STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Like many people relocating to a new city for a new job, James Franklin made his temporary home at a hotel after being named head coach at Penn State. But the back-and-forth — a commute all of six minutes long — was taking up too much valuable time.
So Franklin bought bed sheets and spread them over a couch in his office, preferring to sleep, work and dream about the future of Nittany Lions football all under the same roof. At one point, two weeks had passed and the energetic, affable coach hadn’t even set foot outside the football facility.
“That’s just kind of who he is,” said Brent Pry, one of his assistant coaches. “He is involved in every facet of our program and that requires a lot of hours, a lot of energy.”
Perhaps more than coaching at any other school, the Penn State job and its unique challenges require bottomless energy, which is no doubt why school officials felt Franklin was such an attractive candidate. In the wake of the child sex abuse scandal, the Nittany Lions are still short on scholarships and banned from postseason play, their legions of fans still reeling. But optimism around Beaver Stadium is mounting and Happy Valley seems, well, almost happy again.
After three successful seasons at Vanderbilt, Franklin was tapped to steer the Penn State ship just as the waters around the embattled program appear to be calming. If you include an interim coach, Franklin is now Penn State’s fourth head coach in four years — at a school that had just one head coach, Joe Paterno, for 46 years.
“It’s crazy and unheard of when you think about Penn State,” Franklin said.
It dawned on Franklin recently that he’s been in this new job for seven months, and while he’s seen a lot of progress in that time, he said, “there’s also a part of me that wishes we had another seven months because it’s just one of those jobs . . . there’s always more that you wish you could do.”
More things that demand a coach’s attention, more things that require an energy level that some say is nearly unrivaled in college football.
Franklin is 42 years old, smooth-talking, glad-handing, back-slapping and ever-smiling. He’s a natural recruiter and could probably sell parkas in the desert.
It didn’t take long for him to set the tone for his new program — from position meetings to the weight room to the practice field. Before the team opened its training camp this month, players had to sit through a long day of talks about compliance, academics and other non-football issues.
“Everybody was like in and out of it,” tight end Kyle Carter said. “And then he gets up there and he just brings all of that energy, wakes everybody up, just gets you excited. That’s one thing you can look forward to every day with him. If you’re just walking by him, you’ve got to protect yourself. He might punch you in the back, slap you in the chest. You always got to be ready around him.”
But is Franklin a good tactician? Even better: Does that even matter?
“I think chemistry and morale are just as important — if not more important — than the X’s and O’s and the toughness,” Franklin said.
If that’s the case, given the controversy and deep wounds the Penn State community is trying to overcome, Franklin could be a pretty unique salve with a skillset that’s particularly needed in State College. Some might compare him to Pete Carroll, now the head coach of the Seattle Seahawks. Others might compare him to a car salesman. But he has a way of rallying his players and fan base together.
One example: In April following a pregame walk-through, Franklin set up Josh Gattis, one of his assistant coaches, in a locker room practical joke. He engaged Gattis in a serious conversation while a Penn State player sneaked behind the assistant with a trash can. From the opposite side, a teammate came flying at Gattis, slam-dunking over him. The locker room erupted, but perhaps no one was as boisterous as Franklin, who started waving his hands, screaming and running in circles. He looked more like a kid who had too much sugar than the respected leader of a storied football program.
“His energy rubs off on everybody who’s a part of our program,” Gattis said, “coaches, players, everyone.”
While the assistant got clowned, Franklin curried even more favor with a locker room that was still trying to figure out its new leader.
“It’s really easy to play for someone who’s that energetic,” linebacker Mike Hull said. “It really feeds the rest of the team. “
At Franklin’s first SEC Media Days appearance in 2011, the first-year Vanderbilt coach told reporters: “There are only three conferences that matter in football: the AFC, NFC, and the SEC.” He then won 24 games in three seasons, took the Commodores — who had made one bowl appearance in the previous 28 seasons — to three bowl games, twice finished ranked in the top 25 — and then hopped the first bus for the Big Ten.
Similar to the tent revival currently taking place in Happy Valley, Franklin awoke a Vanderbilt community eager for change, which is partly why it hurt so much when Franklin jumped ship. Love hurts, and maybe Vanderbilt wouldn’t have minded losing Franklin if the school and its fans hadn’t grown so attached — and if Franklin had been more upfront when he started eyeing the exit sign.
“He repeatedly told us, ‘I’m not leaving, no matter what. You guys don't have to worry,’ ” Vanderbilt defensive lineman Adam Butler recently told reporters. “He even took it as far as breaking down in tears like he always does.”
Most coaches will tell you, there’s no perfect way to leave for a higher-profile job, but the consensus in Nashville is that Franklin could have done better. After pledging his allegiance, seemingly overnight, Franklin took eight of his nine coaches and a handful of recruits with him to Penn State.
Seven months later, even those who’d grown to trust Franklin have managed to embrace Vanderbilt’s new coach, Derek Mason. Many sense more sincerity.
“There's something refreshing about Mason,” wrote Tennessean columnist David Climer, “He doesn’t come across as a salesman. He is down to earth.”
Defensive end Kyle Woestmann has spoken fondly of Franklin but says of Mason: “It’s definitely more genuine.”
“He was a big camera guy,” Butler explained. “He loved the camera, absolutely. Coach Franklin was true, no doubt, but I feel like some of it was a little bit more than what it had to be. There was a little bit of acting going on.”
It’s not a new charge and one that any high-energy motivator faces at some point. Two decades ago, Jim Pry was the offensive coordinator at East Stroudsburg University, a Division II Pennsylvania school where Franklin was a young, wide-eyed college quarterback. Pry says his former pupil has the same motor, intensity and sincerity today that he had then.
“He always had a jump in his step,” he said. “He was very competitive, and so full of energy. It comes from loving football. James just loves football that much.”
“It’s so exaggerative that some people might think it’s not real,” continued Pry, now the offensive coordinator at Bethune-Cookman whose son, Brent, is on Franklin’s Penn State staff. “But the more you’re around him, you finally have to say, ‘Holy cow, he’s really like this all the time.’”
In Happy Valley, maybe they’ll change their minds someday, but during this honeymoon stage, Franklin has no shortage of supporters — fans and players eager to return the program to its spot among the nation's elites. Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg calls Franklin “the most consistent human being I’ve ever seen.”
“We’ve all bought into it already," he said, "and we’re ready to go into battle for him."
Franklin can certainly woo the media, too. Reporters from all over Pennsylvania came to Beaver Stadium earlier this month for the team’s media day. During the head coach's news conference, Franklin called reporters by name, asked them how they’re doing, even inquired about one reporter’s father.
“I don’t want to be this boring, standard coach that gives these really dry answers,” Franklin explained recently. “I want to have fun. I look at that in everything we do.”
For Franklin, media relations are just another piece of the job that he thinks should be tended to in a very specific way. There is no detail too small.
Brent Pry, the defensive assistant, recalls a Vanderbilt practice in which the Commodores were short on bodies. Franklin jumped in as the scout team quarterback to help run the two-minute drill. He immediately threw an interception but rather than allow the play to go dead, Franklin took off sprinting, chased down a defender half his age and shoved the player out of bounds.
“He does that because that’s what he expects of everybody on the team,” Pry said.
Many of those who’ve known Franklin throughout his football career say they’re confident his strengths will translate well to a Penn State program eager to turn the corner. Former Maryland coach Ron Vanderlinden, who gave Franklin his first coaching job, called him “an easy hire,” and Debbie Yow, the former Maryland athletic director, promises that “no one will ever outwork him.”
But ambitious coaches are also opportunists. Franklin left Maryland after his first stint for a job in the NFL. He returned in 2008 to be the Terps’ offensive coordinator and as his stock rose, he negotiated a guarantee to succeed Ralph Friedgen as Maryland’s head coach. When Friedgen was pushed out in 2010, the school’s new athletics director, Kevin Anderson, wanted to find his own man and Franklin was allowed to leave for the Vanderbilt job. Maryland hired Randy Edsall instead.
Despite his success in a competitive SEC, Franklin jumped to the Big Ten after three years, and many around the game could see him returning someday to one of the conferences that he says really matter, namely, the NFC or AFC. Penn State, which is certainly not accustomed to a rotating cast of leaders, lost its most recent head coach, Bill O’Brien, to the Houston Texans.
For now, the only thing that seems to be on Franklin’s mind is Nittany Lions football. With a season opener against Central Florida in Ireland looming, Franklin is no longer sleeping in his office. Just before camp opened this month, his wife, Fumi, and two daughters finally made the move from Nashville.
Franklin showed up at the airport with balloons, and Ava and Addison came sprinting through the airport, barreling into their father.
“Both executed really impressive form tackles,” Franklin reported.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Penn State tight end Kyle Carter as Kyle Scott. This version has been corrected.