Penn State introduced James Franklin as its head football coach Saturday amid questions about a 2013 alleged gang rape involving some of his former players at Vanderbilt.
University President Rodney Erickson and Director of Athletics Dave Joyner said a deep background search and intense interview questions left them confident that hiring Franklin would not bring trouble to Penn State, which is still working through the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal that rocked the program in 2011.
“He has been through the most thorough vetting process that any individual has gone through at the university,” Erickson said after a press conference Saturday at Beaver Stadium where Franklin made his first official appearance as leader of the Nittany Lions.
“I’ve responded to some people who’ve said, ‘I sure hope you’ve done your due diligence,’ ” Joyner said. “And I’ve told them, ‘Trust me. We have done a very thorough vetting of this and we feel comfortable with the situation.’ We’re very, very careful and very methodical about doing that.”
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Several Vanderbilt players are accused of raping an unconscious 21-year-old woman on the campus in Nashville last June.
About a year earlier, Sandusky was convicted of 45 counts of child sexual abuse and is serving a 30- to 60-year sentence in a state correctional facility.
His conviction was followed by the scathing Freeh report and heavy NCAA sanctions, most of which are still in place.
As Franklin emerged as the leading candidate for the job, Penn State professor Michelle Rodino-Colocino launched a petition through the Change.org website urging the university to look elsewhere for its successor to Bill O’Brien, who left Jan. 1 to become coach of the NFL’s Houston Texans.
In 2012, Franklin issued a Twitter apology for comments made during a radio interview, when he said when hiring assistant coaches he wants them to have attractive wives, which suggests confidence in the candidates.
Joyner said both situations were discussed during Franklin’s interview with the Penn State search committee.
“We talked about all of that,” Joyner said, “and we were comfortable with his respect — for all people.”
Rodino-Colocino‘s petition attracted hundreds of supporters. Some who shared her concerns posted their comments:
“Even considering this man is evidence of a failure to address the rape culture that enabled the Sandusky scandal to occur,” wrote one.
Another wrote: “My hope is that James Franklin is aware of this petition and that he responds with some form of support of the anti-rape movement.”
Asked about the rape case during his press conference, Franklin called it “the most challenging thing I’ve ever been through personally, as the father of two girls, and professionally.”
Four Vanderbilt players were charged with rape and a fifth was accused of helping cover up the incident. The players maintain their innocence.
In November, USA Today reported that a court filing focused on text messages sent between Vanderbilt players and coaches.
Prosecutors in Nashville have said they found no evidence that Franklin had any involvement in the case, including any alleged cover-up.
But the case remains open, and Erickson acknowledged that Franklin may be called to testify at some point.
The four players accused of rape were dismissed from the team within days of the incident.
“We were honest. We were up-front, and we made the decision quickly,” Franklin said Saturday.
Because of the Vanderbilt case and Penn State’s recent history, athletics integrity officer Julie Del Giorno, Vice President and General Counsel Steve Dunham, and Frank Guadagnino, a partner with the Pittsburgh firm of Reed Smith and counsel to the university, were among individuals brought into the vetting process, Joyner and Guadagnino said after Saturday’s press conference.
“When they say it was thorough, it was thorough,” Guadagnino said.
Erickson said NCAA monitor George Mitchell’s team was consulted.
“The Mitchell group was not part of the process, but we did inform them of what we were doing,” Erickson said.
“The whole process was probably the most thorough vetting process for a search for any position ever at Penn State,” Joyner said. “We utilized multiple, independent, third-party sources, and talked to many people who know James.”
Joyner said “people asked hard questions and got honest and true answers.”
He added of Franklin: “I couldn’t be more confident in the character of this man.”
Franklin pledged to meet early with Penn State deans, department heads, faculty, staff and students.
Erickson reaffirmed that commitment.
“The faculty and staff will certainly have the opportunity to meet with coach Franklin,” Erickson said. “They’re going to be able to see firsthand the quality and character of this individual.”