In naming James Franklin as its 16th head coach -- and third in little more than two years -- Penn State has hit the hiring equivalent of a grand-slam home run. The only question is this: Did it touch all the bases?
Franklin, 42 next month, is one of the brightest young stars in the coaching profession. He has worked wonders at Vanderbilt, posting nine-win seasons and being fully competitive in the prestigious SEC. There is no more valid proof that the Penn State program is coming back strong from Draconian NCAA sanctions than the fact Franklin accepted the offer to succeed Bill O’Brien.
Money played a part in Franklin’s decision. It has been reported, without confirmation, he will be paid $4.5 million. But he was making around $3 million at Vanderbilt so this was hardly about money. It was about advancing his career, and the fact he believes he can do that at Penn State says so much about how O’Brien brought the program back to full health.
Franklin, a college quarterback at East Stroudsburg, is known as an advanced offensive thinker. He should mesh well with quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who had such an outstanding freshman season. Franklin's stellar reputation should more than keep the Penn State recruiting class in line.
There’s only one thing not to like. As was detailed here yesterday, four Vanderbilt players were charged with the rape of a female student last June. Franklin has been exonerated of any wrongdoing in his handling of the matter. But the mere linkage to such a scandal, in view of what Penn State is now recovering from, could prove harmful. Already, faculty petitions are circulating against Franklin. Several national columnists have written he is absolutely the wrong hire.
Those story lines must be taken seriously. But what also must be taken seriously is the fact Penn State did some serious vetting of Franklin. In charge of that vetting were men deeply concerned about the image of the university and the well-being of the football program. It can only be assumed that the thorough examination of Franklin’s life and his handling of the rape case -- he was out of town when it happened -- found him and his actions to be more than satisfactory.
Franklin apparently was Penn State’s No. 1 choice from the beginning, as well he should have been. In 2011, he took over a Vanderbilt program that had been 4-20 overall and 1-15 in the SEC the previous two seasons. He was 6-7, 9-4, 9-4 overall and 2-6, 5-3, 4-4 in the toughest conference in the country.
Small wonder he was mentioned in connection with major jobs, including those in the NFL.
In a statement, Franklin, a Pennsylvania native, said, ''I can't tell you how excited I am to come home. I grew up watching Penn State football and now to be at the helm of such a storied program is a tremendous honor.’’
Franklin reputation as a rising star and the fact he left Vanderbilt after three seasons brings into question the stability factor. How long will he stay?
If he is successful, probably not as long as Penn State fans would like. But while continuity is important it cannot be ahead of hiring the best man possible. Others might have stayed at Penn State longer. But the important thing was to get the best man.
If Franklin leaves for a better job it will almost certainly be because he continued the rebuilding of the Penn State program in a successful manner. That’s all it will take to land another excellent coach. Few jobs in college coaching are destinations. The NFL is almost always is a coaching goal. Whether it is with Franklin remains to be determined. But it’s a fact all colleges, Penn State included, must live with.
What also is a fact that there are not a lot of better coaching jobs in the country than Penn State. The tradition and the fan base are almost unsurpassed.
James Franklin now is the man in charge of that great tradition and this rising football program. It’s hard to imagine it being in better hands.