Kovacevic: Franklin 'dominates' his first day

| Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014, 8:08 p.m.

UNIVERSITY PARK — James Franklin already had blurted it out, in some form or another, no fewer than four times and with blunt force: “Our recruiting philosophy is that we are going to dominate the state.”

It was the most repeated phrase of Franklin's introductory news conference as Penn State's football coach Saturday at Beaver Stadium, and speaking as one of 50-plus media crammed into a tiny classroom for this, it came across as if Franklin really, really wanted someone to react.

“We are going to dominate the state.”

“We're working hard to put together a staff that will help us to dominate the state.”

“I don't know if I've mentioned this yet, but we're going to dominate the state.”

On top of all that, Franklin offered — unsolicited — that his late father hailed from the Hill District and that he “spent my summers and holidays in Pittsburgh,” facts few had known before.

So I finally took the bait and asked: If Franklin's going to dominate the state, and there's only one other major college program in said state, and Penn State has mostly backed off Western Pennsylvania in recent years, was he essentially throwing down the gauntlet at Pitt?

“Well, I have tremendous respect for the University of Pittsburgh and for their coach,” Franklin replied without naming Paul Chryst. “But when I say Pennsylvania, when I say Penn State, that's the whole state. So we will recruit every corner of the state, every school in this state, every neighborhood in this state. And I don't just mean the student-athletes. I mean the people of Pennsylvania. We will recruit everybody.”

He paused.

“Again, that's with tremendous respect for the University of Pittsburgh. But we are … Penn State.”


Wasn't exactly a no, was it?

And that was just one slice of an extraordinarily bold, even brash, first impression made by Franklin on the day he bid farewell to his players at Vanderbilt with an early-morning speech, then flew into State College to a hero's greeting at the airport and the stadium and, if I had to guess, to much more of that sort of thing for the foreseeable future.

He has a magnetic personality. When he began calling this “the best day of my life,” he glanced over at his lovely wife and two daughters and amended, “the third-best day of my life!” When he recalled his single mom raising him and his sister with little means, he wiped a tear from his left eye. When he looked ahead to becoming part of the community, he promised to “blow balloons at your birthday parties.” When he spoke with anyone, he repeated back their names and asked, “How are you?” Each and every one.

I've seen bold and brash when it's phony. That was Todd Graham. This guy's for real.

He also has a palpably innate confidence. He spoke of “championships being all that matter.” He loudly vowed that all 107,000 seats at Beaver Stadium “will be filled for every game!” He addressed head-on the lingering rape charges against four of his former players at Vanderbilt — with which Franklin has not been even tangentially linked — by calling it “the most challenging thing that I've ever been through” and declaring himself “thoroughly vetted” by Penn State on the matter. He even touched on the ultimate untouchable in these parts, answering a tough question about how he would deal with the lunatic fringe of Joe Paterno disciples thusly: “We're here to take this university and bring it back together and unite it so that we can be proud of everything it stands for, on and off the field.”

The latter wasn't much, but it was pitch-perfect.

Still, I just couldn't get past the recruiting bravado. And no, not because of the Pitt angle but rather because it illustrated most powerfully the scope of what Franklin aims to achieve.

Bill O'Brien made promises when he arrived, sure. Every college coach does. But he also made painfully clear over two years that his first love was the NFL, that he had little taste for college recruiting, that he would pretty much commit to the job on a year-to-year basis. If anyone thought O'Brien was a lifer, they flat-out weren't paying attention.

Franklin is different. He talked about calling “every high school coach” in the state, and his history of recruiting successfully against all those big-time SEC schools — never mind Pitt — would suggest he'll do precisely that. He talked about making Penn State not a brand name but the brand name in the commonwealth. He talked about being “a college guy, a relationship guy” who prefers working with “kids.”

Those aren't the thoughts of someone holding his breath until the Bills or Browns call.

Franklin might not be a lifer. Few are anymore. He's a good coach who, if he continues at Penn State at the same level as his three years at Vanderbilt, will have his name come up time and again. He might even entertain a move someday.

But the guess here is that he'll first memorize a whole lot of names and dial a whole lot of numbers.

Including plenty in the 412 and 724 area codes.

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