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Kovacevic: Penn State should proceed with caution

| Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014, 10:50 p.m.
Vanderbilt coach James Franklin celebrates with his team as he dances on the sideline during the second half of the BBVA Compass Bowl on Saturday, Jan. 4, 2014, in Birmingham, Ala. Vanderbilt defeated Houston 41-24.

Bill O'Brien achieved plenty in his two-year tenure at Penn State, but nothing tops being the one-man hazmat operation who cleaned up Chernobyl.

By the time the man left for the NFL, as even those still fuming about that will concede, it had become a reasonable possibility to get through at least a sentence about the school's football program without cringing through the words “Sandusky” or “rape” or “cover-up.”

It was all football, the way it's supposed to be.

But now?

Let's start here: There's a lot to love about the apparently imminent hiring of James Franklin, who was being connected to the post Thursday by reports nationwide and could be wrapped up by the weekend. He's 41. He has a reputation as being extraordinarily energetic. He has won big at Vanderbilt, for crying out loud. He's one of the hottest names in the industry, having been pursued by several colleges and two NFL teams. Three if you count the Browns.

Franklin just might be, as Vanderbilt athletic director David Williams was somewhat sadly pleading in public this week, “the best college football coach in America.”

And on one hand, it's applause-worthy that Penn State's administrators, particularly president Rodney Erickson and lame-duck athletic director Dave Joyner, have identified Franklin for football reasons rather than any antiquated sentiment that a coach has to hang around until he's 100 years old and, in turn, needs to have been born and bred in the heart of the commonwealth. Sure, it's nice that Franklin was raised near Philly, played at East Stroudsburg and began coaching at Kutztown. Some ties are always nice, and they'll mean more at Penn State than at most places. But there can't be any doubt that this search committee looked beyond convenience to find the best actual coach.

From a purely football standpoint, it's hard to imagine Penn State could have fared any better.

At the same time, let's not pretend the Geiger counter isn't going off as Franklin approaches the door.

On June 23, per Nashville police, four of Franklin's Vanderbilt players raped an unconscious 21-year-old female student in a dorm room. Each was charged with aggravated rape and sexual battery. All have pleaded not guilty in advance of a trial expected later this year. A fifth player pleaded guilty to trying to cover up the alleged crime.

Now in fairness to Franklin:

• He was on vacation with family in Florida at the time of the alleged crime.

• He kicked all five players off the team even before the indictments. The school later expelled them, as well.

• None of the four players charged with rape was on Vanderbilt's active roster. Three were redshirted, the other a transfer.

• Tom Thurman, Nashville's deputy district attorney, told that city's Tennessean newspaper during a September court proceeding: “There's no evidence whatsoever where Coach Franklin was involved in any way in the cover-up or has done anything inappropriate.”

All of that's compelling in Franklin's favor. To repeat for emphasis, there's nothing connecting the coach to the case other than his presiding over the team.

Still, the case is far from tried, let alone closed. Attorneys on both sides have said they continue seeking evidence related to any effort to cover up the matter.

They also haven't ruled out summoning Franklin to testify.

And wow, imagine that scene. After all Penn State has been through. As if any institution anywhere could afford less to be part of something like that.

This is a bold decision for the university, no matter how you break it down. And again, pending the resolution of the rape case, it's absolutely the right football choice. Franklin's addition not only would nullify the loss of O'Brien but also give Penn State a refreshed level of respect as a Big Ten program that pilfered away a successful SEC coach. More important by far, it would bring to University Park a coach who recruited with the best of the SEC even though Vanderbilt has tougher academic standards, who went 9-4 in each of the past two seasons and who stacked up enough talented underclassmen that the Commodores are expected to shine again in 2014.

Compare Franklin's achieving all that with a program that had been an afterthought for, oh, forever, then look at all the momentum he would inherit at Penn State via Christian Hackenberg and the pending end of NCAA sanctions, and it looks like chaos theory of the sweetest kind that this coach and this team could come together at this time.

Here's hoping it won't take a half-life to find out if anything's radioactive.

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