In the midst of his second spring practice, James Franklin reflects on the progress the Nittany Lions have made since his arrival, and ponders how much farther they still have to go.
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It was an overcast day in Dublin, a few hours before kickoff, and James Franklin had the lush green surface of Croke Park almost to himself. Clad in a navy suit and royal blue tie, he walked the field inside the historic Irish stadium, soaking up the relative quiet, stopping now and again to appreciate the view. A few noisy, frantic hours later, on this very same turf, he would celebrate his first victory as Penn State head coach.
Seven wins and seven months later, Franklin is in his Lasch Building office early on a Monday morning, starting with coffee and conversation before diving into another busy day. Spring practice is underway, and that opening win against Central Florida seems like a lifetime ago. The focus now, as always, is on the future, but in taking the pulse of the program, it’s worth looking back on just how far the Lions have come since his arrival. Over the course of a 25-minute interview, Franklin spoke about the benefits of experience, the obstacles that remain, and managing fan expectations even as he pushes toward his own championship goals.
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TFL: You’ve got a full year under your belt now. How different does spring practice feel this time around compared to when you’d just arrived last year?
Franklin: I think it’s dramatically different, from a lot of different perspectives. We have more bodies, number one. Bringing three recruits in at mid-semester was helpful with that. I think probably the most important factor, though, is just that everybody knows—they know what we do in the weight room, they know how meetings go, they know the offense, defense, and special teams philosophies. And the fact that all the coaches are back; a lot of times, even if you hire a new coach, it’s maybe the same scheme, but they have different techniques and philosophies they’re teaching. We don’t have that, so there’s consistency across the board. So, understanding expectations, understanding how we do things… there’s just so much familiarity in the program, just so much more, I think, comfort and trust. I feel really good about that.
TFL: Does that process of adapting go both ways? Obviously the players have to adapt to you and your staff, how you do things. Does that apply to you figuring out the vibe of the team and its personality as well?
Franklin: Yeah, I think it’s for everybody. I think it’s us getting to know them, them getting to know us, getting to know Penn State better, understanding the situation better. I think on every level, I think Bob and John and Charles in the offseason, kind of knowing our personnel strengths and weaknesses better than I did a year ago, and being able to cater the things we’re doing to that. All those things factor in.
TFL: You’ve been here now about 15 months. How do you rate the health of the program, the progress you’ve made, compared to where you thought you’d be when you arrived?
Franklin: Well, to me, it’s two-fold. Getting here… we were probably a little unprepared for really, truly what we were walking into.
TFL: Which, in fairness, you really couldn’t have been.
Franklin: Correct. I guess it’s like anything else: You always say you’re ready or prepared, you’ve done all your homework. But whenever you get there, to do the job, it’s not exactly the way you anticipated it to be. Obviously, everything that’s gone on here the last three, four years, all the challenges we’ve been through, when you’re on the outside, you don’t really completely understand it. So we probably walked into a little bit more of a challenging situation than I realized. So that’s probably the first thing. But No. 2, I think we’re much further ahead at this point than I anticipated us being. So I think it’s two-fold. If you just compare this time last year to this year, I think we’re much further ahead than probably I thought, after practice 5 in spring ball. But this time last year, I probably was a little bit shocked in terms of some of the challenges we had walked into.
TFL: A lot of that has been well documented, but is there anything that stands out?
Franklin: I think it’s obvious when you sit down and you kind of talk through everything that happened here—the attrition, the lack of scholarships, the turnover on the coaching staff, which always has an impact on recruiting as well. The effect that the sanctions had from a perception standpoint. And then just really the mentality of the players, in terms of everything that they had been through, and the turnover in the leadership, which just created a little bit of a wall. Which I think is human nature; you’re going to protect yourself. The lack of competitive depth across the board, those types of things.
TFL: The impact of all that is still being felt, so it was interesting to watch last year, when you get out to that 4-0 start, a lot of fans’ expectations immediately went through the roof. That start really distracted from the fact that all those challenges were still very real. How do you balance and manage those expectations? Is it something you think about?
Franklin: Yeah, that’s probably my biggest challenge: How do you get people excited about the direction of the program and being able to sell the stadium out, which is so important on so many different levels—it’s important for our team to be able to have that type of experience and home-field advantage, it’s important in recruiting, to be able to show everybody why we’re one of the top programs in college football, and it’s important in terms of the financial challenges—but you’re also not trying to set up unrealistic expectations. That’s probably my biggest challenge, is how do you do that, and educate people on truly where we’re at, and the steps necessary to get where we want to go.
TFL: One of the things that’s gotten those expectations so high is your staff’s recruiting success. There’s a sense that, because the program under Joe Paterno didn’t talk much about recruiting, fans here are still getting used to how much a part of your job that is. How much time do you spend on recruiting?
Franklin: Year-round, it’s pretty much 50-50. You know, basically, we’ll staff a meeting at 7, do football from 7 ’til lunchtime, and then break for lunch and do recruiting in the afternoon and evening. I think obviously when you get into the season, or the four weeks of spring ball, there’s a shift that becomes more football-oriented, especially during the fall. But overall, it’s probably a 50-50 split. My biggest thing is, you look across the country, and the programs that have been competitive at the highest level, year in and year out, they’ve had the type of recruiting classes that we had last year—or better—for five, 10 straight years. That’s important. It’s very important. You look at Penn State, our history, when we were really rolling—you know, maybe recruiting wasn’t covered then the way it is now—but I think what it shows you is not only [the importance] of recruiting, but development, which we’re obviously focused on. You look at the amount of All-American players here, you look at the NFL draft picks—they were doing it as well, when the program was really rolling. I just think there’s so much more focus and coverage—football’s become a year-round sport to follow. You follow the games during the season, and you follow spring ball and recruiting all during the offseason. I think it’s one of those things that makes football unique: There’s things to cover, and be competitive about, year-round.
TFL: You’ve got two new bosses since you arrived. How would you characterize your relationships with Eric Barron and Sandy Barbour?
Franklin: Good. I think that was one of my biggest concerns about taking the job, knowing the instability in those two positions, and taking a job not knowing who the AD and the president were going to be. That can be unsettling, and that was a concern coming in. But the people I met with, who were a part of the process, I felt good about them, and about the kind of people Penn State was going to attract, and the kind of people that Penn State was going to recruit. So that was helpful, and since then, I’ve obviously been able to spend a lot of time with Sandy, and I’ve been able to spend a good amount of time with President Barron, and that’s been good. Obviously I want to continue working on that, continue growing, because for us to have the kind of program that we want to have, we need to be on the same page.
TFL: There have been, already, chances for them to show their support for you and the program, and it seems like they have.
Franklin: Yeah. I think it’s been really good. But we’ve gotta keep pushing… I think when Billy was here, the last staff, they walked into a different situation, and they made some progress in a short amount of time, in terms of technology and things like that. You know, when they got the job, we were still [watching film] on VCR—it wasn’t even DVD. Most people had been on digital for about five years. So that was progress. The thing that’s great is that our bones are really, really good, we just need to do some things that not only are going to allow us to be competitive, but also be in the conversation with people that we want to be in the conversation with.
TFL: Did you watch the national championship game?
TFL: Who were you rooting for?
Franklin: I don’t know that I was necessarily rooting for anybody. You know, I remember when I first became a head coach, with my offensive background, I’d be a confusing guy to watch a game with, because I’d be rooting for whoever had the ball. I wanted to see touchdowns, touchdowns, touchdowns. But then you become a head coach, and obviously that changes. I just like watching good football, watching how people are handing situations. So I’m not necessarily watching the game from a fan’s perspective. You know, I talk to my wife about watching Thursday night football during the season, it’s a great night to watch football, we’re home early—watching stuff like that, watching documentaries, for me, that’s like reading the Wall Street Journal. For me, that’s being aware of what’s going on in the profession, studying other people. One of the things that goes hand in hand with that, some of our administrators have done a pretty cool study of the four playoff teams: their coaching staff, the support staff, facilities, recruiting, how their programs were built, their offensive, defensive and special teams philosophies. We’ve studied those programs—
TFL: Did you do that at Vandy as well?
Franklin: No, because this is the first year for the playoffs. We did study the BCS, but it was only two teams. So we have a small sample size right now to work with. But scheduling is also a factor in that—you know, there’s a lot of talk about scheduling and what you need to do. You look at Ohio State this year, they played Virginia Tech, which, maybe five, 10 years ago when they scheduled Virginia Tech, that looked like it was going to be a good game for them. But Virginia Tech had an off year, they gained nothing by playing them, and lost to them, and still made the playoffs. That just shows you the strength of the Big Ten schedule, shows you the strength of the nine-game philosophy, and not being able to play 1-AA or FCS games. So just looking at all these different things, and what’s going to give us the best chance to be competitive long-term, at the highest level.
TFL: The reason I ask, of course, is the conventional wisdom that Ohio State winning is good for the Big Ten, and therefore Penn State. Do you buy into that?
Franklin: I think what is good for the league should be good for all the institutions within the league. Obviously my focus is on Penn State, and I look at it more the other way: What’s good for Penn State is good for the Big Ten, and that’s truly my focus. I do think it’s really good, if you look around nationally, the conversations about the Big Ten this time last year, and the conversations now, are 180 degrees different, especially on our side of the conference; you could make an argument that this is the maybe the top division in college football, or at least in the top three, top two. So I think that’s helpful as well, and it’s going to make for some exciting games going forward. But really, my focus ultimately is always on Penn State.
TFL: Switching gears, I’m wondering, personally and professionally, is this now a place where you feel at home?
Franklin: I do. It’s been an adjustment. Whenever you pack up your family and move, and especially—this is the first time we’ve had kids in school, and had to go through that process, so there’s an adjustment there. But we’re finally getting settled. We’ve finally unpacked the boxes in our house, knowing where the restaurants are, finding out where Chuck E. Cheese is, all those types of things. But that’s been good. You know, we love it because… my wife always says, this place provides the opportunity to be the type of parents we want to be. What I mean by that is, as challenging as our schedule is, we like to have our kids come by the office every single day to see us. I like to be able to catch up with them, or take the girls lunch at school every once in a while, things like that. You’re in certain communities, you try to do that, and the unpredictability of traffic, things like that, it makes it really difficult to provide the types of experiences that you want to provide for your kids.
TFL: You’re back on the Coaches Caravan in about a month. The vibe last year was really about letting people get a chance to know you. Do you think it’ll feel a bit different a second time around?
Franklin: I think so. Again, everything was brand new. I think spending time on that bus, one of the real benefits for me was getting to know the staff and the coaches, and I think that was really valuable for me. Obviously, being able to get to know our fan base was really important, although it’s in snippets, but I think that’s really valuable. But I think for me, last year, and even to this day, it’s still really emotional for me to think about how I’m the head football coach at Penn State. It’s surreal in a lot of different ways. But I hope every single day, I’m able to get to know Penn State better, I’m able to get to know our alumni better, I’m able to get to know our fans better, and vice versa—that they’re able to get to know me and the rest of our coaches and our program. To me, and I’ve said this before, that’s what makes Penn State special, it’s the true family environment. A lot of places say that, but it’s not the reality of it. The sense of pride in Penn State is like nothing I’ve ever been around before. People that went to school here, or grew up fans of Penn State, their loyalty and their sense of appreciation for this place is through the roof. And that’s what differentiates us from others. I’ve worked at a lot of different places, nine different institutions, and I’ve never seen anything like that. Now, that’s no disrespect to those other places, but that’s the thing I think that really jumps out about Penn State.
TFL: Do you have a different approach in mind for the Caravan this year?
Franklin: Yeah. I definitely don’t want to get up and talk about the same things we talked about last year. Probably want to talk about the progress from year one to year two, where we see the program going, and how we need their support. To be honest, I need to start planning for it.
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