I Was Wrong About James Franklin
Thursday marked exactly two months since the turning point of the Penn State season. That day, the Lions trailed Minnesota 13-3 at halftime. In a crowded section WA, my friends and I enthusiastically joined in chants of “Fire Franklin” as the team made its way off the field and to the locker room, after a dismal first half.
The week before, Michigan had dismantled Penn State 49-10 and now the Lions seemed to be headed towards a losing record for just the second time during Franklin’s tenure. To make our emotions even more acerbic, the great Les Miles and his tantalizing national championship ring had been fired by LSU a week beforehand. Naturally, “We want Les” cheers were included in our demands of Sandy Barbour.
Little did we know that thirty minutes of football and one long Saquon Barkley run in overtime later, Penn State would embark on its eight game winning streak. Even less could we even imagine that that same head coach who we were hoping would be fired would be boarding a plane to Indianapolis this afternoon to take his team to the Big Ten Championship Game just 62 days later.
This season, my opinion of Franklin has evolved from being a freshman whose initial perception of him was colored by disgruntled upperclassmen who had grown disillusioned during the dark years to being a faithful optimist excited for the future of Penn State football.
In my first staff pick for the Stripeout game against Temple, I predicted an atypical football score and attributed it to how Franklin’s gutsy calls can sometimes be ill-advised and mind-boggling. Now, I trust the in-game decisions that he and the rest of his coaching staff make and that they can tactically wield timeouts and trick plays in a late game chess match against any team in the nation’s staff.
That game against Minnesota set the tone for this team as one that improves as the game escalates, making adjustments and rising to the occasion. In response to every doubt that impatient fans like me had about Franklin’s football IQ, the halftime adjustments that this “second-half team” has made down the stretch have proven his worth and prowess on the sidelines.
As head coach of Penn State, even while his team faced scholarship reductions and the stigma that has followed the program, Franklin has never finished at or below .500. The progression of his first three years in Happy Valley can be seen through the Nittany Lions’ ascent in the divisional standings from sixth to fourth to first over each of the last three seasons and the bolstered recruiting classes that are improving almost on a weekly basis.
Franklin is no longer a celebrity at Penn State just because of his title as head football coach. He is an icon on campus and throughout the nation for his Friday Night Lights-esque coaching persona, obsession with white clothing, and interactions with fans and students, whether that be on social media or at Jamba Juice where he orders his now ritualistic green smoothie. (We aren’t saying that making a Big Ten Championship game equates to 409 wins or warrants Franklin-branded items, but Irving’s does have the Joe Papaya smoothie and the folks in State College love trendy fruit drinks and coaches with winning football teams.)
Since he was hired, Franklin has faced an uphill battle where every minor decision and comment has been scrutinized — namely by fans holding him to the previous Paterno standards that reigned for decades. Now though, Franklin is attaining everything that so many of us believed to be so much farther down the road than his term at the helm and our own time as students at State.
Whenever I walk around campus, I see students wearing shirts asserting how specific coaches — whether they be Cael Sanderson, Russ Rose, Guy Gadowsky, or Paterno himself — “know” their respective sports. Whether it be the reverence that some fans still hold for Paterno or their doubt about Franklin’s capability as a coach, I always found it ironic how the football coach at a school where football is king was not featured in this line. After the way that Franklin has turned around not only this season but this entire program since he took over three years ago, I think it’s safe to say that James knows football and in fact, is not a fraud.