Penn State's Franklin cherishes memories of time spent in Pittsburgh
UNIVERSITY PARK — James Franklin motions to a corner of his sprawling office that's occupied by stacked, unpacked boxes. Moments earlier, he'd lugged an air mattress into his space on an upper floor of the Lasch Building on the eastern side of Penn State's campus.
The Nittany Lions' football coach for eight weeks, Franklin finally planned to move out of a State College hotel this past weekend before a spring break family getaway this week.
Franklin was eager to show off a photo of himself as a child in Pittsburgh.
“At the original Crawford Grill,” Franklin said proudly. “One of the more famous jazz clubs around, especially on the East Coast — and my grandfather used to clean that. My grandfather: he drove the jitney, he did the numbers, and then he also cleaned the Crawford Grill.
“I remember a picture — it was my grandparent's 25th wedding anniversary or something — and I'm behind the bar. I'm a little kid, and I'm mixing drinks up for people and having a great time. That was cool.”
Franklin wants to provide the photographic proof — but he hasn't so much as seen his kids in more than a month. Much less a 30-some year-old — if treasured — photo.
“We're probably not moving into a home until June,” Franklin said. “We've already sold our house in Nashville and moved out, so all our stuff is boxed up.”
Moving is nothing new to Franklin and his family — the uproot from Vanderbilt in Nashville to State College is his 11th move since he was a star quarterback at East Stroudsburg in the early 1990s.
Pittsburgh never has been a permanent residence of Franklin's, but he did spend plenty of time in the city as a youngster. Though Franklin is a native of the Philadelphia suburb of Langhorne, his father's side of the family spent a good portion of the 20th century in Pittsburgh.
Franklin said he can trace his family roots (the Battles) back to the first freed slaves. Originally from Rocky Mount, N.C., they settled in Pittsburgh — though most all of them have moved back toward that direction, to the Washington and Maryland areas.
Among the final blood of Franklin still in Pittsburgh is Karen (Battle) Zellars, whose grandmother was Franklin's grandmother's sister. Zellars, a Pitt alum, is the university's administrative and program coordinator.
“I wear blue-and-gold, so to have him wear the blue-and-white, it's a little painful,” Zellars said with a chuckle. “But I understand. I know his family that's from Pittsburgh is very proud of him and kind of brag about his accomplishments as much as we can.”
Franklin's father grew up in Pittsburgh. After Franklin's parents split up when he was a youngster, he'd make regular visits back to visit extended family.
“From the time I was little until throughout high school, I'd spend holidays — Christmases and Thanksgivings, birthdays — there,” Franklin said. “It was your typical family time: You'd have a huge meal, you'd get to see all your cousins and your family that you hadn't seen in too long a time.”
Franklin's grandmother, Leoda, lived on Bedford Avenue in the Hill District. Zellars has one distinct memory of her home that involves Franklin.
During a Thanksgiving of his pre-teens, a young Franklin showed the first signs of a competitive streak that would carry him to the top of the coaching profession when he unintentionally got involved in a pie-baking contest.
“One Thanksgiving,” Zellars said, “we both made apple pies. And everyone liked his better, and I don't think I've ever actually gotten over that. I think I still have sort of a complex over that.”
When Franklin came to Pittsburgh, he'd end up spending much of his time with “Mighty.”
Keith Gardner grew up across the street from Franklin's Aunt Jackie in Lincoln-Lemington. When Gardner was born (six days prior to Franklin in 1972), a neighbor said, “He'll grow up to be big and mighty.”
The “Mighty” stuck as his name ever since – especially via Franklin. After giving out Gardner's phone number, Franklin grins when he says of his lifelong friend, “Call him ‘Mighty.'”
“James is always all over me about that,” Gardner said. “That was OK when I was 10, 11, 12, 13 or even 14. But at this point? At 42?
“He'll introduce me to somebody as ‘Mighty.' At least say Keith once, then say Mighty. No, he's ‘Mighty' from the beginning. So here I am meeting all these coaches and important people James knows, and I'm being introduced as ‘Mighty.'
“But he's the boss, so I let him have that.”
Gardner's only attempt at revenge is to recall that some at Neshaminy High School would call Franklin, “Vinny” — a homage to the similar hairstyle Franklin and former NFL QB Vinny Testaverde shared.
During childhood visits to Pittsburgh, Franklin would cling to Gardner, in part, because the vast majority of Franklin's dad's side of the family was female.
“I'd go back to Pittsburgh, and it was me and all these women,” Franklin said. “My Aunt LaWanda, my Aunt Romaine, my Aunt Melbadene, my grandma Leoda, my Aunt Jackie, and then me and my sister, Debbie.”
Gardner, who now lives in Penn Hills, was behind the dais alongside Franklin's wife, Fumi, when Franklin was introduced to Penn State at a January press conference at Beaver Stadium.
Gardner visited Nashville multiple times when Franklin was the coach at Vanderbilt. Gardner would sit in on team meetings and accompany the team on the pregame “Star Walk” through campus.
“James is hugging everybody and kissing babies the whole time,” Gardner said. “And then, after the games? He'd drive around the parking lot after the tailgate and thank people for coming. Who does that? That's the kind of guy that he is. When it's time to leave, he actually rides around the parking lot, beeps his horn, shakes hands, takes pictures and thanks people for coming.”
Franklin's players like to call him “a relationship guy.” It doesn't take long after meeting him to recognize he has a skill for relating to people — something that was apparent back to his childhood visits to Pittsburgh.
“James was always engaging,” Zellars said. “He always knew how to strike up a conversation and how to engage people in the conversation. … James always was one who could talk to anyone — and I think that's one of the reasons why he's so good at what he does.
“I can tell you, I'm not surprised that he has ascended the way he has. All of us in this family, we're very proud of him.”