Penn State Football: How James Franklin Is Winning Fans with Social Media

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Penn State Football: How James Franklin Is Winning Fans with Social Media
John Beale/Associated Press

Five years ago, no one could have imagined the phrases "Penn State football" and "social media" would one day be intertwined. 

I'm not unlocking a national secret when I say former head coach Joe Paterno was old school. Even as technology advanced over the course of his tenure, he was never a big user of it. 

When Bill O'Brien replaced Paterno in 2012, Penn State football started to slowly embrace the digital age. The program's marketing efforts were noticeably different—there was an influx of video content on the athletic department's YouTube channel and even an ESPN all-access segment. But that was it, as O'Brien wasn't hip to the "Tweeter" and "Spacebook" scene. 

When James Franklin took the head coaching job earlier this year, he led Penn State football full-bore into the 21st century.

Franklin's Twitter profile is impressive. He's only tweeted upwards of 1,150 times, yet still has over 68,000 followers. While introducing his coaching staff back in January, Franklin said social media gives him the chance to interact with fans—even if he doesn't particularly care for the service:

I'm not a fan of it either, to be honest with you. But it gives me an opportunity to reach an audience that I don't have an opportunity to reach other ways. I can get my message out there, we can start talking about things that are important in our program—our core values.

It's a way to connect. … Although this is a huge and passionate, unrivaled fanbase, we want to connect. We want to have a very, very personal, intimate relationship with the fans and our alumni. 

We do want to reach out, we do want to connect. Social media gives us the ability to do that. 

Of the 11 coaches listed on Penn State's official website, all have their own Twitter account. Of the group, offensive line coach Herb Hand's account is arguably the most entertaining. He proves that not everything has to be football related—he's tweeted about everything from rap battles to his brand new "breakfast phone" from Taco Bell.

Hand's might be the best, but Franklin's is easily the most important.

Whenever Penn State lands a verbal commitment, the news is almost always signaled by a James Franklin tweet. The message is the same every time:

He sent out that tweet on Sunday afternoon. Sure enough, the news of wide receiver Juwan Johnson's commitment was reported by Rivals.com's Adam Friedman 16 minutes later.

James Franklin isn't only being open about the recruiting process. He's cryptically breaking the stories. 

This type of engagement has rubbed off elsewhere. Nittanyville, the student-run organization that camps out for seats prior to home games, now uses its Twitter account as a quasi-recruiting service. When a recruit commits or is offered, a tweet is blasted out about it. 

Nittanyville president Brian Sanvido said that Franklin's presence on social media is exciting to see. 

"You can tell that it's him tweeting," Sanvido said. "It doesn't give off the perception that it's someone from [public relations] doing it for him."

On Twitter, Franklin has invented "PSUnrivaled", which many have adopted as the unofficial slogan for Penn State football. It's similar to "Anchor Down," a phrase at Vanderbilt that became more popular when Franklin took over. 

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For Penn State student Ryan Belcher, having a coach who understands social media is an important part of the job. Not only to connect with fans, but to attract recruits as well.  

"I think it's critical to have a coach who understands and utilizes social media to his advantage," he said. "When a coach can become a presence that's consistently felt on social media, it's impossible for a recruit to not take notice."

The social openness makes sense. After how quickly Bill O'Brien left, some fans might feel cautious about Franklin's intentions with the job. Establishing that connection quickly helps ease some uncertainty a faction of the fanbase might have. 

Sanvido knows the coaches' Twitter accounts provide a unique opportunity to connect. He enjoys Hand's account the most, but realizes that all of them have helped build a relationship with the Penn State community in such short time.

"If you see something, you're going to read it," Sanvido said. "It makes you feel like you know them more."  

 

Troy Weller is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations in this article were obtained firsthand.

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