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Blue-White Game Countdown / 22 Days: Time Is The Essence Of James Franklin

By Mike Poorman

Editor’s note: This is part of a daily series counting down to Penn State’s Blue-White Game April 18.

James Franklin DM’s at 4:57. As in 4:57 a.m.

He flies to Boston and back. In an afternoon.

He drives to the Lehigh Valley for a Sunday afternoon football banquet and back. In a day. In a snowstorm. For five hours. One way. (Although I’m not sure how much of it was uphill.)

Time waits for no man. But it does allow James to ride shotgun.

Since a 1,788-day stint at Maryland as offensive coordinator, quarterbacks coach and head-coach-in-waiting, Franklin has not let any FieldTurf grow under his feet.

He was with the Green Bay Packers for 314 days, then went to Kansas State (718), backtracked to Maryland (1,088) and then orchestrated the Rise of Vanderbilt (1,119).

Now, here it is day No. 440 at Penn State and Franklin is running like it’s the old 440-yard dash. You know, an all-out sprint. He is a living sense of urgency. Which is kinda funny, because in this post-scandal reconstruction of Penn State football, time should seemingly be on his side. Except when it’s not.

As Franklin told Penn State’s players last January, when he met with them for the first time in the small auditorium that serves as the team’s meeting room in Lasch Building, “I’m not going anywhere.” That was on the heels of Bill O’Brien’s integral but short-lived, 15-9, 727-day tenure with the Nittany Lions.

Begin With The End In Sight

Franklin hit the ground running on his first day and he hasn’t stopped. He’s said repeatedly, in a variety of forums, that it will take him three years — literally, that’s 1,095 days, 24 less than his Vandy stay — to fully learn the ins and outs of Penn State and to get his football program where he wants it to be.

The late Stephen Covey’s book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” has sold 25 million copies in 38 languages. Franklin seems sold on Chapter 2, which speaks his language: “Begin With The End In Mind.”

And that’s being No. 1. Dominating the state, filling Beaver Stadium and preaching his four core values are just and worthy means to an ending up on top. As Franklin is into his third cycle of practices at Penn State – spring 2014, summer/regular season 2015, now spring 2015 — his time is at a premium. He’s still building relationships inside and outside of Penn State, he’s still caravanning and he’s still renovating a program far beyond new curtains and a fresh coat of paint. There’s so much more.

“It’s learning Penn State,” Franklin said. “Just because we had a model at School X, doesn’t mean that model is going to perfectly come and work in School Z. The institutional knowledge, the knowledge of our players, the type of players, areas that we’re recruiting, strengths and weaknesses — all those things, that takes time.

“Learning the conference and the type of teams and the style of play in this conference takes time. Going to all the different venues, home‑and‑away, takes time. Installing your offense, defense and special teams, then tweaking it and catering those things to the skill that you have.

“Having the depth where you have a legitimate three-deep at every position is really, really important. Not depending on a new arrival to campus in a prominent role, those types of things.”

Publicly, Franklin seems to be a bit less about promotion, and a bit more about formations. His interactions with the media this spring have been relaxed, insightful and more substantive. It’s more about the base offense, no aphoristic tenor. Franklin now has #102k Twitter followers in his quest for #107kstrong, but you get the sense that what play to call from the right hash on third-and-6 in the fourth quarter is more top of mind. #Priorities.

He has no choice. He’s only one guy. Even if he is The Guy.

Time Protection

“That’s one of the things I think we’re doing a better job of now — protecting my time,” Franklin admitted last week.

Franklin says he may have over-promised on Jan. 11, 2014 – the day he was introduced as the 16th head coach in Penn State football history, but the first in 128 seasons to offer to work kids’ parties.

“As you all know,” he said during a press briefing early last week, “the biggest mistake I made when I got here is I said I would not turn down a speaking engagement or birthday party (and) blow up balloons. I think people understood what I was saying. But there were also 10 percent of the people that thought I was literal, inviting me to birthday parties, weddings, things like that.

“We’ve done a lot of speaking engagements, but my priority needs to be on graduating our players and giving them the skill sets to go on and be successful in life and also have a tremendous experience on the field as well. Our fans deserve that as well and our alumni deserve that.”

The Schedule

Covey, again: “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

That’s especially true during those times of year when the team is on the field. Ever since National Letter Intent Signing Day in early February, here’s how Franklin manages his time – football first, recruiting second, everything else but family a distant 10th.

Prior to 7 a.m. – Media (perusing stories and videos by and doing interviews with), meetings with players, staffers, support personnel, texts, emails, phone calls and social media.

Morning – Staff and coaches meetings. “Football and football only.”

1 p.m. to 4 p.m. – Recruiting, and/or…

Afternoon – Team meeting(s) and practice on selected days. Penn State is permitted 15 official spring practices. The first was March 20. The fifth is on Saturday. The Blue-White Game on April 18 is No. 15.

After 7 p.m. – All the miscellaneous stuff he didn’t get done before 7 a.m.

In the words of Franklin: “What happens is, you don’t do that and you’re constantly getting pulled out of offensive meetings, recruiting meetings, whatever it may be. And you’re not efficient with your time.”

In the words of Covey: “The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.”

When spring practice is over, Franklin shifts the template for his time management. “The rest of the (off)season there’s times in May where now 60 percent of my time is recruiting, 35 percent is football,” he said. “Then you’re dividing your other time into reaching out to alumni, doing research on facilities, analytics.”

As Penn State nears a full scholarship count of 85 – although nearly 60 percent are first- and second-year players, with their own set of attendant challenges – Franklin sees progress on and off the field.

“I think we’ve made great strides,” he said last week. “I think from Year 1 to Year 2 is probably where you see the biggest strides. You probably won’t see the same type of strides moving forward as you will from Year 1 to Year 2. You want to keep growing and keep improving in Year 3 and 4 and onward.

“…I think we’re closer to that than we’ve been in a long time. Having an unbelievably supportive fan base, having the administration being unbelievably supportive like they have been, having the high school coaches in the region support us and be excited about what’s going on at Penn State – it’s every aspect. There’s not one aspect that’s more important than the other. We have to wear a lot of hats. If you focus in one area too much, you’re going to come short in other areas.”

No Staff Defections

What helps Franklin a great deal is that his coaching staff has remained intact, his athletic director is in it for the long haul and he is surrounded by an administrative staff that is very West Wing-like.

Joe Paterno had his hand in almost every facet of the program his first few decades, from signing off on the game-day program cover to X’ing and O’ing. There’s some of that in Franklin.

“I’m not as helpful as I can be to support our staff with what they need,” Franklin said. “I think I’m able to give a perspective. Sometimes you get caught up with what you’re doing in your room and your area, so it’s good to see somebody that’s looking at it from 50,000 feet.

“We’re doing a better job at that. I’m doing a better job. Our staff is doing a better job of balancing those things because it was an onslaught once I opened my mouth. That was a big mistake, which I’ve learned from.”

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