill District of Pittsburgh.
“Because I was friendly with his mom, worked with her, I had known James before he got to Neshaminy,” Chaump said. “I knew he was a good athlete, a good football player. She was a teacher’s aide at the school, for the whole school, mainly with discipline, making sure kids got to class on time, behaved in the hallways. She didn’t put up with anything from the kids.”
Franklin described her job as janitor. Her nickname was Lovie, and Horton confirmed “she was tough as nails. When you picture James getting on his guys, that’s his mom. That’s the look you’d get as high school kids. We were very aware of what to do. And James’ work ethic did not come by accident.”
Franklin waited his turn at quarterback and took over as a junior. He showed the kind of athleticism that excited Douds up at East Stroudsburg even though Douds liked to throw the ball as much as possible.
“He had great passion for the game, great enthusiasm — and he was probably the best scrambling quarterback to play in the PSAC,” Douds said, referring to the Division II Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference.
Franklin majored in psychology and thought about pursuing it as a career.
“I had done a couple of internships in psychiatric hospitals,” Franklin said in a 2011 interview with The Inquirer. “I realized, ‘Wow, this isn’t what I want to do, at least on this level.’ I realized that I could have as big an impact on players’ lives coaching.”
By the time he reached Vanderbilt, he had honed the message he wanted to deliver to his players.
“We had core values: Have a positive attitude about everything, compete in everything you do,” Samuels, the former player, said. “You have to sacrifice for the team, never put yourself first. Give of yourself completely, ask for nothing in return, and success will be yours.”
After a big play at a big time, an interception just before halftime of last season’s Music City Bowl, Samuels wasn’t surprised to have Franklin give him a heartfelt sideline hug.
He just didn’t know how Franklin would celebrate next, and that it would be archived on YouTube. Franklin put his hand over Samuels’ mouth and then mimicked a languorous smooch on the lips.
“You can call him crazy — I call him crazy,” Samuels said. “He doesn’t just do things for TV — he’s like that every single day.”
You don’t go from being perennial doormat of the Southeastern Conference to beating upper-tier SEC programs like Georgia, Tennessee, and Florida in the same season on mere enthusiasm. According to Samuels, Franklin didn’t win over Vanderbilt players immediately when he arrived three years ago from Maryland. He placed demands.
“We really didn’t know what to expect,” Samuels said. “Who is this guy coming in, demanding things from us? But he was a great coach, a tremendous leader. We bought in. For me, it took a training camp or maybe a little longer to buy in. When everyone started buying in, you could see how it carried out.”
His success was, in fact, unparalleled at Vandy.
“You’re talking about four bowl games in 121 years of football,” Franklin said in the 2011 interview.
So now it’s six bowl games, half of them under Franklin.
The flip side, could he really take it higher at Vanderbilt? Especially if his consuming goal was a national title?
He had been listed as a candidate for other jobs, including at the University of Texas and the University of Southern California this offseason. If Charlie Strong hadn’t taken the job at Texas, Franklin reportedly was the other finalist. The year before, the University of Arkansas had gone after him hard. The University of California and University of Colorado also had contacted him.
This year, Franklin hit the candidate list for NFL jobs, including in Cleveland and Washington, and although Franklin spent 2005 as a receivers coach with the Packers, nobody had heard him talk recently about NFL head coach being a career goal.
BUMPS IN THE ROAD
Franklin earned some national headlines — or at least some blog posts — and raised eyebrows after a radio interview he gave in 2012 to a Nashville station.
“I’ve been saying it for a long time, I will not hire an assistant coach until I’ve seen his wife,” Franklin said in the interview. “If she looks the part, and she’s a (topflight college) recruit, then you got a chance to get hired. That’s part of the deal.”
He elaborated, saying: “There’s a very strong correlation between having the confidence, going up and talking to a woman, and being quick on your feet and having some personality and confidence and being fun and articulate, than it is walking into a high school and recruiting a kid and selling him.”
The comments got some national attention, and Franklin quickly tweeted: “Attempt at humor obviously fell a few yds short. Was speaking to the courage it takes 4 men 2 approach the women who become their wives!!!!!”
Vanderbilt athletic director David Williams spoke out against those remarks publicly at the time, saying that Vanderbilt did not stand behind them.
The biggest issue Franklin has ever had to deal with came last June when four Vanderbilt football players were charged with raping a 21-year-old Vanderbilt student in a dorm room while she was unconscious.
A fifth Vanderbilt player, not implicated in the rape, pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of trying to help cover it up. The trial for the other four is scheduled for August. They were all dismissed by Vanderbilt last June. The school said Franklin acted properly and swiftly.
“We just wanted to state clearly that there’s no evidence whatsoever where coach Franklin was involved in any way in the cover-up or has done anything inappropriate. He’s cooperated with us,” Deputy District Attorney Tom Thurman told the Tennessean newspaper, and he reiterated those thoughts Thursday in an interview with Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Mike Sielski.
Those words obviously passed muster at Penn State.
Athletics director David M. Joyner said Franklin went through “the most thorough vetting process in the history” of Penn State, and officials were satisfied in his actions.
Franklin, married with two daughters, is the first permanent African American head football at Penn State. He is also the first Nittany Lions head coach on Twitter, and the man knows how to use it. He clearly knew that late Wednesday night Penn Staters were tracking a private plane from State College to Destin, Fla., where Franklin has a vacation home.
Would the coach be on the plane back to Happy Valley?
Franklin wasn’t talking, but he did tweet, choosing that night to tell the world that he had just put his daughters to bed. (In other words, he was not on a plane.)
Penn State clearly has a coach who doesn’t just enjoy the games, but also the gamesmanship.