Denny Douds — the sun shining off the top of his head, white East Stroudsburg golf polo glowing in the August daylight and smile beaming — hopped in his black SUV outside the Koehler Fieldhouse and led the way.
Douds, the 76-year-old leader of the Warriors football program, spent three minutes driving around campus, explaining East Stroudsburg’s summer scrimmage schedule before pulling up to the front gate of Eiler-Martin Stadium. The nine-time PSAC division champ strolled out to the 50-yard line with a pep in his step, put his hands on the waist of his khaki shorts and looked around.
Douds’ squinting eyes saw a different scene 25 years earlier. There was no astroturf, rubberized track or Chili’s advertisements.
But there was James Franklin.
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Franklin, a Big Ten champion after an 11-win season in his third year with the Nittany Lions, started his path to Penn State just 150 miles away down I-80.
At East Stroudsburg, Franklin was a record-setting quarterback, assistant coach, friend — and devout fan of a pork roll sandwich.
The Division II university is where Franklin developed habits, learned the game and really started his journey to Penn State.
Now, Franklin calls Happy Valley home. Set to patrol the Beaver Stadium sidelines against Pitt in his 42nd game at the helm, the coach is comfortable in State College.
But when he returns to East Stroudsburg, Franklin fits right in.
“This was the origin of James Franklin,” Douds said proudly. “Right here in the Poconos.”
Joe Paterno indirectly helped build East Stroudsburg’s football offices — and, in some ways, affected Franklin’s budding career in football.
Back in 1975, Douds convinced East Stroudsburg’s president to turn a storage closet into a football office. All the Warriors’ staff had to do was raise the money.
The coaches constructed an office from scratch, lining the walls with dark wood panels reminiscent of an Elks Lodge and setting up desks on either side of a separating white wall. Now they needed chalkboards, bulletin boards and personnel boards.
Douds and his guys drove a half-hour to Bangor Cork Company for supplies.
“The guy there was a big Penn State fan,” Douds remembers. “We walked in and said, ‘Hey look, Joe Paterno sent us, and he said to give us the best deal you could squeeze. We’ve got 350 bucks, and this is what we need.’ You couldn’t buy the personnel boards for $350, let alone the chalkboards and bulletin boards — and we wanted them in red.
“Joe never heard that story, but he helped us in the long-run.”
And, ultimately, he helped Franklin.
When the Neshaminy High School graduate arrived at East Stroudsburg, he was an eager 18-year-old willing to put in the time. The offices opened at 8 a.m., and Franklin got there as the coaches did.
A “student of the game,” according to Douds, Franklin studied film on one of three TVs with S-VHSs — higher pixel quality than a regular VHS to see players’ numbers.
There aren’t clocks in the office today, and there never was. The job was done when the job was done, regardless of how late it might’ve been.
That was no problem for Franklin.
“When James Franklin came here as an 18-year-old, he was always a bigger-than-life guy,” East Stroudsburg offensive coordinator Mike Terwillinger said, eyes wide-open as he gestured wildly with his hands. “He had an air to himself. James Franklin was always his own man. He had the look in his eyes that you get excited about.”
Still, he was a freshman. Franklin didn’t start until 1993, his junior season.
But the quarterback made an impact halfway through his inaugural year.
In an away game at Millersville, the Warriors trailed 17-3 at halftime. To make matters worse, their starting quarterback Bret Comp got his bell rung and couldn’t return.
If only for a couple quarters, it was Franklin’s chance — and he capitalized. The scrambler threw a pair of second-half touchdowns, the last of which came with 2:21 remaining in regulation.
Franklin’s two scores were enough to earn a rare 17-17 tie, which helped East Stroudsburg to an 8-3-1 mark and its first-ever berth in the Division II championships.
That performance against Millersville was a preview of what was to come.
Franklin’s electrifying ability allowed him to set or tie 23 school records, five of which still stand. The kid from Langhorne had 4,687 passing yards, 1,077 rushing yards and 46 touchdowns in his illustrious career.
But it was his initiative that rubbed off on everyone. It was Franklin’s demeanor that set the tone.
“When he walked in the huddle, he had that innate leadership,” Douds said. “He was able to say, ‘Let’s go guys. Let’s get it done.’”
Mike Santella thought twice about leaving dirty dishes in the sink.
His roommate was always lurking.
“Someone was getting ripped for it,” Santella said with a laugh, before dropping an Odd Couple reference. “It wasn’t an Oscar Madison and Felix Unger situation, but he was definitely detail-oriented.”
Yes, Franklin was a neat freak. Surprise, surprise.
Still, Santella contends that his senior year was his favorite at East Stroudsburg, rooming with Franklin and two others in a half-double house just steps from campus.
On a daily basis, the roommates would find themselves in sports arguments — who was the best basketball player of all-time and other hot-button topics now found on “First Take.”
Santella took Ls all the time in those back-and-forths.
“James was always the winner,” said Santella, who’s entering his 20th season as the Warriors’ offensive line coach. “If he wasn’t a football coach, he’d have a heck of a career in business or politics because he has his side of the argument. He’d always win and get the last word.”
But the best part about living with Franklin — other than forming a bond that’s lasted to this day — was their pigskin-based discussions at night. Santella drove a half-hour to and from Freedom High School every evening in the fall where he coached the school’s ninth-grade football team.
When he got home from practice and Franklin returned from Koehler Fieldhouse, they’d discuss everything from East Stroudsburg’s offensive wrinkles to how to best explain a base Cover 2 defense to 15-year-olds.
Santella and Franklin became best friends during those conversations, and they kept in-touch with letters when the former coached at Lehigh and the latter coached and played in Denmark for the Roskilde Kings.
After a 1996 victory in Mermaid Bowl VIII — the Danish version of the Super Bowl — Franklin returned to America to coach.
Douds offered him a job as a graduate assistant.
After serving as a GA at Kutztown in 1995, it was Franklin’s third stop out of 10 that’d take him to Penn State.
“He had a passion to be involved with the game,” said Franklin’s former coach, who’s now entering his 44th year at the helm of ESU. “You could see it. He would calculate how it’d help him in the future.”
On Washington Street, just off South Courtland, sits a corner bar with a ragged red awning, brick exterior and a door that’s been opened thousands of times.
Inside the dimly lit watering hole are six wooden booths, Yuengling signs, a U-shaped bar with 27 stools around it and countless collages on display.
But just beyond the the electronic bowling game and the ATM — it’s a cash-only joint — stands a trophy case filled with pennants and plaques.
In the bottom right corner, under the surveillance of an airplane made of PBR cans, is a gleaming white Penn State helmet with a distinct John Hancock on the left temple.
“James Franklin, We Are!”
Welcome to Rudy’s Tavern, Franklin’s favorite spot for a sandwich and anonymity.
Founded in 1933, Rudy’s is a neighborhood favorite. Longtime staff and reasonable prices — beers are two bucks while their signature “Super,” a hot dog wrapped with bacon and filled with cheese costs $2.50 — are its two most endearing qualities.
Lenny Orehek, a 54-year-old East Stroudsburg graduate, started working behind the bar at Rudy’s in 1981 when he was still a student.
And at the time, he knew Franklin. Despite being a decade older than the Penn State coach, Orehek was an active member in Franklin’s fraternity — Phi Sigma Kappa — while working at the bar.
“He’s energetic,” Orehek said, cleaning his hands with a faded white towel. “If you listen to him, you’re motivated.”
Orehek didn’t see much of Franklin in Rudy’s during his East Stroudsburg playing career; he was holed up in the Warriors’ football office studying the playbook most of the time.
But whenever Franklin visits his alma mater, he stops at Rudy’s for his go-to: a pork roll and cheese sandwich.
Up until he became the Nittany Lions’ leader in 2014, Franklin could crush a sandwich or two without being hassled.
“Even when he was at Vanderbilt, he came here and people were like, ‘Who’s Franklin?’” Orehek said. “But once he got to Penn State, he was a big deal.”
Shortly after Franklin’s Penn State tenure started, Rudy’s had to update their cable package.
“We have the Big Ten Network because of him,” Orehek said, talking over “The Price is Right” and walking toward the grill. “They weren’t on TV the first couple of years because they weren’t any good, so we had to get the Big Ten Network.”
At the time, Rudy’s was the only bar in the area carrying Penn State’s less-intriguing matchups.
Now, the long-time bartender said they’re leaning toward not renewing the more expensive cable package.
They don’t need to.
After a trip to the Rose Bowl, the Nittany Lions are going to be featured on national TV plenty in 2017.
Count on Orehek and his customers to be watching from Franklin’s favorite corner tavern.
Mike Santella posted up on his couch, put his phone away and watched last season’s Big Ten Championship game.
Rob Mikulski — East Stroudsburg strength coach and a member of Penn State’s 1986 national championship team — joined him as they split a large pizza and a two-liter bottle of diet Pepsi.
“I didn’t want to go to a party, and I certainly didn’t want to go to Rudy’s,” Santella said. “If you go to a Super Bowl party, you don’t actually watch the game. ... We wanted to watch it.”
And, boy, were they in for a classic.
After falling behind by 21 in the first half, the Franklin-led Nittany Lions roared back for a 38-31 victory — Penn State’s first outright conference title since 1994.
Over at Rudy’s, when Franklin held up the conference trophy as the confetti fell at Lucas Oil Stadium, customers cheered. At Douds’ house the coach, alongside his wife Judy, watched with delight.
And back at Santella’s, his eyes began to well.
“It was tears of joy,” Franklin’s friend said, nodding his head, “because I knew this was going to happen.”
Santella isn’t alone, either.
Everyone at East Stroudsburg who watched Franklin grow from a restless 18-year-old to one of college football’s highest-paid coaches wasn’t surprised at all.
Rudy’s bartender Lenny Orehek said Franklin always reminded him of Douds — the all-time winningest coach in PSAC history with 260 victories and counting.
Mike Terwilliger, Franklin’s position coach, has been proud of him ever since he first walked on and off campus.
“He’s never forgotten his roots and where he came,” the Warriors’ quarterbacks guru said. “I admire that. Not a lot of people are like that. But James is.”
To Santella, this kind of success was totally expected. From the moment he first met James Franklin, the Bethlehem native realized he’d be special.
And for Douds, that understanding started to form the moment he watched him play for the first time at Neshaminy High School.
“When that ball was snapped, it was an adventure. If that play broke down, he had the innate ability to make something happen that was good,” Douds said, leaning back in his orange chair within the white walls of Koehler Fieldhouse. “When he went into Penn State, that wasn’t a rose garden. It was the second-worst penalty the NCAA ever rendered, and the other school took 10 years just to get back to .500. He’s been in a bowl game every year he’s been there.
“Does he make something positive happen? Yeah, he does.”
Penn State football wouldn’t be the same without Franklin, and the coach wouldn’t be a Big Ten champion without East Stroudsburg. It was in Koehler Fieldhouse, in Eiler-Martin Stadium and in the Poconos where Franklin was shaped and molded to become the Nittany Lions’ eventual leader.
And no one — not Franklin, Douds, Santella or the Rudy’s regulars — will ever forget that.