Leading With Love

James Franklin’s coaching approach of leading with love has taken on extra significance during the 2020 season. (Photo by Penn State Athletics)

Success brings teams together. Struggles do, too.

James Franklin and Penn State have much more experience with the former, which spotlights the rare times when the latter occurs.

Franklin and his coaches and players acknowledge that adjustments need to be made, though there’s a time and place for them, something that Franklin has mentioned.

He’s said he’s learned that right after a game in the locker room isn’t the time to start critiquing anything. Whether it’s a win or a loss, emotions are raw. Everyone is either feeling the euphoria of a victory or the sting of a defeat, and that’s not the optimal time to process feedback that might require an analytical approach.

That’s an important insight that Franklin has shared over the years during his postgame press conference with the media, which take place approximately a half hour after the game ends. In those interactions, it’s interesting to note Franklin’s demeanor, since it’s not immediately following a game, yet still close enough to glean some of his more natural emotions, which provide insight into his coaching approach.  

For example:

Following Penn State’s last-second win at Iowa in 2017, Franklin was reflective in his postgame press conference, even more so than usual, a combination of appreciation and gratitude for the win while still not being satisfied.

After the team’s loss at Michigan State that same year, a defeat that came after a four-and-a-half-hour weather delay, Franklin was frustrated, even angry at times. He said the team had gotten away from what had made them successful, and there was a sense that the team was underachieving a bit, something that Franklin was determined to fix.

The next year, after another narrow loss to Ohio State, Franklin was defiant. Personally, defiance is a favorite trait of mine. And with the way Franklin spoke, he was defiant in the sense that he didn’t want to settle for 10-win seasons. Sure, that’s a good level, but he has aspirations to elevate Penn State into an elite program. He said as much in a press conference clip that’s been aired widely in the years since.

Last Saturday in Lincoln, Franklin embodied parts of everything above. Part of the point is that Franklin isn’t a robot and, in some ways, feels the joy of winning and the pain of losing more acutely than anyone else.

However, there’s a foundational aspect of his approach that’s always present: love. Love for the football program. Love for the University. Love for the community and alumni and fans and lettermen. And certainly, love for his players.

After the Nebraska game, Franklin said that he’s a guy who leads with love. That’s a real part of his coaching philosophy and is even more important when the team is struggling like this season.

Here’s what he said Tuesday during his weekly press conference, speaking to the balance he tries to find when coaching his guys on how they can improve without being overly negative:

“You have to balance that, always. And the reality is after wins, you can be harder on guys. We’ve talked about that for six years, that even when you win, there’s still things that need to get corrected and cleaned up that allow you to continue to win. And after losses, you’ve got to make the corrections, but you’ve got to do it in a way that that young man can hear it at the time and is going to grow and not be defensive. That’s all of us, I think that’s really important.”

Fifth-year senior Michal Menet is a standout center who’s been named to the watch list for the 2020 Rimington Award, which recognizes the top offensive center in the nation. There’s a strong sense that with Franklin, what you see is what you get, which is critically important for standout high school players trying to decide where they’re going to pursue their collegiate aspirations.

Everyone knows that the results will change week to week, season to season. Hopefully, things go your way more often than they don’t, though either way, there needs to be a baseline level of trust that goes both ways, and with Franklin, that’s in place. 

“I think the biggest thing with Coach Franklin is that he’s always been consistent, he always leads with love,” Menet said this week. “From the time I was recruited, coming up here watching practice, all the way throughout. He’s always been the same, whether we’re winning or losing. Obviously, the critique is going to sound a little bit different and his overall message will be different, but it’s always been from a place of love, and that’s the one thing that I’ve always respected him a ton for, is that he’s always been consistent. No matter how good or bad things are going, he’s going to show up for work every single day, giving us his best and lead with love, like he talks about.”

At some point after the season ends or during next spring, it’s likely someone will ask Franklin if he sees this as something of a lost season, or perhaps a season in which you can’t extrapolate too much because of all the seemingly once-in-a-lifetime circumstances that COVID-19 is placing on teams.

I’m guessing Franklin will say no, and he’d be right. Like every season, he’s learning about his team, in addition to acclimating four new coaches (including a new coordinator) into the program. Franklin constantly points to consistency as a major component of his program, and it’s also something that players (former and current) mention when discussing what it’s like to play for Franklin.

Additionally, consistency matters, as evident by Menet’s perspective. All that said, there’s a lot of football left for the Nittany Lions, who still aren’t halfway through their regular season. Plus, the upcoming bowl game, assuming Penn State accepts an invite and can play without COVID-19 disrupting anything further.

Either way, there should be lessons being learned, both for this year and future seasons, and they’ll be distilled in a way that encourages improvement.

As Franklin has said before: “It starts with ‘I love you,’ and it ends with ‘I love you,’” and indications are that won’t change.  


For more on the The Football Letter, including online archives (requires Alumni Association member log-in), click here.

Not yet an Alumni Association member? Click here.

One thought on “Leading With Love

  1. Your not going to win football 🏈 games with love . Franklyn has not instilled discipline on the football field . Look at all the penalties we have racked up . His fourth quarter coaching is laughable . And were paying him how much ? Joe Pa was paid $35,000 in 1970 ! It’s time to put Jo Pa’s football 🏈 statue back on Joe Paterno field (aka Beaver Stadium)!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s