Rebuilding a Powerhouse: How James Franklin Is Leading Penn State Back to Glory

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Rebuilding a Powerhouse: How James Franklin Is Leading Penn State Back to Glory
Keith Srakocic/AP Images

Brick by brick. This is how one of the nation’s premier college football powers will be resurrected. It won’t happen today or tomorrow or even next year, but it will happen. It’s only a matter of time before a small, power-packed foundation grows into something more.

Before you can truly understand how James Franklin and his staff plan to revive Penn State, however, you must first recognize how it all came together. Not the part you already know—the heartbreak, the scandal and the sanctions—but the master plan to leave everything behind and jump head first into the opportunity that couldn’t be refused.

It wasn’t pretty or easy to leave Vanderbilt. These goodbyes are never kind. But when Franklin and his staff decided on Happy Valley, they walked out the front door in the middle of the night, hand in hand, and didn’t bother locking it as they departed.

“Within 48 hours everyone was gone,” Franklin said. “And you don’t go back.”

You don’t go back because you can’t go back. You’re no longer welcome. And even if you were, there’s no time to go back. Only forward. It’s the brutal nature of the business—an extravagant, internal tug of war that plays out right before our eyes.

Before the rebuilding of Penn State could begin, demolition had to be accomplished. Feelings had to be crushed. Tears had to be shed. Difficult decisions had to be made, and they were.

“It went back and forth, and I was very close to not doing it,” Franklin said on taking the Penn State job. “When you invest so much into something, into the community and with those kids, walking away from something you believe in and something that you’re building is difficult. You second-guess yourself. You question it.”

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

His departure from Vanderbilt wasn’t clean. In fact, some would say it was quite the opposite. But as you see the blueprint laid out on the table—the edges still crisp, the pages still brilliant blue and the vision clear as day—you start to understand why he had no choice but to say goodbye.

You see a family, 16 grown men functioning as a unit. And it’s not just these men. It’s the wives and children who have celebrated the highs and lows in football and in life, at schools and at barbecues.

You see this same family expanding, embracing open wounds with open arms, listening to those who have endured unspeakable change before worrying about more pressing football matters.

You see a staff that was crafted to work in this very location. It’s as if this group were constructed for this purpose and this purpose alone, and the geographic familiarity is already paying dividends.

You see a quarterback with a golden arm, an enormous Band-Aid at a time when it’s needed most.

And you see why, eventually, this will all be so much bigger than it is now. You can’t help but admire the bricks being laid, one strategically placed block at a time.

 

Just the Right Amount of Change: Mixing History With 'Swagger'

Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

There’s no reason to tear the whole thing down. That, first and foremost, is the most glaring miscalculation when it comes to rebuilding anything: a house, an antique car or a football program.

It’s assumed that it has to be completely leveled, that flat ground will be the only suitable starting point. Part of this is the pressure of living up to the term—a rebuild—but when a strong, original foundation is still intact, it comes down to finding the builder willing to shape his vision around what’s already in place.

For James Franklin, this is a balance he’s still balancing. Before he can begin heavy construction, however, he must figure out what materials he has to work with.

“I’m still trying to figure out Penn State,” Franklin said. “I’m trying to figure out the campus and the community and how to get things done. All these places are sophisticated and unique.”

It’s an honest conversation that has made its way out into the open. But Franklin, who has ties to the area, is well aware of everything else that comes with this job despite never attending a Penn State football game or coaching in the building.

He understands the rituals. He knows the sounds. He knows the traditions and the expectations that come with it, even if those are somewhat jaded at present. He also understands what it takes to build a major program, as seen over the past few seasons. But he refuses to simply lean on acquired knowledge.

“You have your core values that aren’t going to change, but you better have flexibility within your system,” Franklin said. “To think that you’re going to bring a model and plan that worked at one school to another school, it’s just not like that.”

Franklin’s mentality, however, is the constant. The smile and his overall upbeat nature—the personality that propelled him from the Division II ranks to Penn State in relatively short order—made the trip. His philosophy with players going forward is simple and somehow perfect.

“If someone does something good, you scream, you go crazy, and you hug them up,” Franklin said. "If someone does something wrong, you scream, you go crazy, and you hug them up. That’s just who we are.”

Helping the head coach shape a new era at Penn State will be offensive line coach Herb Hand, who, for lack of a better term, has quickly become Franklin’s right-hand man.

Hand, who earned his way into Franklin’s inner circle by sleeping on a couch in the Vanderbilt locker room, has become one of the nation’s most coveted and charismatic assistant coaches. He freestyle raps, he cooks on national television, and yes, he does the whole football thing quite well.

This individuality and personality is Penn State’s edge. It’s exactly what the coaches are trying to infuse into the program, all while embracing the many historic positives.

“We have a solid fundamental idea of what Penn State football is, what it was and what it can be. And we’re respectful of that,” Hand said. “But we also bring a little bit of a swagger and a little youthful edge because of the way we do things.”

What the staff has to adjust to, however, is a sudden flux of resources. It may seem like a strange thing to cope with—like struggling to find footing on the Brazilian hardwood on your new 200-foot yacht—but it’s still an adjustment. And with crippling NCAA sanctions still hovering, there are many moving parts.

“This is a proud program, and it’s not so much rebuilding,” Hand said. “It’s about getting everybody pointed in the same direction. From Day 1, we’ve tried to bring everybody back together.”

  

Let the Healing Begin (Again)

Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

James Franklin remembers being “stiff-armed” by Bill Belton long before the running back broke his first collegiate tackle. It was the terminology the coach used the moment the two reunited in Happy Valley, a long, strange voyage that led them to the same sideline after all.

Belton, a senior, remembers being courted by Franklin and Penn State offensive coordinator John Donovan, who worked with Franklin at Vanderbilt. While the offer to play running back in the SEC was enticing, Belton chose Penn State instead. Neither forgot about the encounter.

“They’re exactly the same,” Belton said of Franklin. “They’re just a little bit older now.”

It’s only been four years, but it feels longer. For Belton and other seniors at Penn State, the past four years have been an eternity.

This is where the rebuild truly begins. It starts with those who have played for three head coaches and learned three new playbooks and whose only constant has been constant change.

“We’ve come out and worked each day, it didn’t matter who was the head coach,” Belton said. “We worked and got better as a team, and I feel like the team we have now is tougher because of what we went through.”

Belton’s teammate, senior linebacker Mike Hull, has been on the same roller coaster. Like Belton, Hull believes the experiences have only brought this group closer. 

“Our team is probably the most tight-knit team I’ve ever seen, especially after the sanctions,” Hull said. “We really took an us-against-the-world mentality. We decided we were going to play for each other for the next three years.”

For a new coaching staff still learning its players, this can be a difficult position. The upperclassmen in Penn State rallied together—around each other—to get to where they are. Through various moments in their collegiate tenure, it was all they had.

Over time, they lost trust in the process. Given everything they’ve been through, how could they not?

For the coaches, one of the first orders of business at Penn State wasn’t to figure out a depth chart. It was simply to talk and listen.

“These guys were guarded when we first got here, which was completely understandable,” Hand said. “There were some walls we had to work our way through. But all that stuff is gone, and these guys have embraced us as a staff.”

Instead of focusing on group outings—and there were still plenty of these sessions, many of which took place around food—Hand met with his players one-on-one and listened. He was respectful of what they had been through, particularly the upperclassmen, and simply wanted to hear their stories. Vulnerability was key.

“This was a lot different situation than any transition I’ve ever been through,” Hand said. “There’s been a tremendous amount of change in a place that isn’t used to it.”

Although the rebuilding of Penn State will require years to complete—long after players like Belton and Hull have left—the search for lost stability began with the current fixtures of the program.

They, in many ways, are the symbol of resiliency. They are the past and present; they are the bridge to the future. They are the first bricks, which oftentimes are the most important.

“When you get a new coach, it can be hard to break those walls down,” Hull said. “But [Franklin] has done a good job building relationships and getting the best out of us. I feel our program is going in the right direction.”

For a head coach who thrives on interactions and relationships, this was integral. It wasn’t optional; it’s how he operates, and the program required it.

“Everything we do is about relationships. That’s how we lead, that’s how we organize,” Franklin said. “Once you have that relationship and you have that trust, you can be unbelievably demanding and challenging on people if you love them hard as well.”

 

Mastering the Map: How Geographic Dominance Will Pave the Way 

“He’s like an energy battery. He just never stops. He hasn’t stopped recruiting me even though I’m committed.”

Brandon Wimbush is one of the top quarterbacks in the class of 2015. The No. 4 dual-threat QB, according to 247Sports, is also a Penn State commit and priority No. 1 for a school trying to line up its next great quarterback.

That hasn’t stopped Franklin from recruiting him, relentlessly, in an effort to keep it that way.

Wimbush, who plays for St. Peter's Prep in Jersey City, New Jersey, has been recruited by Franklin since his days at Vanderbilt. When Franklin moved north, to a place he knows better than any other, the fit and interest increased on both sides.

“He’s home. He feels real comfortable with the atmosphere,” Wimbush said. “I feel like Coach Franklin is the guy to turn it all around.

“The 2015 class is definitely going to be a big part of that.”

If you were to list, in order of importance, the “How to Rebuild a Program” power rankings, it would probably look something like this:

  1. Recruiting
  2. Recruiting
  3. Recruiting
  4. Recruiting
  5. Everything else

Penn State in 2014 is unique. It demands something more as it navigates unexplored depths, which is why the coaching staff focused a great deal on the things directly in front of them. There’s still healing to be done.

At this same time, however, the path to the promised land is abundantly clear. As much as philosophy and attitude can influence a program in flux, the infusion of young talent is unmatched in importance. To grow, you must grow.

This is where the plan sprouts tentacles, a reach that extends well beyond never-ending Pennsylvania highways, curling back through sparse Midwest cornfields and stretching all the way to upstate New York.

It’s not magic, but rather a group of coaches who can navigate a land they already know. This sentiment begins at the top with Franklin, who now gets to operate on the other side of the equation.

“Not only did I grow up in this part of the country, but professionally I kind of grew up in this part of the country,” Franklin said. “And Penn State was always difficult to deal with. They just had so many built-in advantages. You’d be recruiting against them and you’d do everything right on a kid. Then he’d come up to Penn State’s spring game with 75,000 people and it’d be over.”

Franklin was born in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, which is a three-hour-or-so drive from State College. He played quarterback at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania, setting multiple school records. When his playing days were done, he landed his first coaching job at Kutztown University, a Pennsylvania-based Division II school.

From there, he bounced around a bit. He made two stops at Maryland, the second serving as his final catapult to a head-coaching job at Vanderbilt. The rest, as they say, is history.

For Franklin and his staff, this new city isn’t exactly new. Neither are the cities and states around them. Neither are the navigators, which made the transition even easier.

“We brought 16 people with us to Penn State,” Franklin said on the migration north. “I don’t know how often that happens.”

Bob Shoop, the team’s defensive coordinator, is from Pittsburgh. Offensive coordinator John Donovan is from New Jersey. Charles Huff, the special teams coordinator and running backs coach, is from Maryland.

“I could go on and on,” Franklin said while describing his staff. So we will.

The team’s assistant head coach, Brent Pry, grew up 45 minutes from campus. Terry Smith, the team’s cornerbacks coach, attended Penn State and grew up not far from State College. Herb Hand is from upstate New York.

“For the most part, we’ve all been together through James’ entire coaching career,” Hand said. “Most of us have been together that whole time. We’ve grown with him.”

The plan isn’t to compete with the SEC. The plan is to be so dominant in one region that you won’t have to.

While it’s early in Penn State’s first recruiting cycle and national signing day is still an eternity away, the staff has hit the recruiting road running.

The Nittany Lions currently have the No. 6 recruiting class in 2015, according to 247Sports. Of the 19 verbal commitments—12 of which are rated as 4-star talents—16 are from Pennsylvania, Maryland or New Jersey.

Current Penn State Verbal Commits
Player Position Rating Hometown
Sterling Jenkins OT 4-star Pittsburgh, Pa.
Brandon Wimbush QB 4-star Jersey City, N.J.
Adam McLean DT 4-star Gaithersburg, Md.
John Reid CB 4-star Philadelphia, Pa.
Juwan Johnson WR 4-star Glassboro, N.J.
Ryan Bates OT 4-star Warminster, Pa.
Andre Robinson RB 4-star Harrisburg, Pa.
Saquon Barkley RB 4-star Whitehall, Pa.
Steven Gonzalez OG 4-star Union City, N.J.
Kamonte Carter ATH 4-star Gaithersburg, Md.
Brandon Polk WR 4-star Ashburn, Va.
Manny Bowen OLB 4-star Barnegat, N.J.
Irvin Charles WR 3-star Haddonfield, N.J.
Ryan Buchholz WDE 3-star Malvern, Pa.
Jake Cooper ILB 3-star Warminster, Pa.
Jonathan Holland WDE 3-star Potomac, Md.
Ayron Monroe S 3-star Washington, D.C.
Myles Hartsfield S 3-star Parlin, N.J.
Jarvis Miller S 3-star Suffield, Conn.

247 Sports

This should come as no surprise. After all, this is what the coaches were built—and assembled—to do. The only difference is that they weren’t plucked from various east-located programs to form a superpower. The superpower simply changed area codes.

“It was about fit—not just fit for me, but for the whole staff. This was a group decision,” Franklin said. “I think there are some real advantages at Penn State just because of where we’re located.”

Now this geographically dominant staff has ammunition. It has a powerful brand and playing time to sell, an odd but obvious positive that is a product of the sanctions passed down by the NCAA.

There are roster openings and a passionate fanbase waiting for the next batch of young stars. This combination has worked wonders early on.

“When you walk into a high school across the country and you have that Penn State logo on, people know who you are. And they’re excited about the future,” Hand said on his new recruiting life. “There are a lot of positives here in Happy Valley. So we’re just going out here and selling what we got.”

 

From Dublin to Dominance: Playing Now For Later

Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

The vision and blueprint into the future has hit a sudden impasse. The conversation comes to a screeching halt.

When pressed about his plan and what this all might look like three years from now, James Franklin can only offer up two words. He stresses each for seconds, highlighting the importance.

“Central Florida.”

This, of course, is Penn State’s first opponent this season. The Nittany Lions will travel to Dublin, Ireland, to take on George O’Leary’s team, fresh off a BCS win. Franklin’s first game as coach will mark the beginning of your college football Saturday, right about the time you sit down for breakfast.

Despite coping with enormous depth issues due to scholarship limitations, the expectations are that this team should win that game and many of the other games to follow.

There are concerns specifically when it comes to depth and inexperience along both lines. Hand, the man tasked with protecting the team’s most prized asset, refuses to use recent history as an excuse.

“There are going to be some growing pains, but at the end of the day, no one cares about the growing pains,” Hand said on the offensive line. “No one wants to know about your issues or your problems, so we don’t look at them that way. If you resign yourself to the fact that you can’t be successful, you won’t be. You look at the positives.”

The positive—and you can write that in all-caps with size 72 font equipped—is quarterback Christian Hackenberg. He is one of the sport’s most gifted young players; he’s also incredibly raw, unseasoned and undoubtedly due to experience some growing pains of his own as a true sophomore.

Hackenberg, however, symbolizes much more than star power at the most important position. He will grab the baton from Bill Belton and Mike Hull following this season, carrying it until he has to hand it off, perhaps to Wimbush or a player who is months (or years) away.

It was to be a new era; it will be the old era. Along the way, history will be rewritten, but tradition will not be lost.

It seems counterintuitive to dwell on the past as you build for the future, but the past is an integral part of the situation. The sanctions won’t disappear all of a sudden. They might be reduced after this season, or perhaps the postseason ban will complete its four-year sentence. Regardless, it won’t impact the plan.

“They are what they are,” Franklin said on the sanctions. “We spend very little time thinking about things that are outside of our control.”

The only thing Penn State can truly control is what’s directly in front of it—Central Florida—and, if all goes to plan, the neighboring cities and states. Brick by brick, it will continue to build until the structure is so mighty and powerful it will be impossible to ignore.

The hard part is over. The work is only just beginning.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.

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