On eve of Penn State finale, James Franklin recalls the early days
The events of early January 2014 remain a bit of a blur for most around the Penn State football program. Chief among them is James Franklin.
He had just been hired as Penn State’s head coach 12 days after Bill O’Brien accepted the head coaching job with the Houston Texans. For the second time in about three years, the Penn State program was heading in a new direction, and it seemed for a while like Franklin had no choice but to lead it wherever it was going himself.
His assistant coaching staff, not yet cleared by Penn State’s human resources department to accept the jobs he wanted to offer them, couldn’t call potential recruits on behalf of the program just weeks before National Letter of Intent Signing Day. They couldn’t meet with each other in the Lasch Football Building on campus either because technically they weren’t employees.
So for a little more than a week after he got the job at Penn State, Franklin waited. Did what he could, but not what he wanted to do. Not what he needed to do which, essentially, was to build the foundation of what would become the senior class that helped make his program in Happy Valley one of the nation’s best, the group of seniors who will run out of the tunnel for the final time Saturday when the No. 12 Nittany Lions host Maryland on Senior Day at Beaver Stadium.
And once his assistants did get hired officially, they found that core of players wondering where Franklin’s move from Vanderbilt to Penn State left them.
“It was a complete scramble,” Franklin said, looking back. “I remember sitting in, I guess it was the Penn Stater (hotel), and we were all kind of stuck in that room for however long it was. Fortunately, when we were able to get these guys on the phone and kind of explain the situation, most of them were really good. But some of them, it was a battle, and feelings were hurt and things like that. It’s hard to explain to a 17-year-old kid about HR and clearing the paperwork and those type of things from a compliance standpoint, as well as a university standpoint.”
It worked out well for the Nittany Lions, despite the trying circumstances.
Those hurt feelings dissipated for a handful of recruits who expected to play for Franklin and his staff at Vanderbilt but wound up with the Nittany Lions. Among them: Quarterback Trace McSorley, cornerback Amani Oruwariye and linebacker Koa Farmer.
“I remember I was in the car leaving a friend’s house, and he called me and it was like a PA area code, so I answered it, and it was coach Franklin,” McSorley recalled. “I remember being probably a little short on the phone, because I was upset with how everything had gone down, and obviously not knowing exactly what was going on in the dead period, not hearing anything for a while.”
Before he hastily hung up the phone, McSorley told Franklin he’d think about heading up to Penn State from his Virginia home for a visit. But he made it clear there were no guarantees.
McSorley didn’t have dozens of offers to choose from, and most of the programs that did at one point want him to accept a scholarship wound up filling their respective classes without him. The fact that his two best were from a school that just lost the head coach he committed to and another mired in the middle of a years-long bowl ban didn’t exactly sit well.
“At that time, I didn’t really know where I was going to go,” McSorley said “It wasn’t that I wasn’t going to go to Vandy, or that I wasn’t going to go to Penn State. I was just kind of looking for an option. At that point, it’s what I really needed.
“I was looking for an opportunity.”
As he runs out of the tunnel for the final time on Saturday at Beaver Stadium, McSorley knows he’ll have to fight the emotions of five years well spent with a program that he guided through so many changes.
He’ll leave as, statistically, one of the best quarterbacks in Nittany Lions history, and the other seniors who eschewed Vanderbilt verbal commitments with him will have a chance to make a strong case for a third consecutive New Year’s Six bowl. Franklin called the 2018 senior class one of the best in program history, “all things considered.”
All things, including the fact that so many key members were so close to playing elsewhere.
“To think that we were, in my time here, to go from that where we were still on postseason bans and all that type of stuff to where we were able to win a Big Ten championship, play in a Rose Bowl, Fiesta Bowl, bowl games that people dream about going to their entire lives. When we got here, there wasn’t even a thought that we would have a chance at any bowl game, at least in the next three years when I first got here.
“I think that’s probably what I’m most proud of is how far this team has come over those five years from where we started to where we’re going to be finishing up this year, and all the things we’ve been able to accomplish over my time.”