Franklin hire brings rewards, risks for PSU

January, 11, 2014
Jan 11
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Penn State's last coaching search went at a slow, seemingly wayward pace and left plenty of questions, especially about the man being introduced to lead the program on Jan. 6, 2012.

There will be no Bill O'Who moments when James Franklin, officially hired today as Penn State coach, steps to the lectern this afternoon inside Beaver Stadium. Franklin is a known name and a big name in the coaching profession. He has accomplished what few believed possible: He made Vanderbilt not merely relevant in football, but pretty darn good with three consecutive bowl appearances and a 24-15 record. The 41-year-old has been mentioned for seemingly every college and NFL coaching vacancy this year. If Penn State fans weren't familiar with his work before the past few weeks, they certainly are now.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesNew Penn State coach James Franklin led Vanderbilt to a 24-15 record.
Franklin isn't a mystery man like Bill O'Brien was two years ago. Penn State is getting a sharp, dynamic coach who can compete with Ohio State and Michigan on the recruiting trail and, despite the lingering NCAA sanctions, should soon make Penn State a contender in a tough Big Ten East division. Some felt sorry for Penn State when O'Brien bolted for the NFL just two seasons after the NCAA imposed unprecedented sanctions on the program, including a four-year postseason ban.

No one is feeling sorry for Penn State now. The only pity party being thrown might be by new Big Ten member Maryland, which tapped Franklin as its coach-in-waiting in 2009 but couldn't keep him in town.

This is a move that carries potential high rewards for Penn State, and also some risks.

Franklin signed the nation's No. 22 recruiting class in 2013, and Vanderbilt's 2014 class currently ranks 29th. He's an exceptional recruiter with national reach, as well as ties both in the state -- he's from Langhorne, Pa., just outside Philadelphia, and played quarterback at East Strousburg University -- and in the Mid-Atlantic. Franklin's time in the SEC should put Penn State in play for more prospects in a region they rarely have entered.

Vanderbilt's current roster includes players from 21 states, including the big three (Texas, Florida and California), but also Big Ten states Ohio, Illinois, Indiana and Pennsylvania.

There has been a lot of talk about Ohio State coach Urban Meyer shaking up the Big Ten with his "SEC-style" recruiting approach. Well, Meyer has company with Franklin. That's not a bad thing for a league that for the most part lags behind in recruiting at the highest levels.

Franklin will fire up Penn State fans, players and recruits when he speaks. He oozes confidence -- some see it as arrogance -- and won't flinch at the NCAA sanctions, the administrative instability and the pro-Joe Paterno section of Penn State's fan base, which frustrated O'Brien at the end of his tenure (but wasn't the primary reason he left). Penn State is an old-school program and Franklin is undoubtedly a new-school coach, but the marriage can be successful.

His hiring also brings some potential red flags.

1. Franklin has had six coaching jobs since 1999 and hasn't remained in one place for longer than five years. Although many believe he's suited for the college game, NFL teams could come calling if he continues to succeed. When top SEC vacancies become available, his name likely will be mentioned. For all his talk of "anchor down" at Vanderbilt, it's debatable whether Franklin will ever truly drop anchor, even if he's back in his native Pennsylvania. The buyouts in his contract will be very telling, as Penn State can't afford to be a steppingstone job.

2. A Penn State program embroiled in a child sex-abuse scandal in 2011 is hiring a coach who had four players accused of raping an unconscious 21-year-old woman in June. A November court filing by defense lawyers requested text messages sent by Vanderbilt coaches that could shed light on what took place. Franklin immediately dismissed the players and hasn't been implicated in any potential cover-up, but Penn State simply can't afford any character issues with its new coach. PSU's vetting of Franklin had better be foolproof or the school will suffer.

3. There's a lot of hype around Franklin, some of which might be overkill. Coaches who win at places like Vanderbilt or Duke or Northwestern tend to get additional credit when it's not always merited. Of Franklin's 11 SEC wins at Vanderbilt, only two came against teams that finished with winning records. He still must show he can beat top teams like Ohio State, Michigan State and possibly Michigan, all three of which he'll see annually in the East division. Vanderbilt's offense ranked no higher than 55th nationally in scoring under Franklin, who has overseen only one truly explosive offense (Kansas State in 2007, when he served as coordinator).

Al Golden would have been the safe choice, but Penn State swung for the fences with Franklin, who will earn up to $4.5 million per season, according to ESPN's Brett McMurphy. Franklin mint, indeed.

There are more potential rewards than risks here, and the fact Penn State could land such a coveted coach under the cloud of sanctions illustrates how the job has improved in two years. Franklin enhances the Big Ten coaching fraternity. That two of the league's past three coaching hires are African-American is an excellent sign after a lengthy drought.

A Penn State program not known for glitz under Paterno has made a flashy, fascinating hire in Franklin.

Buckle up, Nittany Nation. This will be a wild ride.

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