Penn State officially names James Franklin new football coach
UNIVERSITY PARK — Before James Franklin called Penn State his “dream job” Saturday during his introductory news conference as the Nittany Lions' 16th head coach, he called himself “a Pennsylvania boy with a Penn State heart.”
Those ties aren't just from the eastern part of the commonwealth, either.
“My dad is from Pittsburgh, so I would spend all my summers and holidays in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,” Franklin was quick to point out just a few sentences into a session with the media that lasted more than 50 minutes. “My dad was from the Hill District, Bedford Avenue.”
From the Hill to Happy Valley by way of Nashville, Tenn., and 10 other stops in his coaching career, Franklin has found himself “at home” in Pennsylvania as coach of the state's flagship football program.
“The thing that I take the most pride in,” said Franklin, whose parents settled in the Hill after getting married before moving to the Philadelphia area, “is coming home.”
After coaching at Vanderbilt the past three seasons, Franklin was hired Saturday to replace Bill O'Brien.
Franklin became one of the country's hottest young coaches by turning a bottom-feeding program at Vanderbilt into one that won nine games each of the past two seasons. The Commodores' record over their final 20 games — 16-4 — is second in the SEC to only Alabama.
“He is an inspiring young leader who has accomplished much already in his career,” Penn State president Rodney Erickson said. “He took his former program to a remarkable turnaround in a short period of time while competing in one of the toughest conferences in the country.”
Still, for all of Franklin's successes, his final season at Vanderbilt was marred by an alleged June rape of an unconscious woman by four players. A fifth was charged in connection with an alleged cover-up. The case still is pending.
Although all five players were kicked off the team and the assistant district attorney cleared Franklin of wrongdoing, some questioned Franklin's hiring.
When asked about it Saturday, Franklin called the situation “The most challenging thing that I've ever been through personally as a father of two daughters and professionally.
“We made decisions quickly and tried to do everything we possibly could to respect the situation.”
Athletic director and search committee chairman Dave Joyner called the background check on Franklin “maybe the most thorough vetting process of any search perhaps of any position at this university.
“We utilized multiple independent third-party sources. We used contacts and people that knew James closely, including officials and administrators from Vanderbilt.
“So my belief, without a doubt, is that James Franklin is a man of extremely high character.”
Franklin was rewarded richly for it.
He joked that, regardless of his salary, his wife gives him a $200 monthly allowance. With his new contract, that leaves plenty left over.
Counting retention bonuses on Dec. 31 of each year, Franklin is guaranteed to make $4.3 million in the first season of his contract, with that amount increasing every year until it jumps to $5.25 million if he stays through Dec. 31, 2019.
His buyout for leaving for another job, be it in the NFL or college, is set at $5 million the first two seasons but decreases to $1 million by 2019.
O'Brien owed roughly $6.5 million when he left for the Houston Texans. Some fans have anxiety that Franklin will bolt for the pro game, too. Although he has spent just one season of his 19-year coaching career in the NFL (as the wide receivers coach of the Green Bay Packers in 2005), Franklin reportedly was courted in recent weeks by the Washington Redskins and Cleveland Browns.
“I had a great experience in my time in the NFL. I think it was something that was very important in my development,” Franklin said. “But I'm a college guy.”
Among the primary relationships Franklin wants to foster is with Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg, the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year. Franklin said he hopes to talk with Hackenberg and his family “within the next 24 hours.” Hackenberg had a close relationship with O'Brien.
Franklin also indicated he would reach out to defensive line coach Larry Johnson, who has spent 18 seasons at Penn State — the past 10 days as interim head coach — and Ron Vanderlinden, who was linebackers coach from 2001 until parting ways with O'Brien last month. Vanderlinden hired Franklin to his staff when Vanderlinden was coach at Maryland in 2000.
“I think there are some people that can help us in the transition,” Franklin said. “Guys that have strong Penn State ties.”
But Franklin said he was “fiercely loyal” and that he would keep many from his current staff at Vanderbilt. Two have ties to Western Pennsylvania: defensive coordinator Bob Shoop (Oakmont) and assistant head coach/co-defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Brent Pry (Altoona).
Franklin said he wanted to move quickly in assembling a staff.
Franklin became Penn State's first African-American coach shortly after 9 a.m. when the university's Board of Trustees compensation committee approved his contract.
At roughly the same time about 550 miles away, Franklin was meeting with the Vanderbilt players. A crowd estimated at 1,000 showed up to cheer Commodores players as they entered a building knowing their popular coach was about to say goodbye.
“Today was an emotional day,” Franklin said moments after making a “thank you” to Vanderbilt his first public comments inside Beaver Stadium.
“It wasn't an easy decision,” he said. “We weren't going to leave Vanderbilt. We worked very, very hard to build something that we could be proud of, had all types of success in the classroom, had all types of success on the football field.
“But we felt like this was a special opportunity, an opportunity where we could walk into a young man's home and offer the best of everything. An opportunity to get a great education, an opportunity to play for championships, and that's what we're all about.”