UNIVERSITY PARK — James Franklin’s first steps on the ground as Penn State football coach were toward his new team’s fans.
“It’s great to be home,” Franklin said after emerging from the plane that brought him and his family from Nashville, Tenn., to University Park Airport on Saturday afternoon.
Franklin coached at Vanderbilt the past three seasons. He is a native of Langhorne and was a quarterback at East Stroudsburg University.
After exiting the plane, he grabbed an umbrella and moved to a fence near the airport’s private terminal and greeted fans and media members who had been waiting in the rain.
Among the first to meet the new coach was Brent Kopcha, of Bellefonte. Franklin, wearing a blue and white tie, knelt and introduced himself to Kopcha’s two young daughters.
“I’ll never forget that,” Kopcha said.
At his press conference later, Franklin called the airport welcome “special.”
“We got to walk over and meet two beautiful young ladies at the fence, shake their hands,” Franklin said.
Early Saturday, the university announced that Franklin had been hired to succeed Bill O’Brien, who bolted Dec. 31 for the NFL’s Houston Texans. That announcement came just after the university trustees’ compensation committee approved Franklin’s contract.
The coach traveled with his wife, Fumi, and their two daughters, Shola and Addison.
“I didn’t expect him to come over and I definitely didn’t expect him to talk to us,” Kopcha said at the airport. “That made it all worthwhile, standing out here in the rain.”
Penn State did its best to whisk Franklin in without having him encounter fans or reporters. The plane taxied away from the general aviation terminal and to a hangar nearby, stopping in a spot mostly hidden by the building.
But Franklin would have none of it, making his first public appearance at the airport rather than a press conference later in the day.
“That was awesome,”said Aaron King, who was among the first to arrive Saturday to see Penn State’s 16th football coach land in Happy Valley.
The Centre Hall resident and decorated Iraq War veteran snapped pictures of Franklin with his cellphone, including an image of the coach giving him the thumbs-up sign.
Earlier, King got a thrill when, he said, Franklin followed him on Twitter.
“I am pumped,” King said. “When I saw the names they were throwing around, I was like, man, how awesome would it be if we could get Franklin?”
Kopcha said Franklin was his top choice for the job, too.
“I was cheering for him to get it,” Kopcha said. “I liked (Al) Golden and (Mike) Munchak, and you’ve got to cheer for the Penn State people. But I thought Franklin was the best choice.”
Kopcha pointed to Franklin’s success at Vanderbilt, where the Commodores won nine games and a bowl this past season.
“And he’s a Pennsylvania person, too,” Kopcha said.
“He turned Vanderbilt around,” King said. “They used to be the laughing stock of the SEC, and now they’re contenders. I was reading everything, hoping and praying we’d get him, and we did.”
Franklin’s flight from Nashville was delayed, apparently by weather.
But King was happy to wait a while longer.
“I wanted to be part of this,” King said.