Football has taken new Penn State coach James Franklin many places, but now it brings him back to his favorite place: home.
By Mark Dent / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Mike Santella wanted to discuss the Packers. He wanted to ask his good friend James Franklin, then an assistant coach for Green Bay, about Brett Favre or Franklin’s routine under Mike Sherman or any informative morsel that might offer insight into the glamorous NFL. Santella’s requests went unheard.
“It was always, ‘How did Neshaminy do this week?’ ” Santella said. “ ‘Who is dominating Lehigh? Who is good in the West?’ And then we’d talk 10 minutes about East Stroudsburg and who is good in the conference.”
In the nearly 20 years since Santella and Franklin roomed together their senior year of college at East Stroudsburg, they’ve talked on the phone several times a week. The common thread from these conversations is that Franklin wanted to know about Pennsylvania, his home.
Franklin grew up in Langhorne and also spent time in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, where his father lived. His first jobs were with Kutztown University and East Stroudsburg. Then he left to do what all ambitious coaches do. From the late 1990s until now, his livelihood was tied up in a number of places, from Washington to Maryland to Wisconsin to Kansas to Tennessee. But when he had the opportunity to reach out to a friend from the past, he could be instantly transported here. The hard part was the matter of getting back here in-person.
“He might have been far logistically or geographically,” Santella said. “But his heart was always in Pennsylvania.”
One summer in the late 1980s, Franklin believed the pinnacle for any football-playing boy in this state was within his grasp. He was at Penn State as part of a camp. He was getting instruction from quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell.
And that was as close as he would ever get to playing at Beaver Stadium. His skills were not in particularly high demand for the Division I level. Franklin was a quarterback who rarely did what quarterbacks do — throw forward passes. His Neshaminy High School team ran the wishbone offense, and he threw the ball maybe 40 times his senior season by the estimation of Denny Douds. Douds was the coach who saw him play and was hooked, recruiting Franklin to an East Stroudsburg team that threw the ball approximately 40 times per game.
“When I talked to the coaching staff, they said, ‘Are you nuts?’ ” Douds said.
Sure enough, in his first college game, Douds had Franklin pass 40 times. He joked that his young player would need to ice his arm if he wanted to get out of bed the next morning. By the end of Franklin’s career, he was a two-time All-Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference selection and was nominated for Division II player of the year as a senior, a season in which he averaged about 330 yards of total offense per game.
The competition between these PSAC schools in Eastern Pennsylvania was fierce, and rivalries were real and not always friendly. In Franklin’s senior year, Douds accused Millersville University of setting a bounty on Franklin.
In this environment, Franklin didn’t yet dream of being a coach, though he lived in a crummy college apartment with someone who did. Santella was not endowed with enough talent to play the game. What he lacked in skill, he made up for in passion, and it has been enough for him to enjoy a career as an assistant coach at East Stroudsburg for 17 seasons.
He and Franklin would watch games every Saturday in college, dissecting the nuances of the game from different views. Franklin, the quarterback, dished out details from the experience of a player. Santella, who was cutting his teeth coaching at the high school level, added knowledge from that perspective.
The desire to coach wouldn’t gravitate toward Franklin until later. He had earned a psychology degree and was studying for his master’s, and he figured coaching would allow him to earn some money. Soon it became his primary goal.
“I talked about how there is a relationship between psychology and dealing with young men,” Santella said. “I think he saw he could use it and become a great coach.”
The only problem was that after his stints with Kutztown and East Stroudsburg, Franklin wasn’t home. And he didn’t think he would ever make it back to Pennsylvania because of Joe Paterno and his seemingly infinite reign.
Franklin respected the man, knowing from personal experience that you had to. Once, recruiting a Pennsylvania high school player, he remembers showing his I.D. and having to persuade security at the school to let him in. Circumstances changed for Paterno.
“Joe walked in and shut the entire school down,” Franklin said. “They had an in‑school assembly, and I realized I had no chance. I really had no chance.”
Sprawling and populous as Pennsylvania is, the football connections are still eerily close. Franklin’s first boss was Al Leonzi at Kutztown. Leonzi coached with Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg’s grandfather, and Hackenberg’s father attended Leonzi’s football camps. Athletic director Dave Joyner, when discussing the pros of hiring Franklin, mentioned his Pennsylvania roots. From what Franklin says and from what his past colleagues and friends say, this job is a destination.
Leonzi describes three paths in the coaching profession: The high road, the middle road and the low road. The high road is for the type-A personalities, those driven to move upward, wherever up may be, to Washington or Tennessee or Kansas. The high road promises professional satisfaction at the risk of personal sacrifice. It doesn’t often lead back home, unless you’re lucky.
“He took the high road and he made the full loop,” Leonzi said.
Franklin said when he and his wife, Fumi, were dating, they asked each other about their dream jobs. His was Penn State. Riding from the State College airport Saturday, he said they reminisced about that conversation. The Pennsylvania guy hadn’t even been back for 20 minutes before he started realizing how comfortable it feels to return home.
NOTE — Franklin is already quick at work. Less than 24 hours after having his contract approved to be head coach, he already has convinced two of his Vanderbilt recruits to come to Penn State. Recruiting sites Rivals and Scout reported late Saturday night that offensive lineman Chance Sorrell and athlete Lloyd Tubman had flipped their commitment from Vanderbilt to Penn State. Sorrell is rated by Rivals as a three-star recruit. He’s 6-6 and weighs 263 pounds. He had offers, according to Rivals, from other schools such as Boston College, Cincinnati and Indiana. Tubman is also rated by Rivals as a three-star recruit. He’s 6-3 and weighs 228 pounds and had offers from Indiana and Kentucky among others. Michael O’Connor, who committed to Penn State under Bill O’Brien, also reaffirmed his support for Penn State and announced on his Twitter account he would be enrolling in time for the spring semester, which begins today.
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