DUBLIN — James Franklin stood off to the side, about 45 yards away from his football players as they took turns swinging hurling sticks and kicking a Gaelic football around the practice field of University College Dublin earlier this week.
With just a few days to go before Franklin’s Penn State squad was set to face Central Florida in the Croke Park Classic, the young, energetic coach was quiet and seemed to be perfectly at ease. He pushed his sunglasses up his nose and called out to a rookie:
“Hey, Saeed! You look like you’ve got the hang of that!”
Saeed Blacknall, a towering wide receiver with broad, muscular shoulders ready to burst, booted the ball up in the air a few times with his knees, caught it and whipped it around his back in Harlem Globetrotters-like fashion.
“I used to play soccer a lot in gym class!” Blacknall shouted back.
“Man, he’s big,” Franklin turned and said to an onlooker, allowing a smile to creep across his goateed face, his mind undoubtedly racing over the possible ways he’ll use the true freshman wide receiver on the gridiron.
But Blacknall isn’t as big a deal as Franklin has been — the man who took over Penn State at another uncertain time, following Bill O’Brien’s defection to the NFL coaching ranks. Franklin’s made so many rounds in State College and up and down the East Coast. He’s been on TV early and often. He even said he’d attend kids’ birthday parties and blow up balloons — a comment he later had to retract because he actually got a bunch of phone calls from eager parents.
It’s fair to say, the James Franklin era started long ago at Penn State. Nittany Lion fans and the college football universe are already feeling the effects.
Nearly 5,000 new Penn State season ticket plans have been sold. More than 50,000 single game tickets have been purchased. Nearly every season ticket holder from 2013 has renewed their seats. A sense of optimism has swept over the team and its fans. Twitter hashtags used by Franklin and his social-media savvy staff have become commonplace on social media.
Meanwhile, the coach with the electric personality has made good on his initial promise to “dominate the state” of Pennsylvania in recruiting. Penn State currently has the sixth-ranked recruiting class in the country and the best one in the Big Ten as ranked by multiple recruiting services.
And as for Franklin’s promise? He’s gotten commitments from seven of Pennsylvania’s top 10 prospects in the last seven months. Two of the 10 have not yet made up their minds and remain uncommitted.
Also consider, Franklin is fairly young in his career. His first year at Penn State will be just his fourth as a head coach overall. In that time, he led the Commodores to a 24-15 record and two consecutive bowl wins in his last two seasons. He was Penn State’s top target to replace O’Brien and he landed the job quickly.
Franklin’s success doesn’t come as a surprise to many who have helped him along the way.
“James is a quarterback,” East Stroudsburg offensive coordinator Mike Terwilliger said. “What made him is, No. 1, what you’re living with out there. He has personality. He has a presence to himself. He takes control of situations and he has an unbelievable desire to succeed.”
Franklin’s self-deprecating jokes are a hallmark of his sense of humor. He also tells a good story.
Upon arrival in Ireland, in his first comments to reporters who cover the team, Franklin said he misplaced his toothbrush. Hours later after Penn State’s first practice, he said he still hadn’t brushed his teeth. He constantly rags on himself for being bald. He’s insisted his throwing arm is shot and didn’t have the athletic tools necessary to play at Penn State.
But talk to the men who saw Franklin the quarterback closer than any other people, and a different picture comes into focus. As East Stroudsburg’s quarterback from 1993-94, Franklin built a reputation for keeping his group loose. He also inspired confidence. Take a typical huddle in which Franklin was running the show for example.
“The typical huddle would be, Steve Hynes and myself telling James to run the ball behind us,” Dave Hahn, Franklin’s center during the ’93 season, said. “That was the typical huddle back then because we thought we were studs. I don’t know that we think that anymore but we probably thought we were. And James, he was the guy that just said, ‘Just make a block. We’re going to get it in. Make a block and I’ll do my thing.’”
You could also look at Franklin’s stats. A player who graduated with most of East Stroudsburg’s passing records, Franklin passed for 4,687 yards and 36 touchdowns and ran for 1,077 yards and 10 more scores during his collegiate career. He was an all-PSAC East selection in 1993 and 1994, the years he was the team’s starter.
He did it with an unorthodox, electrifying style. Often faking a double handoff on each passing play, Franklin excelled at throwing on the run and was able to step through defenders in the pocket and heave it down-field.
“He could make it happen when things went wrong. When protections broke down, he was wild,” Terwilliger said.
But it took time for Franklin to get to where he eventually was. East Stroudsburg had two experienced quarterbacks on the depth chart
“James walked out on the practice field every day trying to earn the spot,” Terwilliger said. “He competed every day with another quarterback. And he got better every day.”
Meanwhile, Franklin was working in the classroom, too.
Franklin majored in psychology and had a career path loosely planned. At least he had a rough idea of what he wanted to do with his life since football was coming to an end.
Shortly after his college days at East Stroudsburg were finished, Franklin did a handful of internships in the area.
He wanted to get his doctorate and spent time interning in local psychiatric hospitals. He was also helping out with Kutztown football and at his alma mater as a graduate assistant. The time spent in the psychiatric hospitals and in team meetings provided Franklin with a stark contrast.
“I kind of caught the coaching bug and realized I could have just as much an impact on people’s lives in a positive way through the game of football as I could through psychology or psychiatry,” Franklin said.
He got his first job coaching wide receivers at James Madison in 1997, then did another graduate year at Washington State where he coached tight ends. Stints at Idaho State, Maryland, with the Green Bay Packers and Kansas State followed before Franklin went back to College Park where he took on his biggest job yet. In 2008, he was named assistant head coach and also coached the Terrapins’ quarterbacks and called the offense for two years.
He got his first head coaching job with Vanderbilt in 2011, where he revived a program that had long been a bottom-feeder in the rugged Southeastern Conference. The Commodores had just two winning seasons in their history books before Franklin arrived.
The success Franklin had in Nashville was largely based on coaching in the then-and-now with the players already there. He assembled an experienced staff and didn’t crack the Top 30 recruiting classes nationally until the 2013 crop of prospects was ranked 26th.
“His work ethic is second to nobody to allow his individuals in his football program, his staff down to his players to be successful,” Terwilliger said. “He has that drive to do whatever you need to do to get the job done and provide a quality experience for the people around him. That’s the thing he brought in here as a quarterback. That’s the blood running through his veins.”
Charles Huff and many of the assistants on Franklin’s staff feel similar.
Huff, who serves as Penn State’s special teams coordinator and running backs coach, coached with Franklin at Maryland and Vanderbilt in 2009 and 2011. One of Penn State’s youngest coaches, Huff said he’s learned a lot from his time with Franklin.
For Huff, organizational matters have really come into focus for him as a result of working with Franklin.
“Sometimes coaches come up with this great plan but does it really make sense?” Huff said. “I mean does it fit the players that you have, does it fit the recruits you’re trying to recruit? And that’s the biggest thing that I’ve learned and he’s really open to the staff, to the players, about why he does things, how he does things, so that way everybody understands. We’re just not drawing this up out of the dirt. This is why we’re doing it.
“And you learn also, plans change. But you have to have a plan for it to change. If you don’t have a plan, then it can’t change because there’s nothing there to start with. To me, personally, that would be the biggest thing that I’ve taken from working with him at two or three different places. And it’s improved at each place because each place is different. You have to present things and prepare for things in a different way.”
When Franklin was hired, he called being the head coach at Penn State his “dream job.”
He’s always highly regarded for his charisma and loves to share that with Penn State fans. As former Penn State players took part in their pro day for NFL scouts earlier this year, Franklin walked out of Holuba Hall toward his team’s Lasch Football Building but didn’t hesitate to stop and chat it up with fans.
He signed their posters, hats and T-shirts and took a handful of pictures. When the team practiced its new entrance to Beaver Stadium last week, Franklin emerged from the bus with a grin and shook nearly every fans’ hand as he walked down Curtin Road and into Beaver Stadium.
He wowed out-of-town media at Big Ten media days in Chicago earlier this summer, holding court with never less than 12 reporters and many cameras surrounding him. He told a story about offensive line coach Herb Hand that had those in Franklin’s corner of the room in stitches.
But, Franklin concedes, he hasn’t always been this open and warm to the media and onlookers. It’s become a learned behavior.
“I would say to this day I don’t like doing it and would prefer not to do it but our philosophy is if I’m going to do it, I might as well enjoy it and I might as well have fun,” Franklin said. “I don’t like social media. But that ain’t going away so I might as well embrace it and have fun with it.”
As for what he loves most about his job? That answer was easy for Franklin.
“The kids. I love the kids,” He said. “The relationships. And not just the kids, the staff. I love going to work every single day with the guys that I work with. I live a fairly pathetic existence. I don’t have any other hobbies or things like that. It’s my family. It’s the coaches that I work with and it’s the players. I have a few friends outside, that I grew up with, but not many. But I love getting to know Mike Hull and what makes him tick. I love getting to know (kicker Sam Ficken) Fick and what makes him tick. The same thing with Bill Belton and the rest of our players and coaches.”
His passion has trickled down to the high school ranks.
Hahn, one of Franklin’s close friends outside of his assistants, said he’s been up to Penn State’s practices a few times since Franklin took over. As an assistant coach for Manheim Central’s football team, Hahn has heard all about his buddy burning up the state’s recruiting trail.
Other high school coaches have been impressed with Franklin’s pitch to their players, Hahn said.
“My colleagues love him. They’ve embraced him,” Hahn said. “They love his energy, love his enthusiasm, love his ideals about relationships. And he’s not just building them with the kids, he’s building them with the coaches.”
Soon, Franklin will continue building his relationship with Penn State fans. Their avenue to him will be through watching the games. Ultimately, they’ll judge him based on his Saturday results.
Franklin himself would have it no other way.
“Time always tells the story,” Terwilliger said. “But that’s the backbone down James Franklin. He’s a bigger-than-life guy with a strong desire to do things right and succeed.”