The fire under James Franklin’s favorite sitting chair in State College has effectively been put out, but that doesn’t mean Penn State football’s head coach can go on cruise control for the rest of the season.
Expectations are still high in Happy Valley and Franklin still has a lot of work to do to live up to them.
Still, it has to be noted that athletic director Sandy Barbour’s huge endorsement of Franklin as the long-term option for Penn State certainly changes the dynamic of this season. It’s not do-or-die for Franklin just yet.
That’s despite the fact that Franklin is just 17-14 overall in his now three seasons with the Nittany Lions. Of course, this season has yet to play out fully so a full judgement has to be postponed, but two 7-6 seasons in a row with a 1-1 bowl record for Franklin have not hit the mark — especially when considering his two 9-4 seasons in a row at Vanderbilt (2012 and 2013 respectively).
“I get there’s a frustration with where we are,” Barbour said, via Adam Rittenberg of ESPN.com. “I’d be worried if there wasn’t. I want Penn State football to stand for excellence. Always has and always will. To some degree, I want our fans to be impatient, but I also want them to understand factual challenges.”
The factual challenges Barbour brings up are the sanctions that Penn State has had to suffer through due to the Jerry Sandusky scandal. It led to major NCAA sanctions and scholarship losses for Penn State. It also forced the University to fire long-time head coach Joe Paterno, who was celebrated for most of his career but vilified (and some would say rightfully so) for his role in not turning in Sandusky to authorities despite allegedly having knowledge of the assistant coach’s sexual abuse of young boys. Paterno died shortly after his firing, and has since still be a hot-button topic among fans and detractors of Penn State football alike.
Bill O’Brien, now with the Houston Texans, was Paterno’s immediate replacement, and he felt the brunt of the NCAA sanctions. Franklin, after a very successful stint in Nashville, was and apparently still is supposed to be the coach who brings Penn State back to the top of the Big Ten mountain, though.
So far this season, Penn State is 3-2 and 1-1 in the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions are coming off a 29-26 win over Minnesota, but they did lose to No. 4 Michigan, 49-10, at the Big House. Right now, they appear to be an average Big Ten team. That didn’t stop Barbour from praising Franklin, though.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that James is going to be our football coach long term,” she told ESPN.
“We were so fortunate to have coach Paterno for so long. He helped shape Penn State’s values for so long. He was a huge part of it. James Franklin is embodying the same values: the academic piece, the social and cultural parts, the community service. The piece that’s a little slow to come is the competitive piece.”
So in what was truly a master class in taking the pressure off a coach while keeping the expectations high, Barbour has effectively taken Franklin off the hot seat this year.
No matter what happens for Penn State for the rest of the season, fans can basically be assured that Franklin will be coming back for his fourth year with the program. He did sign a six-year contract with Penn State in 2014, and it appears as if the powers that be have no indication to go back on that contract anytime soon.
On one hand, that’s a tremendous thing for Penn State.
Especially considering the turmoil and shakeups caused by the scandal, consistency is the best thing for the Nittany Lion football program. At first, O’Brien appeared to be the guy for the job, but he turned out to be nothing more than a transition coach, on his way to a head coaching gig in the NFL. Franklin, on the other-hand, has been a college football coach his whole life. Outside of a stint as wide receivers coach for the Green Bay Packers in 2005, he’s coached college football since 1995.
Throw in the fact that he’s widely thought of as one of the better recruiters and personalities in college football and it makes sense for Penn State to stick with him. Of course, the results haven’t been there on the field, but there is reason to believe. His 2016 recruiting class was ranked No. 20 nationally and No. 4 in the Big Ten. So far, his 2017 class is ranked No. 23 nationally.
Franklin can attract talent to Penn State and he’s proven in the past that he can coach at a high level. He needs to start putting it all back together quickly, though, because the good will from the AD should only last for so long.
Eventually, it always comes back to results.