Chasing a Dream: The Life of James Franklin


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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — This is a story about a basement. Right now the basement is an unfinished room and thought but someday soon, hopefully by July, the basement will be a comfortable reality, big TV in one corner and a pool table in another.

The person planning this basement refers to his proposed sanctuary as a man cave. He’s very excited about it. In the city he used to live, Nashville, Tenn., true basements were hard to come by. On days or nights when he isn’t busy, this man plans to invite friends over and watch football, maybe question the decisions of the head coaches he’s watching, just like everyone else does.

“That’ll be kind of my place to get away and unwind,” he says, “and be a normal human being.”

If you can’t tell, the person anticipating this basement is James Franklin. He has been Penn State’s football coach for the past five months. By accounts from fans and any measurement that can be used to gauge the progress of someone who has yet to coach a game, he has done an excellent job. Penn State is recruiting blue-chip athletes at a torrid pace and enticing fans, for instance drawing 73,000 of them to the Blue-White Game in April and hooking them with catchy mottos.

A timeline tracking the high points of James Franklin's coaching career:
 
1995: Graduates from East Stroudsburg, where he was a two-time All-PSAC QB and a Harlon Hill Award nominee, with a degree in psychology.

1995: Receives first college coaching job, overseeing receivers at NCAA Division II Kutztown.

2000: Hired to first full-time assistant job in Division I-A -- receivers coach at Maryland under Ron Vanderlinden.

2005: Moves into the NFL, where Mike Sherman hires him as Green Bay Packers receivers coach.

2006: Returns to the college ranks as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Kansas State under Ron Prince.

2008: Returns to Maryland as assistant head coach and offensive coordinator under Ralph Friedgen.

2010: At age 38, named head coach at Vanderbilt Dec. 17 -- his first head coaching job.

2012: Finishes 9-4 season with 38-24 win vs. N.C. State in the Music City Bowl -- Vanderbilt's first nine-win season since 1915. Commodores finish in the Top 25 for the first time since 1948.

2013: Concludes final season at Vanderbilt with a 41-24 win vs. Houston in the BBVA Compass Bowl. Commodores finish in the Top 25 for a second consecutive season -- a first in the 124-year history of the program.

2014: Just shy of his 42nd birthday, is named the 16th head coach in the history of Penn State football Jan. 11.

But this is also a story about sanity. About preventing football from invading too many aspects of real life.

Franklin recently finished a tiring public relations caravan that included 17 stops in three weeks. He has slept in his office for the past couple of months. Since he took the job, Franklin has gotten to see his wife and two young daughters only a handful of times as they tie loose ends in Nashville, where he coached at Vanderbilt.

As a football coach, like many other leadership professions, he always has to be “on.” Even when July comes and his family arrives and his house is ready, even then, he must wonder if he’ll ever get to use that basement and if he’ll let himself use it.

“Most football coaches, they’re micromanagers, control freaks, they’re maniacs,” Franklin says. “And I’m one of them.”

The life he wanted

We’ve all been there. The night gets a little too fun, the music a little too hypnotic, the dance floor a little too crowded. Next thing you know you’re out on the sidewalk staring at an empty parking space where your car should be. For Franklin in 1998, this scenario unfolded at exactly the wrong time.

He was celebrating his first big break, a graduate assistant job at Washington State. Getting a graduate assistant job at a Division I-A football team is no easy task for someone who played at a Division II school and then worked there as an assistant. But driving the 39 hours from Philadelphia to Pullman, Wash., in a weathered 1988 Honda Accord is arguably tougher. (On Google Maps when one requests driving directions from Philadelphia to Pullman, its first recommended route is to take a $700 flight.)

Now imagine making the road trip without a car. Franklin’s car disappeared via theft and he got it back at about 5 a.m. on the day he needed to leave for Pullman. The car thieves had torn off the dashboard, so Franklin had to drive with a screwdriver in the ignition. A pain, sure, but he still reached the Northwest with only one major problem: Somewhere in Montana his car broke down.

He was fixing it on the side of the road when a police officer stopped him and asked if he needed any help. Franklin didn’t and got back to driving. About a mile down the road, he spotted flashing lights behind him, and the same police officer directed him to pull over. The officer had run the plates on his Accord: The car still showed up as stolen. He had a heck of a story for head coach Mike Price when he reached Pullman.

“I think it was actually my birthday,” Franklin said.

It was as much of a “welcome to the life of a football coach” moment as you could ask for. This is the life he wanted, though. Forget socializing or functioning cars, Franklin figured the best way to move up — maybe the only way — was to work in as many places as he could, soaking in the connections, the lessons and the regional variations of coaching strategies. He went from college at East Stroudsburg to Europe to Kutztown University back to East Stroudsburg to James Madison to Washington State to Idaho State to Maryland to the Green Bay Packers to Kansas State and back to Maryland in a period of 15 years before he became a head coach.

The successful people Franklin learned from included football coaches Price and Ralph Friedgen at Maryland. He includes former Terrapins athletic director Debbie Yow in that group.

Franklin’s first taste of football coaching came from Denny Douds, the head coach of East Stroudsburg since 1974. For most of his career, Douds has invited young coaches like Franklin into his program every summer to take a weeklong class and then stay as graduate assistants. These coaches were compensated with free graduate-level courses and a stipend that in the words of Douds was “not quite enough for a movie, but maybe enough for a milkshake.”

Mike Santella, one of Franklin’s best friends and an assistant coach at East Stroudsburg, said the program weeded out the pipe-dreamers from the dedicated — perhaps the insane — pretty quickly.

“You know at the end of that week if it’s for you,” Santella said. “First off, all your buddies are at the Shore and you’re in a classroom studying football for about 15 hours a day.”

In his year as an assistant, Franklin lived with Douds and his wife, Judy. When the work day ended, they would kick back on Douds’ porch with a Klondike and talk about football, politics, news and life. No matter the subject, Douds emphasized to Franklin that he know the importance of viewing developments from every possible angle.

“We’d sit down and talk,” Douds said, “and then we’d say, ‘OK, what happens if you were sitting on the other side of the fence?’ ”

This May, East Stroudsburg invited Franklin back on campus to address the university’s graduates. He addressed common commencement themes of success, relationships and self-confidence until the end, when Franklin offered a piece of advice for attaining dreams that even he described as crazy: Stay broke as long as you possibly can. Money, he told them, changes everything.

A higher profile

One night in Nashville, Franklin was watching the high school basketball game of a football player he was recruiting to Vanderbilt. A man came up to congratulate him on his work with the school’s football team and introduced himself as Tim. Tim told Franklin he needed to meet his wife, Faith. Franklin exchanged pleasantries and returned to his seat. That was when one of his assistants told him he had just met Tim McGraw and Faith Hill.

The point is not to say that Franklin is so poised or so busy he doesn’t recognize celebrities. The point is to say that Franklin was a small fish in a massive pond in Nashville, a pond full of the likes of McGraw, Hill, Taylor Swift and Jack White. At Christmas time, a few people knocked on Franklin’s door asking for autographs, but for the most part he could live his life.

The opposite is true in State College. Franklin knew his profile would be higher at Penn State, but discovered the lengths of the attention he’ll receive on a well-publicized trip to Wegmans. He came to the grocery store planning to buy five apples. He left 90 minutes later, swamped by fans.

On the caravan, a fan asked him for an autograph in the bathroom while Franklin was occupied. One influential donor has crafted a codeword to get his attention in person or through emails (the donor says Franklin recognized it the lone time he tried it out). Another fan at a caravan asked him for his view regarding displays of Christianity on the football field.

Franklin is the least broke he has ever been. Not coincidentally, the complications for him rank as the greatest and most complex they have ever been.

In this environment, Franklin must control the unknown. He has illustrated the ability and the desire to do so. Like the White House, he has a chief of staff. He also has a social community manager, a position created by Penn State for football in late 2013. He claims to read every word written about him and watch the replay of every news conference. He talks about branding as though he works for a public relations firm.

On his coaches caravan throughout Pennsylvania and the mid-Atlantic, Franklin met hordes of the fans his job dictates he keep happy. Here’s how a few of them described Franklin:

“Aggressive,” said Shawn Standish, a 1999 graduate from Carlisle. “He’s jumped into it. He feels like a college football coach.”

“Passion,” said Yvonne Myers. “I can’t believe his energy.”

“Anticipatory,” said Chuck Martin. “I think he touches the future.”

The answers were never exactly the same, but they were never all that different, either. Fans described a devoted, charismatic coach they trusted and liked. They were pleased. Franklin has so far handled the delicate State College atmosphere without coming across as the obsessive control freak he admits to being because he has been adept at freakishly controlling the message.

His brand? Franklin says he tries to be as upfront, honest and transparent as possible.

“I think we come off genuine and relatable,” he says.

Franklin named South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier and LSU’s Les Miles as the only college coaches he could think of who don’t clam up in public and resort to strands of clichés at their appearances with fans or media.

“The minute you let your guard down and say something, and people take a quote and put it in a newspaper and it’s not how it was intended, is difficult,” Franklin says. “And I understand now, after being in the business a while, people over time put a wall up and become so rigid. And I hope I don’t have to do that.”

Family, football, music

A sports riddle: Does college football attract people with maniacal tendencies, or does it eventually turn ordinary people into systematic, grass-stained wretches suspicious of questions and reticent to attend a local restaurant after years of public adoration? Does the system create the beasts or have the beasts created the system?

“It can be a fairly lonely job to be anything in leadership, whether it’s president of the United States or president of the university or head football coach,” says Penn State soccer coach Bob Warming, who helped hire Franklin. “You have a lot of people around you. They want to get their picture taken, they want to put their arm around you, they want to smile, but you know it’s a position of enormous responsibility.”

When Franklin left Pennsylvania for Pullman all those years ago, he recalls feeling pathetic — and not because he needed to use a screwdriver with his ignition. He was 26. He could pack his entire life into his crummy car, not to mention move that life at a moment’s notice.

“At one time, we all did that, anybody who wanted to get into coaching,” says Larry Lucas, an assistant at Washington State in 1998 and the head coach who hired Franklin at Idaho State in 1999.

In terms of constant surveillance and attention, Happy Valley will plunge Franklin even further from a normal life. In terms of geography, Happy Valley has made his life the closest it has been to normal, perhaps, since he left for Pullman.

This spring, he visited his sister, who lives in the Philadelphia area, to celebrate her birthday. It was the first time in a decade he got to celebrate her birthday, he says. Franklin also got to see his niece and nephew, and several high school friends have visited him here. This March, he went to his alma mater to watch a basketball game. His aunt is a 31⁄2-hour drive away in Washington.

The best part of his day, Franklin says, is when he can combine what he considers the three greatest loves of his life: family, football and music. He does this by inviting his wife and kids to his office, working and listening to a hip-hop or Motown station on Pandora.

Like his basement, Franklin won’t be able to fully enjoy this part of his life until July, when his family finally arrives from Nashville. This interim period has been trying and odd, even for a college football coach. Franklin says he has slept on an inflatable mattress in his office the past couple of months. He draws the blinds at night and fires up his computer in the morning. His Yukon Denali (the 1988 Accord is long gone) sits unused in the parking lot.

“It’s slightly pathetic,” he says. “I understand that.”

But fans eat these tales up. The original story about Franklin’s sleeping habit was shared more than 15,000 times. The office bed has been an integral piece of his Penn State tenure, part of his brand, even. James Franklin: Works so hard, cares so passionately he doesn’t leave the office.

The reception of this story illustrates that what’s good for football is often terrible for a human. This pull between football person and real person, between image and self, is something Franklin will feel at Penn State, stronger than he has at any of his other stops, however long his tenure. He’ll have to know when he has to be the super-aggressive, anticipatory James Franklin who doesn’t need a real bed, and when he can be himself, and how to separate the two.

In other words, that basement better be awesome.

Mark Dent: mdent@post-gazette.com, 412-439-3791 and Twitter: @mdent05.


First Published June 21, 2014 11:54 PM

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