Ron Cook: Penn State did well to hire James Franklin

It’s hard to imagine any fair-thinking person who watched Franklin’s coming-out news conference Saturday afternoon finding him less than dynamic.
Jan 16, 2014
Newly-hired Penn State football coach James Franklin answers questions from the media during a news conference at Beaver Stadium in University Park, Pa., on Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014. ( Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times/MCT)

 

Let’s start with a warning. Be prepared for the next paragraph. You will read something you probably haven’t heard in the past 26 months.

Nice job, Penn State administration!

Shocking, right?

True.

It couldn’t have been easy for the most ridiculed, most maligned people in college sports to hire Vanderbilt’s James Franklin as Penn State’s next head football coach. There are two reasons. One, Franklin brings baggage, at least perceived baggage to those who believe the university must pay for Jerry Sandusky’s heinous sins forever. Those people already have registered their outrage over Franklin’s hiring without scrutinizing his background. And two, Franklin has no ties to Penn State or Joe Paterno. Bill O’Brien, on his way out of Penn State’s door to the NFL earlier this month after just two seasons as coach, mentioned the Paterno loyalists generally were a pain in his behind.

The Penn State brass hired Franklin, anyway.

Good call.

“I’m a Pennsylvania boy with a Penn State heart,” Franklin said. “I think I’m the right guy to come back and unite this state and bring this program back where it’s supposed to be.”

It’s hard to imagine any fair-thinking person who watched Franklin’s coming-out news conference Saturday afternoon finding him less than dynamic. Penn State players and recruits must have felt like putting on the uniform and playing Ohio State on Saturday night after listening to him. Franklin must have impressed Penn State president Rodney Erickson, athletic director Dave Joyner and the university’s search committee the way Mike Tomlin impressed the Rooneys and Clint Hurdle impressed the Pirates. Erickson and the others had better be impressed; Penn State will pay Franklin more than $4 million a year for six years.

Franklin promised to call every Pennsylvania high school coach and to recruit tirelessly. “We are going to dominate the state.” He paid his respect to “the great Joe Paterno” right at the start. He promised to sell out Beaver Stadium “every game from here on out.” He fairly shouted, “We Are Penn State!” not once, but twice. He even mentioned Sue Paterno, for heaven’s sake, and thanked her for her support.

The only way Franklin will completely win over the Paterno people is by winning games. Even that wasn’t enough for O’Brien, who had remarkable success after the NCAA’s heavy-handed sanctions against the Penn State program after the Sandusky sex-abuse case became wide-spread news in November 2011. If that concerns Franklin, he didn’t show it. “Everyone wants to see Penn State be great. I believe that’s why I’m here.”

Paterno was the greatest college football coach of all time. It wouldn’t have been wrong to hire someone with ties. Tom Bradley, Paterno’s long-time defensive coordinator, would have been a great choice. He’s a terrific recruiter and a terrific coach.

But that doesn’t mean Paterno’s way is the only way. O’Brien proved his way works, too. Franklin has a chance to be even better if only because he’s inheriting the one player every team needs — a star quarterback in Christian Hackenberg.

Franklin might not be at Penn State long. He is highly regarded and could follow O’Brien to the NFL, although it’s nice to think he’ll stay more than two seasons. O’Brien is a despicable character, even among coaches who, you might have heard, don’t always honor their contract. He asked the Penn State players to make a commitment to him after the NCAA sanctions at a time when they had options to leave. He largely built his reputation on their devotion and sweat, then bailed on them. He’s no better than Todd Graham.

“I’m a college guy,” Franklin said. “We plan on being here for a very, very long time. This is my dream job.”

We’ll see, not to be cynical.

I mentioned Franklin’s baggage. Five of his Vanderbilt players were involved in an alleged rape case in June. Four await trial on rape charges. The fifth pled guilty to covering up the crime. Franklin threw all five off his team.

“We were honest. We were up-front. We made decisions quickly,” Franklin said of his actions in the case.

Tennessee officials said Franklin has been linked to no wrong-doing. Joyner said Franklin was vetted more than anyone in Penn State history.

“I couldn’t be more confident of the character of this man,” Joyner said.

Penn State officials were negligent during the Sandusky rampages. Erickson and his people haven’t always been stellar since Sandusky faced trial and was convicted. Maybe you are asking: Why can’t they be wrong about Franklin?

Sure, it’s possible, they could be wrong. Maybe new evidence linking Franklin to a cover-up will emerge during the trials. If it does, he should be fired instantly.

But that doesn’t mean Penn State has to live in fear or be haunted by Sandusky for eternity. It should never forget the terrible wounds he caused. It should continue to learn from them every day. But it can’t be overwhelmed by them. It has a right to go about its business the way Pitt does or West Virginia does. Do the homework diligently and hire the right person for the right job. That’s what Penn State appeared to do in Franklin’s case.

I realize, of course, if you write that, you automatically are accused of being sympathetic to child abuse or college rape. What nonsense. Save me those emails telling me I’d feel differently if I had a daughter. I do have a daughter, a 19-year-old freshman at Florida State. I worry about college rape as much as any father.

But I also believe people are generally good and don’t deserve to be treated as if they are guilty until proven innocent. Isn’t that backward? I hate that Bradley’s reputation has been besmirched because he worked for Paterno during the Sandusky years and, therefore, must have known about Sandusky’s crimes. I might be naïve, but I don’t believe that. I’m just glad Franklin didn’t take a similar fall.

“Coach Franklin is the right choice for us,” Joyner said.

I can’t disagree.

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