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James Franklin: From Kutztown to Happy Valley

Through all the airport stakeouts and speculation, Penn State finally has a head coach in James Franklin. The now-former Vanderbilt coach attracted interest from other big-time college programs and the NFL after leading Vanderbilt to back-to-back nine-win seasons. While his success at Vanderbilt has been well-documented, let’s take a look back at his coaching history and Pennsylvania roots.

After playing quarterback at East Stroudsburg University, Franklin got his coaching start in 1995 at Kutztown University, just 154 miles from State College. He started as the Golden Bears’ wide receivers coach for one year before returning to his alma mater as the defensive secondary coach.

James Franklin, #9
James Franklin, #9

“When you meet James, it takes you about five minutes to know he’s a special person,” his college roommate Mike Santella said in a PennLive feature. “I knew if he was going to coach football, he’d be the best football coach in the country. If he wanted to go into politics, he was going to be President or a senator. After five minutes with him, you figure that out. He’s just special.”

“When you talk to him, he makes you feel like the most important person in the room, and that’s a unique characteristic. I didn’t know from the first time I met him that he was going to become a football coach, but whatever he chose to do, he was going to be the best at it.”

Photo by ESU ATHLETICS, via PennLive
Franklin playing quarterback at East Stroudsburg. (Photo by ESU ATHLETICS, via PennLive)

Franklin bounced around as a position coach at smaller schools for three more years before finally landing a spot at a big-time school, the University of Maryland. Franklin was hired at Maryland by former head coach Ron Vanderlinden (who then went on to become Penn State’s linebacker coach) and was one of only two assistants retained by incoming coach Ralph Friedgen.

Franklin coaching the Terps (Photo: PressBox Online)
Franklin coaching the Terps (Photo: PressBox Online)

After five seasons at Maryland, Franklin decided to test his skills in the NFL as wide receivers coach for the Green Bay Packers. Franklin returned to the NCAA level after just one year and became the quarterbacks coach at Kansas State where he coached quarterback Josh Freeman, who was drafted No. 17 overall by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2009. He returned to Maryland for three years as offensive coordinator before landing his first head coaching job at Vanderbilt.

At Vanderbilt, he helped turn a program that had been considered a bottom-tier SEC school into a contender. The Commodores have competed in three straight bowl games, the first time in the history of the program that the team has played in the postseason in consecutive years. His team had a 24-15 record in his three seasons at Vanderbilt, including two consecutive bowl wins for the first time in school history.

Off the field, Franklin is known as a tenacious recruiter. Under Franklin, Vanderbilt has had a top-30 recruiting class in each of the last three years. His recruiting ability was captured in this Sports Illustrated story that chronicles how Franklin landed the best recruiting class in school history in 2012 — and even helicoptered into high schools to help snipe some of the top recruits in Tennessee. His former quarterback Larry Smith claimed he “could sell water to a fish.”

The Franklin recruiting helicopter, 2011.
The Franklin recruiting helicopter, 2011.

Franklin is given credit for transforming the football culture at Vanderbilt and fighting the apathy that previously existed. He made connections with Greek life and student government and became fully engrained into campus life, advocating relentlessly to get students to games. Sports Illustrated says he visited every fraternity and sorority on campus…twice.

“I’ll do birthday parties,” he once quipped. “I’ll bring balloons.”

Once, when a game fell over Thanksgiving break, Franklin went through a dining hall and offered to call students’ parents, pleading with them to let their sons and daughters come back early for the game.

“It was a surreal moment to have an SEC football coach call your parents,” said Eric Single, editor-in-chief of Vanderbilt Hustler, the student newspaper, to USA Today. “Things like that got around really quickly with Facebook statuses and word of mouth that he was around campus.”

There are some similarities between Penn State and Vanderbilt — mainly in academics and expected achievement for athletes — which is probably one of the reasons Franklin took the job. He was apparently not shy about pointing out to recruits with offers from other SEC schools the benefits of the great education Vanderbilt offers.

“I know how this game goes,” Franklin said to Sports Illustrated. “Every school, you’re going to leave there thinking they’ve got great academics. They don’t. Go on US News and World Report and look it up yourself.”

“Is it too hard? That’s what people use against us. ‘Don’t go to Vanderbilt. It’s too hard academically.’ Well, what are they telling you? What are they saying to you when they say don’t go to Vanderbilt because it’s too hard academically?”

Franklin has certainly made the most out of a less-than-ideal football situation at Vanderbilt. He doesn’t have any ties to Penn State but grew up in Pennsylvania and has expressed interest in staying in college instead of taking an NFL job in the near future. With the addition of Franklin and the inevitability of further-reduced NCAA sanctions, the future looks bright for Penn State football.

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About the Author

Alex Robinson

Alex Robinson was Onward State's Acting Managing Editor/Resident Old Man. He lived in Harrisburg almost his whole life, but he says he's from California -- where he was born -- because that's more fun. He loves cats and Chinese food, but only separately. He met both Ben Affleck and Kanye West within a half hour, so the three of them are basically best friends. If you want to hear his #scorching #hot #takes, you can follow him at @ARobinsonPSU or email him at [email protected]


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