PSU's Franklin excelling as a dynamic salesman for football program
UNIVERSITY PARK — Whether he's selling prospective recruits on committing, selling alumni on donating, selling fans on purchasing tickets or selling observers on the notion the Penn State program is on the rise, James Franklin, it seems, is comfortable in a role as a blue-and-white salesman.
Eight-and-a-half months after being hired as the Nittany Lions' 16th head coach, top high school players, affluent alums, fans and media prognosticators all seem to be buying in.
“He does a great job as the face of the program,” defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said. “He's great at that stuff. He's a great football coach, too. But he's also adept at promoting our program because he has so much genuine energy that he's a guy you want to play for and you want to work for you and you want to join in with.”
Many already have joined in on Franklin's mission — without him even so much as having coached a game for Penn State.
• Franklin and his staff have already gotten 16 four-star Rivals.com prospects to verbally commit — two of whom enrolled this year and 12 others part of a 2015 recruiting class that is ranked in the top six nationally by all four major ranking sites.
• The athletic department reports more than 5,000 new season tickets have been sold.
• Separate gifts to the football program of $1.5 million and $1 million from individual alumni have been announced this summer.
• National media outlets such as the Washington Post, USA Today and Sports Illustrated — to name a few — have published long, complimentary pieces on Franklin since he was hired.
“Penn State had a set of criteria of what they were looking for when they hired him — a certain form of leadership — and he obviously fit in,” said Joe Favorito, a professor in the sports management program at Columbia University. “He understands the value of setting your goals high and in sending that message to alumni, fans, student athletes and student athletes you're recruiting.”
While almost universally acknowledged by observers as being very good at the so-called “CEO” and public and promotional roles associated with modern big-time college football head coaching, Franklin repeatedly has insisted it's not his favorite part of his duties.
“But to me, it's just such a big part of the job nowadays,” Franklin said. “Being a college football coach is a lot more complex than being an NFL coach because you have to wear so many more hats: You're dealing with the boosters, you're dealing with the board of trustees, you're out in the community trying to sell season tickets, you're doing things on campus trying to get the students to buy in, you're recruiting.
“There's so many things that you do.”
Franklin's strong public-speaking and interpersonal-relations skills are evident every time he holds a news conference or is featured at an alumni event. It's obvious he makes sure to look anyone he encounters in the eye, offering a warm smile and firm handshake.
“One of the things James likes most is people,” said Dennis Douds, Franklin's coach at East Stroudsburg. “He interacts well with them. He's so excited about what he's doing and what's going on with his program that he can't help but want to go out and express that to everyone he can.”
Franklin and the staff under him have talked about the conscious “branding” they do on behalf of themselves, the program and the university. That manifests itself in everything from social media (#PSUnrivaled, #107kStrong and #FOE — the latter two representing the 107,000 Beaver Stadium seats and “family over everything” — are frequent Franklin hashtags) to posing for photos (Franklin invariably holds up an index finger).
Franklin's public pledge to sell out every home game has served as a motivating factor for the ticket sales force, assistant athletic director for ticketing Jeff Garner said.
“Coach Franklin is engaged in every aspect of the program,” said Garner, adding Franklin “has described a clear vision of our brand.”
Franklin's friend since childhood, Keith Gardner admits he is a longtime Pitt fan. It makes Gardner sad to see so many empty seats at Heinz Field. He thinks if Franklin coached the Panthers, things would be different.
“The marketing would be through the roof,” he said. “It would be selling out.
“That's just James — he's going to do whatever he has to do to get people there. He's just full of energy. He's a workaholic.”
Franklin's charisma — along with, of course, his team's unprecedented winning — worked at his previous stop, Vanderbilt. Tim Corbin, coach of the Commodores' baseball team that won this summer's College World Series, said Franklin lifted the profile of not only Vanderbilt's long-dormant football team, but the school's entire athletic department and the university as a whole.
“He's hands-on in everything — hands-on with the kids, hands-on with the community,” Corbin said. “He markets his own program. He doesn't accept no for an answer. ... He has a strong personality, and whatever he does, he jumps in headfirst to get it done.”