James Franklin stepped from a small jet Saturday and into his “dream job.”
Franklin, who spent the past three years coaching the Vanderbilt Commodores, was named Penn State’s 16th head coach in the program’s 127-year history before about 130 media members. The 41-year-old coach walked into the Beaver Stadium media room wearing a dark blue suit over a light blue shirt. A blue and white tie coupled with a Nittany Lion pin on his right lapel completed his look.
“This is the best day of my life,” Franklin said.
He then glanced at his wife, Fumi, and two daughters, Shola and Addison, and added: “I’m sorry. Third-best day of my life.”
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Penn State and Franklin agreed to a six-year contract that the Penn State trustees’ compensation committee approved early Saturday morning. He will earn $4 million in year one and will receive a $100,000 raise to his base salary annually, increasing his guaranteed compensation to $4.5 million in the sixth year.
Franklin will earn $2.2 million annually for radio and TV appearances in addition to $500,000 from Nike.
After arriving earlier in the afternoon following a meeting with his former players in Nashville, Tenn., Franklin described the day as an emotional one. He said he was leaving behind 107 sons and gaining another 95, talking about Penn State players.
“I’m a Pennsylvania boy with a Penn State heart,” said Franklin, who’s from Langhorne, near Philadelphia. “I think I am the guy to come back and unite this state.”
Franklin spoke for nearly an hour as Director of Athletics Dave Joyner and Penn State President Rodney Erickson flanked him.
Franklin said he will work quickly to construct a staff, meet with Penn State’s players, who are still flocking back to campus for classes that start Monday, and scout a home for his family.
He plans to stay awhile.
His buyout, should an NFL or other college team wish to pursue him, is $5 million over the first two years and becomes more affordable for other teams at $2.5 million in 2016, $2 million the next year and $1 million over the last two years. But, Franklin implied it won’t come into play.
His predecessor, Bill O’Brien, had his buyout lowered significantly after his first season. The Houston Texans paid approximately $5.6 million to hire O’Brien on Jan. 1. Throughout his two-year tenure at Penn State, O’Brien remained coy when asked about his future. He interviewed with NFL teams after the 2012 season before doing so again in December.
Franklin used his first chance to answer a reporter’s question to commit to Penn State long-term.
“We’re coming here with the mindset that we’re going to build this program. We’re going to build it the right way, and we’re going to build it for the long haul,” Franklin said. “We plan on being here for a very, very long time. This is my dream job. This is where I want to be. Wearing these colors, representing this state, representing these high school coaches and the people of the fine state of Pennsylvania is what I want to do for a very, very long time.”
It didn’t take long for Franklin to elevate a Vanderbilt program that had only two winning seasons and appeared in just two bowl games in the 28 years before he took over.
Franklin led the Commodores to a Liberty Bowl berth in his first year and back-to-back bowl wins in 2012 and 2013. Franklin ended his time with the Commodores with a 41-24 win over Houston in the BBVA Compass Bowl on Jan. 4 and a 24-15 record overall.
“I believe we have found the right person to lead our program,” Joyner said. “He is an inspiring young leader who has accomplished much already in his career, learning the ropes of coaching in both the collegiate and NFL ranks. He took his former program to a remarkable turnaround in a short period of time while competing in one of the toughest conferences in the country.”
Franklin spent one of his 18 years of coaching with the Green Bay Packers. The rest of his career has been spent among the college ranks.
Before arriving at Vanderbilt in time for the 2011 season, Franklin built his resume with coaching stops at Kutztown, East Stroudsburg, James Madison, Washington State and Idaho State. He was named the coach-in-waiting at Maryland and was set to succeed Ralph Friedgen before taking over at Vanderbilt.
“Ralph Friedgen had a huge impact on me,” Franklin said. “When I worked for Ralph, Ralph was in Sports Illustrated as the No. 1 mind in college football, and I remember saying to him, ‘Ralph, everybody says you’re a genius.’ He goes, ‘I’m not a genius, I just out-prepare people.’ And that had a big impact on me.”
His blue-collar upbringing did, too.
Franklin said he spent his summers as a kid in Pittsburgh where his father was from the Hill District. Most of Franklin and his sister’s time was spent just outside of Philadelphia, where his mom worked “a lot of jobs” including as a janitor at Franklin’s high school.
At one point during his press conference, Franklin’s voice cracked and his eyes got misty when he said he wakes up every day “trying to make her proud.”
After his four-year playing career at East Stroudsburg where he was the quarterback, Franklin took a job at Kutztown for $1,200 a year. He said he would fill soda machines on campus in the morning and lived in a friend’s basement. That’s when he “caught the bug of coaching.”
“I’m a college guy. I’m a relationship guy,” Franklin said. “You guys are going to ask me what our offensive philosophy and defensive philosophy and special teams philosophy is. I really don’t care. To me it’s about people. I love kids.
“You’re not going to find a coach that cares more about their players than me, and their complete development — academically, athletically, socially, spiritually — the whole package. That’s what drives me.”