Pariah To Fans, Savior To Players: James Franklin’s Nittany Lions Take A Stand After Rutgers Win
One week after he was booed off the Beaver Stadium field by his own fans, James Franklin was in tears in his own locker room.
The week between Penn State football’s loss to Michigan and the Nittany Lions’ latest win over Rutgers, their 17th-straight victory against the Scarlet Knights, was one of Franklin’s toughest of the season. Franklin’s week began as he walked off the field to an angry Penn State fanbase calling for his removal, and it quickly continued to slide downhill after he dismissed offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich.
The rest of the week was filled with fan-generated discourse about whether or not Franklin was fit to run Penn State’s program. It’s hard to imagine that Franklin didn’t hear the rumblings from outside the Lasch Building wondering if Penn State was better off just biting the bullet and terminating Franklin’s contract.
Even after Penn State beat Rutgers by 21 points, fans didn’t seem to have much confidence in their head coach. It was a different story in the locker room.
After the Nittany Lions gathered together postgame, tight end and team captain Theo Johnson got up to speak. Per his account and that of defensive end Chop Robinson, the speech moved Franklin to tears.
Johnson said that he told Franklin how much the team appreciates him and what he does for the group. He said that Franklin wasn’t told enough how much he means to the team, and it was past due for Franklin to receive his flowers.
“He gave everyone in that room a chance and an opportunity,” Johnson said. “And for some guys, he saved their lives. And so I just wanted to tell him how much I appreciated him and obviously how much our team appreciates him and everything he does.”
Franklin, Johnson said, was caught off-guard. The head coach stood speechless as his team rallied around him. At his press conference, Franklin said that the speech was exactly what he wanted to see from his team: players stepping up and taking charge.
Saturday’s game, for many, was a reflection point from the program. With its win over Rutgers, Penn State seems destined for another 10-2 finish to the regular season. Depending on the fan, that’s the sign of an elite program or another year for a team that’s always been the bridesmaid, never the bride.
Saturday was also Penn State’s senior day. The Nittany Lions, and Franklin himself, sent their seniors off with a win, knowing many of them would never don their uniform in Beaver Stadium again. It was an emotional goodbye for a coach who prides himself on the relationships he builds with his players.
“College, you just spent so much time with these guys — through the recruiting process, through their academic experience, through their football experience,” Franklin said. “With the highest highs and the lowest lows, and everything from girlfriends breaking up, to divorces, to deaths. You really experience it all.”
“And I know there’s a lot of programs out there that run football factories. We don’t,” Franklin continued. “We run a family-, relationship-based organization. So it means more.”
That’s where the disconnect between the Lasch Building and the stands at Beaver Stadium exists — it’s the two sides of Penn State football. That’s Franklin telling his fans that winning trophies isn’t what’s important, it’s building relationships with players. And still, the fans will want nothing more than a gold College Football Playoff trophy sitting in a glass case.
James Franklin may never be the coach that Penn State fans want him to be. He may never run a national title-winning program in his life. He may go 10-2 for another seven years at Penn State before the school decides not to renew his contract. He may always be the guy who came after Joe Paterno, who was one of the highest-paid coaches in college football, but who always came up short.
But even with all that, Franklin will still be a human being. He will still care about his players. And at the end of the day, Theo Johnson will still stand up in that locker room and make his head coach cry.
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