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Roaring Back

Aug 31 2017
Photo by
Gene J. Puskar/AP Images
Photo by
Gene J. Puskar/AP Images
James Franklin
Penn State
Aug 31 2017

T here were more than 100,000 fans in Beaver Stadium screaming their lungs out, but all I can remember is not being able to hear a single sound.

Maybe it was because I was focused, or maybe it’s just that I was in the middle of so much noise that I just couldn’t process everything.

We were playing Ohio State. This was last season, in October. It wasn’t a game that many people thought we had much of a shot at winning. The Buckeyes were the No. 2–ranked team in the country, and we had gotten off to a pretty rocky start to our season, having lost two of our first six games.  

But this one had a different feel to it. This was a whiteout. The atmosphere that night in our stadium was our secret weapon. It was unlike any other setting in all of sports. If you’ve experienced it, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

As Ohio State was lining up to attempt a 45-yard field goal with less than five minutes left in the game to extend their lead, I couldn’t help but think, Man, wouldn’t this be just the ideal time to get a hand on one? From the time I first arrived at Penn State, I’d been all over our coaches about how few kicks we blocked. It didn’t make any sense to me — other teams blocked kicks, why couldn’t we?

After the ball was snapped, our guy Marcus Allen timed his leap perfectly, jumping at just the right moment to get a hand on the kick and deflect it to Grant Haley. And just like that, Grant was off to the races, sprinting off toward the Buckeyes’ endzone.

And that’s when the noise in Beaver Stadium became truly deafening. It’s easy to understand why — it was about much more than just one great play.

This is a proud program, and it’s supported by some really good people. And it has a fan base that’s been through a lot. It was a place that had been talked about for all the wrong reasons for a long time. And when that kick was blocked, it was like all this bundled up angst and emotion was just released, not just inside that stadium, but all over the country and the world — wherever there are Penn State fans and alumni.

But that wasn’t what I was thinking about as Grant was running down the sideline.

My only thought was: Holy hell, Ohio State’s holder and kicker are hauling ass!

Like I have no idea where Urban Meyer found those kids, but they were like the two fastest specialists on the planet. So I’m standing there kind of wincing as they’re going stride for stride with Grant. Fortunately he slipped one of them and stumbled into the end zone to give us the lead.

That moment is one that’s pretty special to a lot of Penn State fans, and it resonates with me for a number of reasons. It wasn’t just that we went on to win that game and turn our season around, but it was also how we did it. A lot of things need to come together to block a kick and return it like that. You need to have timing, judgment and, most of all, trust.

Trust that your coaches have put you in the right position to make a play, trust that your teammates are going to perform their jobs so you can perform yours, and a trust in yourself as an individual, to realize that no moment is too big for you.

Trust is an extremely difficult thing to nurture and develop, but it’s also a really easy thing to lose.

When I arrived at Penn State, this was a program that was hurting for a lot of different reasons. And as a result, there wasn’t much trust within the locker room.

That’s not the case anymore.

I never really thought I was going to be a football coach.

My career goal was never related to a job so much as a purpose: I just wanted to make an impact on the lives of others. I got my undergraduate degree in psychology at East Stroudsburg. But I actually didn’t start in psychology. Like many undergrad premed dreamers, I was a biology major up until I had to take organic chemistry, and then … yeah, that was when s*** got real and I was out.

I found myself drawn to psychology for a number of reasons. I’ve always been fascinated by how the human mind works, and I enjoy studying things like group dynamics and body language. But I also had a somewhat dysfunctional home life growing up, and studying psychology was a way of understanding how that had affected my upbringing a little better. I’m not complaining. In fact, I think my background is one of my greatest assets as a professional because it’s helped me to relate and empathize with people from varying circumstances in a way that’s somewhat unique.

Back when I was a wide receivers coach at Idaho State, my recruiting area was Los Angeles. So I found myself visiting with a lot of players from Compton and Inglewood. My job basically came down to selling guys who grew up in Southern California on the idea of living in Pocatello, Idaho, which … is not Southern California.

To do that I knew I had to find a way to make them feel at home when they were at school. I’ll never forget one night in particular, back in 1999, when I hosted a few of the players at my house for dinner. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to have an expert chef on hand that I knew would be able to impress them: my mom. I come from a biracial family, and my mother is from England. As you might imagine, these kids would meet this unassuming, polite British woman and probably figured they’d being eating fish and chips or some other dish they’d never heard of. But that’s only because they didn’t know my mom. They didn’t know about my upbringing.

Many years ago, my dad, an African-American, was in the Air Force and was stationed in Manchester, England. That’s where he met my mom, and they ended up running away to Ireland and eloping. After they were married he brought her back to this really romantic place called Pittsburgh. Dad ended up getting a job working for General Motors in Trenton, New Jersey, so he and my mom moved to a town that was just outside of Philadelphia. Not long after that my older sister, Debbie, was born, and I came along a few years later. My mom and dad split up when I was young, and he was pretty much out of the picture. She was left to raise me and my sister on her own.

Well, not completely on her own.

Mom stayed close to my dad’s cousins, who had been born and raised in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, before eventually moving to Pittsburgh — my Aunt LaWanda, Aunt Romaine and Aunt Melbadene. All three of them grew up picking cotton, but they worked and worked until eventually each of them earned graduate degrees. These strong, brilliant, independent women each had a big hand in raising me, and in teaching me so much about the values of hard work and treating people the right way.

And they also taught my mom how to cook.

So in retrospect, I really wish I had taken a picture of the looks on those kids’ faces at that player dinner in Idaho when my British mom came out of the kitchen with these huge platters of fried chicken, collard greens, black-eyed peas and sweet potato pie. They were stunned. It was priceless.

I remember that experience so fondly because it was a moment of unexpected connection, which is how trust and understanding are often first developed. It further confirmed something that I’ve found to be more and more true, which is that we’re all much more similar than we are different. We all want success, we all want love, and we all want to trust that the people we surround ourselves with wish those things for us. If you can create an environment where a young person deeply feels a sense of those three things, the winning will come.

Like I said, I never thought I was going to be a football coach — and by the same token, I absolutely never thought I was going to coach at a place like Penn State. But throughout my career, I always made sacrifices with the belief that I was building towards something bigger. That belief took me all around the country, from Pocatello to Pullman, Washington, to Manhattan, Kansas, to College Park, Maryland, to Nashville, Tennessee and beyond.

I often tell people that Penn State has always been my dream job, but I don’t really mean that in the traditional sense. Truthfully, I never viewed this job attainable. Like everyone else, I always thought it was going to stay within the Penn State family. So when the opportunity to coach here came along, I knew it was something I couldn’t pass up. Pennsylvania is my home, and this program is at the heart of it.

Ultimately, I knew this was a place where I could build a winning program. I loved my life in Nashville, but I came to realize that this was the opportunity I’d been working toward my whole life. So I went for it.

And that’s when the real work started.

You can do a lot of research and prep, but ultimately you don’t really know the nature of a job until you’re in the thick of it.

I’m really lucky to have a close relationship with Bill O’Brien, the guy I took over for here. We coached together at Maryland, and developed a friendship that we’ve maintained to this day.

I spoke to him at length when I was interviewing for this job. We covered just about everything: What are the strengths of the program? What are the weaknesses? What are the concerns?

And we also discussed the biggest question: How do you run a program that’s attempting to put its past behind it while also being cognizant of the tradition that made it great in the first place? When I was interviewing here, the program was still under investigation. There were still shoes left to drop, and while Bill had done a great job in his two seasons here it was clear that it was going to be an uphill climb to return Penn State to national prominence.

Bill is a very direct guy. I’m thankful for that. He didn’t sugarcoat the great challenges that I would face if I took this job. But he also explained how, despite the obvious difficulties, the expectations were still sky high. No matter what the circumstances, Penn State is not a place where losing is an acceptable outcome — ever.

When I decided to accept the job, I knew that my very first task was going to be connecting with the players. Understandably, a lot of them felt hurt over the turmoil in the program. Many of them had reaffirmed their commitment to Penn State despite having the opportunity to transfer and — if you count interim coaches — I was the fifth head coach here in 27 months. The continuing turnover was clearly something that had weighed on the program, particularly after having had the same leadership in place for decades.

People look at these gigantic humans, some of them weighing upwards of 300 pounds, and they think they’re watching grown men — but they’re not. These are big kids, not professionals. Some of them might become professionals one day, but right now they’re still just kids figuring out who they want to become. And the state of the program, the constant change and the shroud of controversy, had hurt them deeply. That was tough to see because while terrible, unspeakable things had happened here, none of it was on these kids. It wasn’t their fault. But their college experience was entirely consumed by it.

When I first arrived here, we only had 65 scholarship players. That wasn’t something we could change, but what we could control was the culture. I recruited Pennsylvania heavily while I was at Maryland and Vanderbilt, so a lot of the guys on the roster were players I had recruited in the past and had at least some sort of relationship with. That was a good starting point.  

I came here with 16 talented coaches and staff members who had been with me since I had gotten my start as a head coach at Vanderbilt, and they made the transition much easier than it could have been. We all had an idea of what needed to be done and how to get there, and day by day we saw improvement.

By the end of our second season I could sense we were on the right path, but the results weren’t quite there. In my mind, our third year — which was last season — was really our first actual year to compete since we were finally back to 85 scholarships. Suddenly, we had depth, which we had been lacking. But in order for us to become a winning program, especially in a conference as competitive as the Big Ten, I knew we needed more than depth.

Remember what I was saying earlier about developing trust?

Well, it’s difficult to put into words exactly what that requires, but in a broad sense, I’d say it took roughly 36 hamburger dinners.

I’ve always been big on hosting players for meals at my home, but before the 2016 season started I wanted to try something a little more personal. I identified roughly 40 guys on the team who I felt were at a tipping point in their careers — players who I knew would, one way or the other, determine the fate of our season — and I invited each of them out for a one-on-one dinner. I even let them pick the spot.

That was my bad.

This new restaurant had opened — a burger joint called “The Field” — and something like 90% of the guys wanted to grab dinner there. So last spring, literally like three nights a week, I’d walk into The Field and grab the same dinner with a different player to discuss what we needed out of them this coming season. We got to discuss their biggest questions surrounding the program, as well as what they were excited about and what they were afraid of. We talked about their lives away from football and their long-term goals.

I’ll admit that after a while I sort of felt like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day every time I walked into that restaurant. (I had to take a pretty long break from hamburgers when all was said and done.) But when people ask me how we were able to turn it all around last season, I think it began during those meetings.

I understand that I don’t look like the other coaches who have been here. I don’t talk like the other coaches who have been here. I didn’t come to Penn State with the goal of trying to emulate how things had been done in the past. My biggest goal has just been to try to be the very best version of myself, and in doing so, to bring out the best version of each of my players.

To have a winning team, a lot of things need to fall into place. You need to put in the right offensive and defensive schemes to help your players succeed. But you also need to have a deep sense of what their needs are as young adults when they’re not playing football. There are some coaches who have been unbelievably successful in the X’s and O’s aspects of this job, and that will work for them for a short period of time. There are other coaches who excel mostly at building relationships, and they’re able to lean on that to sustain success. But ultimately, unless you’re able to blend both of those things together, you won’t have the foundation you need to succeed long term, which is what we plan to do here.

That’s all to say: I’m not under the impression that we went to the Rose Bowl last year just because I took the time to take some players out for burgers.

But I also don’t think it hurt.

The immediate aftermath of that Ohio State game is still somewhat of a blur.

There was a lot going through my mind as time was expiring. My brother-in-law had passed away that week, and so I was thinking about my sister and her kids. I was really grateful for the opportunity to mention that they were in my thoughts when I was interviewed on the field after the game.

But beyond that, I felt a lot of pride in my players and in my university. This was something we had been working toward for years and it had only happened because of all the tiny moments that nobody gets to see. Within the program, we had known we were on the right path for a while, but it was really gratifying for everybody in the country to get to see that for themselves.

A week after that game, Shawn Allen, Marcus’s dad, brought me a picture of that blocked kick framed alongside one of the gloves that Marcus had worn during the game and one of the gloves worn by Grant Haley. It’s probably one of the most thoughtful gifts I’ve ever been given. I have it hanging in my basement at home, and every time I pass it, I can’t help but smile.

The reason I find it particularly meaningful isn’t necessarily because it commemorates the moment Penn State football came all the way “back.” Rather, it underscored what I’ve always known about this state since I was a little kid.

This is a place with good values and good people. Our football team is just a reflection of that.

When I first arrived here, this was a program with tremendous pride and tradition in need of a spark.

Today we still have that same pride and tradition, but the difference is that everyone knows exactly where we’re headed.

Right to the top.

James Franklin
Penn State