Context Matters: Offer James Franklin An Extension
Penn State football is entering a delicate time. After starting the year at a strong 5-0, the Nittany Lions have succumbed to disappointment again, losing four of their last six games. Fan emotions have, understandably, dramatically shifted.
The Penn State faithful are calling for accountability and many people close to the team have gotten hit. No one seems to have faced more criticism than head coach James Franklin. It certainly does not help that rumors have yet again begun to swirl, surrounding Franklin’s future career plans. Reports of LSU and USC being interested in attracting him away from Happy Valley have circulated ad nauseam. It’s almost cliche at this point.
This is not the first time similar rumors have spread. Ever since Franklin’s controversial exit from Vanderbilt (his Penn State predecessor), he’s been a popular target for these types of stories. Since his 2014 arrival at Penn State, speculation around a departure has arisen numerous times. A non-exhaustive list of rumored exit spots include:
- Miami (2015)
- Texas A&M (2017)
- USC (2018)
- USC (2019)
- Florida State (2019)
- USC (2020)
- LSU (2021)
- And, you guessed it, USC (2021)
The schools change (except for USC, for whatever reason), but the question remains constant: Is James Franklin on his way out?
Currently, Penn State has its head coach locked in and signed through 2025, yet it still does not feel like the coaching position is ultimately secure in State College. Franklin is free to have his contract bought out and depart for another team.
In 2015, when Miami was knocking on his proverbial door, Franklin offered a very strong dismissal.
“I guess some people can look at it as a compliment, I don’t. My focus is 100 percent on Penn State,” Franklin said. “I’m not going to address it any further. This is where I want to be. This is where my staff wants to be. End of discussion.”
Compare that to a recent statement discussing the validity of the USC and LSU speculation.
“I think I’ve shown, over eight years, my commitment to this university and this community. That’s kinda my statement,” Franklin said.
Perhaps that’s not an indication of an impending exit, but it is certainly a far cry from the strong words of seasons past.
A coaching change right now would likely be a lateral move for Penn State at best and disastrous at worst. There is a very low probability that moving on from Franklin would lead the Nittany Lions to their ceiling. As a result, Penn State should offer James Franklin another contract extension. In fact, Penn State should put its best offer on the negotiating table.
Offering An Extension
Though he is already under contract, offering an extension could stave off future suitors and disincentivize Franklin from leaving. An offer including a raise and multiple added years will make staying more attractive, as well as show institutional support in the wake of fan backlash. Rather than allow room for a back and forth, Penn State should begin and end the conversation with its best offer.
This is not to say Penn State should kowtow to Franklin’s every wish. Actually, the opposite. The response to negotiation should be met with an almost invariable rejection. Make the top offer and force him to say no to that in order to leave. If that’s the case, then it was never meant to be anyway, although it is doubtful that would be the outcome.
The calls to let James Franklin walk are rooted in emotion, rather than deliberation. There is too much evidence in his favor and against his apparent replacements to comfortably consider a coaching change.
Big Ten Success
James Franklin’s record with Penn State, to this point, is 67-32. That .676 win percentage includes a beginning marred by the NCAA’s sanctions and last year’s anomalously abysmal season, which was impacted by the Big Ten’s COVID-19 debacle. It is a history that includes three 11-win seasons and a Big Ten title. However, it is also admittedly a history that includes a 11-16 record against top-25 teams, a 2-13 record against top-10 teams, and a winless dry spell since 2016 against Penn State’s biggest obstacle: Ohio State.
Context matters, though. When evaluating Franklin’s relative success, it is important to select realistic comparison points. Upon being matched up with his Big Ten contemporaries, Franklin emerges as a more accomplished leader; or at least a less egregious one.
Michigan coach Jim Harbuagh took over in 2015, only one year later than James Franklin. Since his first season, Harbaugh’s teams have a 58-23 record, zero 11-win seasons, and zero Big Ten titles. Harbaugh is still winless against Ohio State, too.
Acclaimed Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio retired before the 2020 season. Over the period that overlapped with Franklin, Michigan State went 41-28, securing two 11-win seasons and earning one Big Ten Championship. That is roughly the same peak experienced under Franklin, but with more losses — all in fewer games.
A recurring first-place spot in the conference has still eluded the Franklin-led Nittany Lions. However, that is unsurprising considering Ohio State’s consistent control. Since 2015, Ohio State has lost just four games to Big Ten opponents. The last time the Buckeyes lost to a team in the Big Ten East was to Franklin’s 2016 Penn State team.
Ohio State is the inescapable big brother of the Big Ten. Stating that is not to suggest accepting runner-up complacency. It is merely to point out that the inability to regularly overcome Ohio State under Franklin says more about the Buckeyes’ talent gap than anything else. With the recent signings from the Penn State staff, for the first time in a while, that gap may be contracting.
When James Franklin was hired, he was touted as an esteemed recruiter. Despite taking over a Penn State team that was still reeling from sanctions, every single Nittany Lion recruiting class supplied by Franklin has been ranked among the top 25 by ESPN and 247Sports.
As it stands, the upcoming recruiting classes for Penn State are among the highest-ranked in the nation and sit atop the Big Ten’s standings — even above Ohio State.
Among a crowded room of prominent recruits, some stand out even more than others. Class of 2022 quarterback and Penn State commit Drew Allar was recently announced as the No. 1 signal-caller prospect in the nation. Penn State also received a commitment from the top running back prospect in the Class of 2022, Nicholas Singleton. This success is not merely confined to the Class of 2022, as the top-ranked interior offensive lineman in the Class of 2023, Alex Birchmeier, has already been locked down.
The recruiting work by Franklin and his staff would already be impressive in a vacuum. It would be further impressive even if Penn State’s recruiting had this level of promise relative to its Big Ten rivals. However, the 2022 class stacks up against the entire nation’s elite programs — an indication of an encouraging trend.
In the fickle world of collegiate recruiting, sometimes all it takes is one successful class to get the initial dominos to fall. Should Franklin be able to capitalize with the talent in Penn State’s upcoming classes, it is not unreasonable to project some level of exponential growth.
Ushering Franklin out of the door before seeing out a class with such lofty expectations would be a miscalculation. There is no guarantee the higher profile commitments hold if their anticipated head coach is no longer in the building. Impressive recruiting is rendered pointless if those recruits never see the field or wind enrolling elsewhere.
As speculation around Franklin’s supposed departure unfurls, there have been a handful of names to dominate the Penn State replacement conversation, but that’s unsurprising given the attractive nature of the job. Some are more likely than others. Most offer no obvious guarantee of usurping their predecessor.
Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell is oftentimes at the top of the list of ideal replacement rumors. Over his five-year career at Cincinnati, Fickell boasts a career record of 45-14 and two 11-win seasons. Currently, the Bearcats are impressively undefeated through 11 games and sit at No. 5 in the College Football Playoff rankings.
Fickell has a slight advantage over James Franklin in the overall win/loss category, but his opponents are not of the same caliber as Penn State’s typical matchups. The Bearcats play in the AAC, a conference whose top programs include UCF, Memphis, and Houston. Even when ignoring his full year of interim head coaching at Ohio State where he went 6-7, Fickell has not proven an ability to consistently perform against ranked teams, let alone elite ones.
One of the biggest knocks against Franklin is his propensity for dropping big games. Franklin may have an underwhelming record against top-10 teams, but Fickell’s Cincinnati teams have played top-10 teams on just five occasions, posting a 1-4 record. Overall, he is 5-7 against ranked opponents. The Bearcat coach is a big question mark in that department, while also being a clear downgrade in recruiting, having never successfully landed a recruiting class in the top 40.
Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell has also been a popular name for pundits’ consideration. In his six-year tenure with the Cyclones, Campbell holds a 41-32 record. The argument for Campbell is that with a historically troubled program, he has managed to make the Cyclones respectable and wound up winning Big 12 Coach of the Year three times and earning a berth in the Big 12 title game in 2020.
As a head coach, Campbell has never won a conference championship. He has never had more than nine wins in a season, and his ranked Iowa State teams have suffered five unranked upsets. In contrast, Franklin is effective in the games that Penn State is supposed to win. Since taking the Nittany Lions over, his ranked teams have only lost to an unranked opponent three times. Once was in 2018 against Michigan State. Another was last year’s controversial loss to Indiana. Meanwhile, the last is this season’s frustrating nine-overtime loss to Illinois after an injured Sean Clifford was deemed the best choice to pilot Penn State’s offense. That’s not an inconsequential quality.
Campbell is billed as a shining bright spot of an underwhelming program. Despite his record arguing otherwise, Campbell has the intangibles necessary to be a successful big-time coach. All he supposedly needs to break through his ceiling is the resources of a big program. You know who that sounds like? James Franklin in 2014. Why should Penn State move on from James Franklin to hire someone whose potential is to become James Franklin?
Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule is the final candidate consistently mentioned by the media consensus. Hired by the Panthers prior to last season, he has been tapped by many as a coaching star in the making. Rhule is a bit of a romantic choice since, in addition to his coaching accolades, he is a former Penn State linebacker who walked on in the Paterno days.
Rhule is in his second year of a seven-year, $60 million contract with the Carolina Panthers. It seems unlikely that he would receive a pink slip this early into what was advertised as a major rebuilding job. Similarly, while it is plausible Rhule could be interested in taking over the position at his alma mater, it may still be too early for him to leave behind a promising opportunity in the NFL (not to mention eight figures of cash).
Joe Paterno is never coming back. Though even if he could, it is unclear whether he would be a dramatic improvement. Four hundred and nine wins divided over 46 seasons comes out to an average of under nine wins a season — a very similar ratio to Franklin’s over his Penn State tenure.
Forty-six years with one coach will probably never happen again, nor will this university likely ever find someone so dedicated to the program. Holding on to that false notion is only going to harm the team’s ability to make a clearheaded decision.
Franklin has been committed to this team for eight seasons. He has created endowments. He donates to THON. He interacts with students around campus. He offers mentorship to his student-athletes. He lived away from his family for the entirety of last year’s pandemic-ridden season.
It is true that Franklin has leveraged questions about other jobs into lucrative contract extensions in the past. He may even be positioning himself to do it again. This summer, he changed agents and his responses to inquiries about his future are more cryptic than before. One way or another, Penn State should bring the saga to an end. Lock him in long term with the resources he wants or let him walk.
One day, Franklin is going to leave. That much is inevitable. But it’s one thing if he leaves in spite of a strong re-signing effort on Penn State’s part, and it’s another if he were to leave due to a stubborn stance from the university. It’s possible to reconcile with the former, but the latter is unacceptable when considering the alternatives. For now, the Nittany Lions are better off with Franklin at the helm, and they should make their best reasonable attempt to retain him.
Franklin is certainly not above criticism. He just deserves a more rational dialogue on his standing within the Penn State program.
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About the Author
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