The Road to No. 1

no1

You can’t miss that finger. In his five months on the job, James Franklin’s raised index finger—the universal sign for “We’re No. 1″—has become something of a trademark. Should you find yourself posing for a photo with Franklin anytime soon, the odds are good that he—and you, whether you planned on it or not—will be pointing a finger toward the sky.

That’s certainly been a regular occurrence on the Coaches Caravan, where Franklin has posed for pictures with thousands of fans, most taken in the “photo booth” that’s set up at many of the Caravan stops (you can see the results above). In nearly every one of those shots, Franklin holds that now ubiquitous pose. It got us wondering: How, when, and why did that become his signature stance?

With a couple of hours of open road ahead ahead of us Wednesday between Philly and Scranton, we decided it was a good time to ask. From his spot in the back of the Caravan bus, Franklin took time to lay out his thinking.

“In everything we do,” he says, “we’re trying to find ways to differentiate ourselves, and at a lot of places, they have something they show when they take pictures. Miami has ‘The U,’ Vanderbilt does the ‘VU.’ A lot of schools have things that they do. But you can’t really do something like that with ‘Penn State.'”

Inspiration came on an early trip to the Penn State All-Sports Museum, where a statue of the Nittany Lion greets visitors in the lobby. The bronze Lion was “standing there throwing up the number one,” Franklin says. The image, and the idea, stuck.

lion

And the message? It’s at once simple, and not. For starters, he says, “I want people to associate that idea with us, not just have a picture of me standing there.” Beyond that, Franklin says, “I believe in branding. When people see anything affiliated with Penn State football, it’s gotta be first-class.”

Then there’s the broader view, one he’s spoken of repeatedly since arriving in Happy Valley. “To me, we’re not just talking about being number one in football,” he says. “It’s about being the number-one academic institution, the number-one athletic department, the number-one atmosphere, the number-one college town.”

It’s hard to keep track of all the many rankings in which Penn State holds a lofty position these days, and Franklin’s stated goal is to ensure the football program is top-ranked once again—and sooner than later. And that’s where the meaning of that finger becomes aspirational. “I want people to visualize it,” he says. “I think the first thing you have to do when you want to achieve something is to start thinking and viewing yourself that way. We’ve been there before, and we have a long way to go to get back to that, but that’s our expectation. That’s our goal.”

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