Is Penn State coach James Franklin underappreciated? | TribLIVE.com
Penn State

Is Penn State coach James Franklin underappreciated?

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AP
Penn State coach James Franklin congratulates offensive lineman Des Holmes during the second half against Iowa on Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019, in Iowa City, Iowa. Penn State won 17-12.

On his radio show earlier this season, Penn State coach James Franklin described the competing emotional states of his Sundays.

“My favorite thing about being coach at Penn State is the 107,000 fans after a win,” he said. “My least favorite thing is the 600,000 fans after a loss.”

Penn State approaches Saturday’s home finale against Rutgers with a milestone well in reach. With a victory, the Lions will complete their third 10-win regular season in four years.

That would give Penn State 39 regular-season wins from 2016-19, its best four-year stretch since the 12-game season began in 2016. Further, it would mark Penn State’s best four-year run since 1971-74, when the team won 41 games.


But for some, there’s still a measure of disappointment. In that context, it’s fair to ask: Is Franklin underappreciated at Penn State?

“I think he’s really underappreciated and really doesn’t get enough credit for everything he does for this university,” Penn State senior punter Blake Gillikin said.

This has been a six-year discussion regarding Franklin and Penn State, one that began in 2014 when the coach, after a win over Indiana, solicited fan advice about his offense.

“I know everybody has the answers,” he said. “If you do, please email them and specifically what they are and how they work.”

He has discussed the outsized expectations on numerous occasions. The coach occasionally brings up hearing chants of “Fire Franklin!” at Beaver Stadium during the 2016 game against Minnesota. After his team’s 34-27 win over Indiana two weeks ago, Franklin delivered a pointed thank you to the “positive, loyal” fans at Beaver Stadium, a reference to the scattered boos heard that day.

And when quarterback Sean Clifford said he received “death threats” following the team’s first loss of the season to Minnesota, Franklin wondered what might be good enough for some of his team’s most vocal critics.

“We’re 9-1,” Franklin said at the time. “We’re ranked in the top 10, have had a pretty good year based on most people’s standards. Sometimes you go on social media, and you wouldn’t feel that way.”

On Tuesday, Franklin offered an introspective look at how he, at age 47, deals with external criticism. He was candid in a way that might generate more criticism.

“I’m not one of these guys that can tell you that I don’t care what other people think. I do,” Franklin said. “I care deeply what other people think. But I am probably getting to a point where I’m pretty confident. If you look at what we’ve done since we’ve been here, there’s a lot to be proud of, and everybody should feel that way.”

Franklin, in the second third of a six-year contract he signed in 2017, should be in line for an extension, as his history suggests.

Franklin is one of just five current FBS coaches to qualify for a bowl in his first nine seasons. He has had eight consecutive winning seasons, including all six in State College.

Penn State is one of six teams (with Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Washington) to rank in the top 12 of the final College Football Playoff rankings the past three seasons. And with a win Saturday, the Lions will secure their third undefeated home season in four years. That would be a first for Penn State in the Big Ten era.

This season, Penn State’s two losses are on the road to teams with a combined record of 21-1. Recently, ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit pronounced that “Penn State’s brand is back,” attributing much of that to Franklin.

“I know their fan base, with their national championships that they have in their trophy case, it’s been great to win those games, but they want in the playoffs, they want Big Ten championships and they want a chance to win a national title. And they should,” Herbstreit said. “But I also think you have to look back at where this program was, really not that long ago.

“… I don’t think you’re entitled because you’re Ohio State or you’re Michigan or you’re Penn State. Look at Nebraska. Look at Miami. Look at Florida State. Look at Tennessee. Look at USC. There are big-time, perennial powers that wish they could be Penn State over these last three years.”

For Franklin, the external pressures are many. His executive assistant filters his emails and letters, funneling the “kind ones” to his field of vision. After the loss to Minnesota, Franklin called his correspondence “interesting” and “colorful,” which also can be said for the messages that fly around (literally) him on gamedays.

At every Penn State home game, and at least two road games, a banner plane has circled the stadium. The messages were addressed either to Penn State or president Eric Barron and referenced Joe Paterno.

At the season opener against Idaho, the banner read, “President Barron: After 61 years, Joe Paterno deserved better than this!!” And at Ohio State on Saturday, the banner read, “Penn State why are you waiting? Honor Joe Paterno!!”

“There’s a fine line, because I don’t want to lose that aspect of my personality, because that’s what allows me to connect so much with the community and the kids,” Franklin said after the loss to Minnesota. “But that also leaves you open to wounds and scars. So it hurts more.”

Gillikin, a fifth-year senior, wanted fans to recognize Franklin’s impact beyond the field. They see and respond to results, particularly the “vocal minority” on social media whose criticism can be harsh. What they don’t see, Gillikin said, is the program Franklin has constructed since 2014.

“A lot of guys come in the program, and they don’t come from great backgrounds. They don’t come from great situations, and it takes a little bit of time for this system and this program to mold them,” Gillikin said. “That’s what Coach Franklin has established the last six years. I’ve seen so many transformations happen where guys have matured so much, and I know the culture here that’s created by Coach Franklin.”

“I appreciate that I’ve got a fifth-year punter sticking up for his head coach,” Franklin joked Tuesday. But he might need more.

Franklin’s name continues to be invoked for the vacant Florida State job and the still-filled USC position. It will continue as other vacancies open.

His buyout, should he leave for another coaching position, would be just $1 million this year. An extension would address that, along with some other long-term needs Franklin seeks to build a consistent contender.

“I don’t want my answers to ever come off like I’m satisfied, because, I can guarantee you, I am not,” Franklin said. “… But I do think there comes a point where you look at the big picture and say, ‘Wow, there’s a lot to be proud of.’

“… And I think 96, 97% of our fan base feels the same way.”

Categories: Sports | Penn State
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