Dienhart: Franklin a 'home-run hire' for Penn State
Penn State acting athletic director Dave Joyner said the school was going to move quickly to fill its coaching vacancy, and he wasn’t kidding. The school will hold a 4:15 p.m. ET press conference on Saturday to introduce Vanderbilt’s James Franklin as the next Nittany Lions head football coach.
This is a home-run hire.
Less than two weeks after Bill O’Brien bolted to coach the Houston Texans in a long-anticipated move, Penn State will have grabbed one of the hottest young coaches in America. The school apparently grabbed Franklin over ex-Tennessee Titans coach Mike Munchak, long-time assistant Larry Johnson and San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman. Miami (Fla.) coach Al Golden also was an initial target but pulled out.
The appeal of the 41-year-old Franklin trumps all others. He’s a fast-riser who at one time was the offensive coordinator and head-coach-in-waiting at Maryland under Ralph Friedgen. But, a change of athletic directors scrapped that plan. Too bad for Maryland.
Scrubbed from plans at Maryland, Franklin was tabbed as head coach of Vanderbilt in 2011 and proceeded to remake one of college football’s biggest losers into a winner in one of the greatest resurrections in recent college football history.
Franklin debuted with a 6-7 mark in 2011 but then proceeded to go 9-4 in each of the last two seasons en route to taking the woebegone Commodores to bowls each season. His 15 combined wins his first two seasons in Nashville were the most in consecutive seasons for Vandy since 1926-27. The superlatives and accomplishments go on and on for Franklin, who brings a 24-15 Vanderbilt mark to State College along with an 11-13 SEC record.
Fit often is discussed when a school hires a coach. And, Franklin and Penn State are a match. He brings a familiarity to the state, having been born in Langhorne, Pa., and attended Neshaminy High in Langhorne. Franklin then matriculated to East Stroudsburg University in the Keystone State, where he played quarterback. And as an assistant at Maryland, Franklin frequented many of the same recruiting haunts that Penn State visits to stock its roster.
Challenges remain at Penn State. No one doubts that. But Franklin won’t be intimidated. He stared down the best in the nation at Vanderbilt, so there’s nothing he’ll encounter at Penn State that will make him flinch. Plus, Franklin won’t be the guy who has to follow the legend. O’Brien already did the impossible in taking over for Joe Paterno. Now, Franklin is just the next Penn State coach who is following a short-timer who left before finishing the job.
Competing with Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan in the Big Ten East? Franklin looked schools like Tennessee, Florida, Georgia and Auburn dead in the eye—and won … with less talent … and fewer resources.
At Penn State, Franklin will have the best of everything, a school with top-notch facilities, excellent academics, rabid fan support and vast resources. But one concern if I’m Franklin is the fact the president and A.D. that hired me soon will leave. Just like that, Franklin will have new bosses. Not always ideal or desirable.
Still, Franklin walks into a better situation than O’Brien inherited in the wake of the horrific Jerry Sandusky scandal that brought that school to its figurative knees. O’Brien deftly handled a razor-thin roster, squeezing out 15 wins overall and 10 in the Big Ten the last two years. It was amazing, really.
Yes, Franklin–a top recruiter–will inherit a shallow roster, but there’s some talent with quarterback Christian Hackenberg the headliner. Even better: The NCAA lifted scholarship limitations initially enacted as part of sanctions for the Sandusky scandal, offering roster relief.
And Franklin soon may be able to sell a possible bowl bid, as many program watchers think that ban soon may be lifted.
Still, having said all of that, Franklin still could endure some rough sledding his first few seasons because of a short roster. And playing in the new Big Ten East with Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan will offer challenges. But, I’m sure his bosses understand this and his contract will offer some long-term security.
Speaking of the long-term, here’s maybe the biggest fear about hiring Franklin: Will Penn State be a destination job? Oh, he’ll say all the right things at the press conference, but only time will tell if Franklin puts down roots in Centre County.
Remember, Franklin was getting mentioned as a possible target of NFL teams. If he builds on what O’Brien already has constructed in State College, will Franklin do like O’Brien and bolt for the NFL? Again, Franklin is just 41. Will he wanna scratch his NFL itch one day?
The fear of abandonment would have been minimal had Penn State tabbed an alum like Munchak or Golden. And, no doubt, Penn State could use some stability after O’Brien’s hasty arrival and departure. But the school made the right call to hang on to Franklin’s rising star—and worry about tomorrow when it gets here. You take a potential mega-star over safe hirer any day.
No sense in fretting about the long-term future. Just enjoy this moment and wonder where Franklin may take this Penn State program. The possibilities seem tremendous.
|About Tom Dienhart||BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.|
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