UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Penn State tried its best to hide James Franklin from the small crowd of fans at the local airport awaiting his arrival, anxious to celebrate the hiring of the school's new football coach.
Shortly before the scheduled landing of Franklin's flight Saturday from Nashville, Tenn., two Penn State vans and two SUVs were whisked away to an area farther down the road, away from the crowd, toward a guarded hangar.
When the flight landed, Franklin was given a blue-and-white umbrella and shook hands with athletic director Dave Joyner. Then he glanced in the direction of the fans, standing 50 yards away behind a tall fence secured at the top by barbed wire. He and Joyner walked over.
Franklin thanked everyone for coming. He formally introduced himself to two young girls. Then he participated in a brief "We Are" chant before walking back toward a Lincoln Navigator.
It was him. Finally. The guy so many Penn Staters had been waiting for the past 10 days. Penn State's 16th football coach was live and in-person and already connecting with fans, ready to begin his reign leading a program that he sees as traveling a long, upward trajectory.
"We're coming here with the mindset that we're going to build this program," Franklin said Saturday. "We're going to build it the right way, and we're going to build it for the long haul. We plan on being here for a very, very long time."
Franklin's contract lasts for six years with a salary that will be $4 million this year and will increase by $100,000 in each ensuing year. The buyout is $5 million for the first two years and drops to $2.5 million the third year. Joyner is confident Franklin, who has reportedly been courted by NFL teams, means what he says.
"He's got a lot of deep roots here in Pennsylvania," Joyner said. "He very much likes college football. He wants to coach college football."
Franklin, a Langhorne, Pa., native, spent the past three years doing something no one in college football had previously done: He turned Vanderbilt into a winner. Franklin took the school to three bowl games in a row and won nine games in each of the past two years.
One of the few problems in his tenure was a rape scandal from a year ago. Four of his players were charged with raping a woman and await trial. A fifth was charged with covering up and pled guilty. All of them were dismissed from the team, and the prosecution has cleared Franklin of wrongdoing. He said the topic came up in his interviews with university leaders.
"What I think that came out through all of this, through their background checks and all the information that they got is that we were honest," Franklin said. "We were up-front. We made decisions quickly and tried to do everything we possibly could to respect the situation with the utmost class."
Penn State will be different than Vanderbilt. That pretty much goes without saying. There, Franklin said he had to lobby for students to attend games, visiting each campus fraternity and sorority three times when he became coach. Here, after double-checking Beaver Stadium's capacity, he is guaranteeing 107,000 for every game, not the recent 95,000-ish that has become common.
Responses like that, along with his impromptu airport greeting and an ease with humor, illustrated Franklin's charisma. One of his best friends, Mike Santella, said he has the type of personality to make people feel comfortable and important, whether they are a big-money booster or a recruit from the inner city. That ambassadorial hat is one he will need to wear -- one O'Brien accepted but didn't necessarily embrace.
At stake is the still-fragmented Penn State community, split about issues such as Joe Paterno and the Board of Trustees. Franklin expressed praise Saturday for Paterno. He said he's been in touch with several people in the Penn State community in recent weeks and months, including former players such as Matt Millen, Todd Blackledge and LaVar Arrington, as well as Sue Paterno.
"They just want a great university," Franklin said. "They want a great football program. They want to do it with honor and do it the right way, and that's what we're here to do. To take this university and bring it back together and unite it so that we can all just be so, so proud of everything that it stands for on and off the field."
Franklin's early to-do list basically reads as so: Meet with the players today or Monday, convince Penn State's 19 verbal commitments to stick around (a handful reportedly already have committed to Franklin) and complete his staff. He said he would talk to Penn State assistant Larry Johnson about a position, along with former assistant Ron Vanderlinden, but hinted he would try to keep his Vanderbilt staff intact.
Toward the end of the news conference, Franklin said he wanted the questions to stop so he could get started. Day 1 was promises of sellouts, stability and success and fan appreciation in the rain, and he's ready for more.
"I think with everybody pulling the rope in the same direction," he said, "there is no reason why we can't take this program where everybody wants it to be."
Head coaches for Penn State since Jan. 7, 2012, or the same number as they had from 1950-2011.
Million dollars a year in salary James Franklin will average over six years -- reportedly the second highest in the Big Ten behind Ohio State's Urban Meyer.
Mark Dent: email@example.com, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05. First Published January 11, 2014 6:59 PM