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James Franklin Weathering College Football Uncertainties With Consistency Since Decade-Spanning Recovery

Within Penn State football’s recent history, describing its last decade as “steady” wouldn’t necessarily justify similar periods of “turbulence” or “reformation.” 

But within college football’s recent two-year window marked by perpetual modification, the Nittany Lions’ program appears to be as healthy and vibrant as any across the sport’s landscape through the beginning stages of fall camp. 

On Sunday, James Franklin took the stand at Beaver Stadium for his 10th annual Media Day heading the blue and white. With Pat Fitzgerald’s recent firing at Northwestern, the Happy Valley mainstay now suddenly stands as the second-longest tenured Big Ten head coach, trailing only Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz. 

Moreover, just eight Power Five head coaches boast longer spurts of undeviating stability above Franklin, including Nick Saban, Dabo Swinney, and Mike Gundy. With the average FBS coaching span currently tagged at a staggeringly low 3.7-year clip, Franklin realizes what he’s curated is a new anomaly, not the standard. 

“This kind of aligns more with my DNA and who I am as a person,” Franklin said. “[I’m] a very loyal person, but I think it aligns with what the university is used to as well. So, I think those things make a ton of sense… But, it’s somewhat unusual in today’s college football, which can also, in some ways, be sad.”

Since COVID-19 limited the Big Ten regular season calendar to a nine-game campaign in 2020, adjustments to player eligibility through the transfer portal, Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) adoption, and conference realignment have left college football’s tradition-based pedigree nearly unrecognizable. 

The combination of fluctuating factors led to the conference’s addition of USC, UCLA, Oregon, and Washington, which will inevitably shake up the Nittany Lions’ 2024 schedule in the near future. Through every emphatic external shift, Penn State has slowly morphed into a machine of consistency — preached by a coaching staff with 19 alumni working in the Lasch Building and mirrored by its players. 

“We’ve stuck to the script,” fifth-year defensive back Keaton Ellis said. “There’ve been little changes here and there, but we trust our process and what we do. There haven’t been any major changes in that aspect.”

As a half-decade staple donning the blue and white, Ellis held claim to a front-row seat in viewing how college football’s widespread alterations have affected Penn State’s ascending trajectory. 

Ellis, a State College native, entered the program’s confines in 2019 as the second highest-rated prospect in Pennsylvania, per 247Sports. While the crafty cornerback could’ve likely pledged to a plethora of blue-blood squads, he chose to remain local for the pride and prestige of his hometown roots. 

While large contingencies of high-profile prospects are now signing letters of intent with NIL monetization at the forefront of their decisions, Ellis feels as though Penn State’s culture is different — highlighting program-specific opportunities first and putting new-age adaptations on the back burner.  

“A lot goes into recruiting, and I think the biggest thing for most guys is the football aspect of it,” Ellis said. “All that other stuff comes in behind it. [Through] my communication with different guys, most of the time, it comes down to football, which you like to see, especially with everything that’s changed.”

While likely title contenders among the likes of LSU, USC, and Oregon all snagged 14 or more transfer portal products a piece within the latest recruiting cycle, Franklin’s approach within the transfer portal’s walls has been defined by cautiousness, rather than simply adopting a free-agent acquisition model. 

Heading into 2023, Penn State gained the second-least transfers among all Big Ten units, tied with Rutgers and Illinois at only seven additions each. Conversely, the Nittany Lions’ close-knit cohesion led to just nine former players moving on from the program, with all previously sporting reserve roles. 

As a firm supporter of the transfer portal’s overarching concept, Franklin believes its purpose becomes murky when players change course two, three, or even four instances solely for on-field benefit. 

“Transferring is good, and it’s funny because I think when a lot of people say things like this, it comes off as being anti-student-athlete,” Franklin said. “That’s completely the opposite… I still believe that the number one thing we should be doing is educating. What I mean by that is when you look at graduation rates, the data is very strong, but every time you transfer, the likelihood of graduating goes down because you lose credits. So I think that’s a perfect example.”

Two cycles ago, Franklin poached Johnny Dixon from the portal by way of South Carolina to fill the void of fleeting secondary depth. At the time of Dixon’s tenure in Columbia, the Florida native endured a COVID-19-hindered sophomore showing concluded by an overhaul of the program’s entire staff that originally recruited him. 

Since arriving in Happy Valley, the former Gamecock morphed into a shutdown staple on the outside for Franklin’s crew, finishing sixth in pass breakups among all Big Ten defenders and leading the conference in sacks by a cornerback. 

His cultural fit combined with instant gridiron production exemplifies how Franklin’s calculated approach has helped the Nittany Lions adapt to the modern era uniquely, while still remaining overly competitive. 

“I think [the transfer portal] is very beneficial just because sometimes, people may land in a spot and things don’t go as planned,” Dixon said. “Or, they thought coaches were going to be there and those coaches left, or they thought their playing situation would be different. It’s always good to have a second chance. That’s what I think. At some point, you can abuse it, but for the most part, it’s good.”

Ten years ago, Franklin waltzed into the Clemens Family Football Team Complex with five scholarship offensive linemen, a two-year bowl ban, and 10 underclassmen starters. 

Four 11-win campaigns, three New Year’s Six bowl victories, and a conference crown later, Penn State appears to be on the cusp of becoming one of the sport’s immovable pillars, which can’t be overstated enough given college football’s lopsided aura. 

“Stability is good for a lot of things, a lot of people, and a lot of organizations, but I don’t take it for granted — one day,” Franklin said. “This is a special place and a special community with history, tradition, and passion… There have been some challenging days, but many more good days. I wake up every single day feeling blessed and appreciative.”

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About the Author

Connor Krause

Connor Krause is a senior 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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