Franklin lauded for enthusiasm, intelligence
Vanderbilt linebacker Archibald Barnes once intercepted a pass and returned it 100 yards for a touchdown against rival Tennessee. That was big, but Barnes was more excited about another interception.
This one happened during practice. Barnes took off, accompanied by a blocker, and made it to the end zone.
His escort was less fortunate. He got blasted by the quarterback, who sprinted downfield wearing neither pads nor a helmet.
It was their coach, James Franklin.
“He's very energetic,” Barnes said.
Whether Franklin takes such a hands-on approach in his new job remains to be seen. He is, however, expected to bring the same enthusiasm to Penn State that he exuded while elevating a depressed Vanderbilt program.
Franklin, who threw far more touchdown passes than interceptions as a two-time, all-PSAC quarterback at East Stroudsburg, was hired Saturday as the Nittany Lions' coach. He succeeds Bill O'Brien, who left for the NFL after two seasons.
O'Brien followed Joe Paterno, the head coach for 46 years.
“It's gonna be a bit different with James in there because the players are really gonna have fun,” said Mike Price, a former coach at several FBS programs who hired Franklin at Washington State in 1998. “He's energized, enthusiastic. He's tough, hard-nosed and critical, but he thinks football should be fun.”
Former Vanderbilt coach Gerry DiNardo said Penn State and the rest of the Big Ten need to “self-evaluate” how they use their resources to be more competitive on a national level. Franklin, he said, might not suit everyone's tastes in University Park, at least at first.
“He'll make a lot of friends and a lot of enemies,” said DiNardo, an analyst for the Big Ten Network who also was coach at LSU and Indiana. “James, to me, as an outside observer, would be someone who would press the administration to do certain things, as I believe Bill O'Brien was doing.”
Price observed Franklin's persistence early on when, he said, Franklin drove straight through from Pennsylvania to Pullman, Wash. — about 37 hours — to interview for a graduate assistant position. He got the job.
“I was impressed with his drive and how much he wanted to be there,” Price said. “He was a workaholic. But the best thing I liked about him was the kind of integrity he had.
“And he's smart. He's really smart. He picks things up super quick.”
Franklin is “very relaxed when he wants to be,” said Barnes, a 2012 Vanderbilt graduate.
“He understands we're in college,” Barnes said. “But when he lays down the law, it's Vandy Law. What he says goes, and let's not mess it up. He's in charge.”
Recruited to Vanderbilt by former coach Bobby Johnson, Barnes was considered a marginal talent coming out of high school. Lean years followed before Franklin arrived in 2011.
As the Commodores learned how to win, Barnes started for most of two seasons and was named a co-captain as a senior.
“He turned my life around, from a guy people didn't know,” Barnes said. “He pushed us beyond expectations, beyond the limits we thought we could achieve.”
Franklin inherited a program coming off consecutive 2-10 seasons.
“It was like, ‘Why go to football games?' ” Barnes said. “Empty stadium, nobody knew who we were. There were sections of the stadium that were all the other team's colors.”
The Commodores went 6-6 in 2011, then 9-4 in each of the next two seasons. They played in bowl games all three years. Black and gold, the team's colors, filled Vanderbilt Stadium.
Winning helped, but Franklin relentlessly pushed, promoted and sold the program, dropping by anywhere students congregated, talking to everyone.
“I think he realized to change the culture at Vanderbilt he had to start with the students,” said Vanderbilt sophomore Matt Meshberg, president of the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity on campus.
Pitt sophomore Sheldon Jeter, who is redshirting with the basketball team after a freshman year at Vanderbilt, said the results of Franklin's effort were not confined to football.
“It was more what he did for the entire place,” Jeter said. “I believe the success he had inspired the basketball team, the baseball team, the golf team.
“We saw him in the student section during basketball. His optimism was outstanding.”
Franklin is known as a dogged recruiter and a creative offensive tactician. More than that, Barnes said, “He can get people to emulate what he's doing. All of a sudden, waking up at 5 a.m. was no big deal. Going to class was no big deal. Getting good grades was no big deal.
“Something he had made him able to connect with everybody as individuals, but he led as a whole.”