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Reports: Franklin expected to take Penn State football job

| Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014, 1:54 p.m.
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Vanderbilt coach James Franklin, a leading candidate for the Penn State job, coaches against Alabama on Oct. 8, 2011, in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Vanderbilt coach James Franklin has agreed to become the 16th head football coach at Penn State, according to reports Thursday from multiple national outlets citing unnamed sources.

Franklin, 41, has spent the past three seasons as Vanderbilt's coach. If the reports are accurate, he would replace Bill O'Brien, who last week left to become coach of the NFL's Houston Texans.

Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner did not respond to text or voice messages left on his cell phone seeking confirmation. Penn State's sports information department would not confirm the reports of Franklin's hiring by CBS, ESPN and Fox Sports. Reached Thursday, Vanderbilt spokesman Rod Williamson said, “James Franklin is still our head football coach.”

Players were told by the university that they would be informed “as soon as it becomes official,” a prominent player told the Tribune-Review.

The Penn State Board of Trustees compensation committee is scheduled to meet Saturday morning to review an employment contract. The university would not say whose contract was to be discussed.

Franklin emerged as a rising star in the coaching industry by leading Vanderbilt to success it hadn't enjoyed over eight decades in the SEC. Franklin's record is 24-15 at a school known more for academics than football, having won nine games each of the past two seasons. The Commodores' previous nine-win season came in 1915.

A native of Langhorne outside Philadelphia, Franklin was a star quarterback at Division II East Stroudsburg and began his coaching career at nearby Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference rival Kutztown in 1995.

Vanderbilt athletic director David Williams told 104.5 The Zone in Nashville on Thursday afternoon that he had heard from Franklin and was told, “What you're hearing right now is untrue.”

“When we open up against Temple, I expect James Franklin to be on the sideline of that game,” Williams said. “If by chance he's not, we'll have somebody in there.”

When asked which job is better between Penn State and Vanderbilt, Williams told the radio station, “it's a tie.”

If that's true, it's a testament to the makeover Franklin has done at Vanderbilt. The Commodores have played in bowls each of the past three seasons — winning the two most recent — after having appeared in just four bowls in the program's more than 100 years prior to Franklin's arrival.

Long an SEC doormat, Vanderbilt has more wins over its past 20 games (16) than any conference school except Alabama. Franklin went 9-7 over the past two seasons in conference play. Over the previous 17 seasons, Vanderbilt won a total of 18 SEC games.

Franklin's first big break at the Division I-A level arguably came when future Penn State assistant Ron Vanderlinden hired him at Maryland in 2000. Franklin later was on the same staff with O'Brien with the Terrapins in 2003-04.

Franklin spent eight seasons — over two stints — with Maryland, becoming offensive coordinator in 2008 at age 36. It was from that job he was hired by Vanderbilt.

Despite their overall record under Franklin, the Commodores have won just two regular-season games against teams that finished that season with a winning record.

Another concern for Penn State fans accustomed to the stability of Joe Paterno's 46 seasons as coach — Paterno was fired in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal 26 months ago — is Franklin's nomadic tendencies. Penn State is Franklin's 11th job in 20 seasons, having never spent more than five years at any stop. Some Nittany Lions fans feel stung over the departure of O'Brien after two years.

O'Brien led Penn State to consecutive winning seasons while dealing with historic NCAA sanctions resulting from the Sandusky scandal. But independent athletics integrity monitor George Mitchell's positive reviews of Penn State's progress led to a scaling back of the team's scholarship reductions in September. The NCAA and Mitchell have hinted that the Lions' postseason ban — halfway through its four-year term — could be rolled back, too, come August.

That knowledge perhaps allowed Penn State to become a destination job once again. Franklin entered the offseason arguably as the hottest up-and-coming coaching commodity in college football. He reportedly was sought for interviews by the NFL's Washington Redskins and Cleveland Browns.

His program at Vanderbilt, however, was tarnished with allegations of a rape last summer. Authorities charged five Vanderbilt players for their alleged roles in a rape of an unconscious 21-year-old female student at a campus dormitory. All five later were dismissed from the team. Four remain charged with rape but have pleaded not guilty. The fifth pleaded guilty to trying to cover up the alleged rape.

In Franklin, Penn State would be getting a proven recruiter. In the three seasons before Franklin presided over Vanderbilt's recruiting, the school's average class rank by Rivals was 68th nationally. Franklin has lifted that average to 24th over the past three seasons, including a rank of No. 26 for the current class, two spots behind Penn State.

The Lions' 19 recruits from the Class of 2014 largely were sold on Penn State by O'Brien and defensive line coach Larry Johnson Sr., who has served as interim coach over the past week. Johnson, an 18-year assistant at PSU, sought the permanent head coach job.

Two of Franklin's top assistants at Vanderbilt — defensive coordinator Bob Shoop (Oakmont) and assistant head coach/co-defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Brent Pry (Altoona) — are from Pennsylvania.

Chris Adamski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at cadamski@tribweb.com or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.

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