The new power plant in central Pennsylvania is actually the new football coach at Penn State. His name is James Franklin, and energy crackles from him. He’s Twitter with a whistle around his neck.
Franklin’s effervescence flowed last month at Big Ten media days in Chicago, where reporters were tethered to his mouth like teenagers to their phones.
“I don’t want to be boring, the same coach who gives these really dry answers,” Franklin said. “I want to have some fun.”
The quest to inject joy into even the most mundane chores has ingratiated Franklin with the Penn State community since the January day he replaced Bill O’Brien, who left for the NFL’s Houston Texans after two seasons in the storm following the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
O’Brien’s low-key demeanor and tactical skills steadied Penn State. Despite a bowl ban and scholarship limitations from the NCAA, he pushed the undermanned Nittany Lions to a 15-9 record, which matched the number of wins by Michigan in that span.
Penn State still can’t play in a bowl this season or next, and ongoing scholarship limitations have the roster thin of talent. However, those sanctions and the upheaval — including the firing and eventual death of iconic coach Joe Paterno — have hardened veteran players since the Sandusky bomb detonated in November 2011.
“Being a player that went through everything like that, it teaches you a lot about life, how to deal with certain situations, and owning the situation,” senior running back Bill Belton said. “You embrace what’s going on, stay there, and continue to fight through it.”
Franklin, a Langhorne, Pa., native who led Vanderbilt to unparalleled success the previous three years in the mighty Southeastern Conference, provides a quicker pulse under the toughened hide of his inherited team.
“I’m a passionate guy; I’m an emotional guy,” Franklin said. “If guys do something well, I’m going to scream, hug them, and go crazy. If guys do something bad, I’m going to scream, hug them and go crazy. That’s just kind of who I am. We got a really energetic (coaching) staff, and I think the players have fed off that.”
Confirmation will soon bear out on scoreboards. Penn State opens the Franklin era on Aug. 30 against Central Florida in Dublin, Ireland. The Nittany Lions close the regular season against reigning Big Ten champion Michigan State. Games in between include an Oct. 25 visit from Ohio State, a 63-14 winner in last year’s meeting.
Penn State returns a cornerstone quarterback in Christian Hackenberg, who threw for 20 touchdowns and nearly 3,000 yards as a freshman. The Nittany Lions must replace departed All-America receiver Allen Robinson, depth is a concern at linebacker, and their offensive line is unproven.
Franklin’s response has been to charge head-on into the fire of uncertainty. At his introductory news conference, he proclaimed that Penn State would dominate recruiting in its region, would sell out all of its home games, and would in time restore the program to national prominence.
Such chest-out bravado fueled his turn-about tenure at Vanderbilt, a traditional SEC punching bag. The Commodores had made three bowl appearances in 55 previous seasons before Franklin took them to three in his three years in Nashville. Vanderbilt twice finished ranked in the top 25 under him.
The Commodores were so enraptured by Franklin, one of their players said he “could sell water to a fish.”
And then he was gone, off to Penn State. His departure ruffled some Vanderbilt players left behind, causing Franklin to be asked about their ill feelings at the Big Ten media days.
“When you invest so much in a place and you invest so much in people, there’s no good way to leave,” Franklin said. “There’s going to be hurt feelings.”
Franklin’s words and tenacity have caused other grumbling since he became Penn State’s fourth head coach in four years (if you include an interim) at a school where Paterno reigned for 46 years.
Coaches in the SEC have complained about Penn State holding satellite football camps in the South this year, and Randy Edsall, coach of new Big Ten member Maryland, didn’t take kindly to Franklin telling Nittany Lions fans that Maryland and New Jersey (home of Rutgers) are “in-state” recruiting.
“I probably said a few things I shouldn’t have said in trying to get our fans excited,” Franklin said.
His gas pedal, however, remains pushed to the floor.
“I’m going to remain true to who I am,” Franklin said.
For Penn State, an open road beckons. The new engine purrs.