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James Franklin Enters Rarified Head Coaching Company With Rose Bowl Victory

Heading into Penn State football head coach James Franklin’s third season in Happy Valley, the Pennsylvania native boasted a moderate 14-12 record at the helm, highlighted by a first-year Pinstripe Bowl victory over Boston College for the program’s first bowl triumph since the 2009 campaign. 

While Franklin’s first pair of go-arounds ahead of 2016 proved serviceable amid grueling sanction mitigation efforts, the far-from-proven program leader needed to make a quick splash to cement himself as the long-term staple to guide the blue and white. 

Although his unit’s shaky 2-2 start on the heels of a 49-10 blowout defeat at Michigan further fueled Franklin’s critics, the head coach ultimately silenced doubters by delivering a Big Ten Championship and a Rose Bowl appearance en route to the Nittany Lions’ first 11-win campaign in seven years. 

Fast forward nearly seven years in the other direction, Franklin recently etched himself among an exclusive group of head coaching titans with his squad’s dominant 35-21 handling of Utah in the Rose Bowl. 

Since the College Football Playoff era commenced in 2014, the Nittany Lions reside as just one of five programs to capture three New Year’s Six bowl victories with their latest triumph over the Utes. The others, which include Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, and Georgia, all hold a playoff appearance over the Nittany Lions, but none of the foes above faced a near program-shattering demise just three seasons before the playoff format’s inception. 

However, with Franklin’s latest New Year’s Six sweep at the Rose Bowl, the head coach achieved a feat that Nick Saban, Ryan Day, Dabo Swinney, and Kirby Smart have yet to accomplish. The victory helped Franklin become the fifth-ever head coach to guide his team to Fiesta, Cotton, and Rose Bowl wins. Aside from Franklin, Bob Stoops (Oklahoma), Mack Brown (Texas), Terry Donahue (UCLA), and former Penn State head coach Joe Paterno all eclipsed the mark throughout their respective tenures. 

In just nine seasons, Franklin accomplished the mark quicker than any of the four other counterparts. While the postseason bowl outlook greatly differed when Paterno headlined the Nittany Lions from 1966-2011, it took him 28 years to close out the third leg of the conquest, which came to fruition following the 1995 Rose Bowl. 

It’s important to distinguish that across Paterno’s first nine seasons in Happy Valley, the former 15-year assistant put the Nittany Lions on the map by embarking on an 85-15-1 record, highlighted by reaching three undefeated campaigns in 1968, 1969, and 1973. 

Conversely, in Franklin’s defense, the former Vanderbilt headman inherited a broken roster with less than 10 scholarship linemen at the pinnacle of several Big Ten opponents’ recent success runs in Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Iowa. Capturing a Big Ten Championship, Fiesta Bowl, Cotton Bowl, and Rose Bowl after maintaining a 16-14 overall clip heading into week five of the 2016 campaign shows just how far Penn State has come in a relatively short turnaround. 

Following Monday evening’s national championship bout, several analysts included the Nittany Lions in the top 10 of their way-too-early top 25 rankings ahead of 2023. Currently, Franklin’s unit is primed to lose eight starters heading into the offseason, but the mix of fresh newcomers entering the starting lineup paired with key returnees could prime Penn State into Big Ten Championship contention during the last year of the four-team playoff format. 

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About the Author

Connor Krause

Connor Krause is a junior from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania double majoring in journalism and business. He is a lifelong Penn State football and basketball fan and enjoys rooting for Pittsburgh sports teams. In his free time, Connor can be found playing golf or pick-up basketball. You can follow his Twitter and Instagram @ckrause_31.

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