It’s hard to overstate just how irrelevant Vanderbilt football had been for so long.
So what if Vanderbilt didn’t actually challenge for the SEC East title in the last few years; so what if its success came during a down time for Tennessee, and a down time for Florida in 2013. This is a program that had been to four bowl games ever, that had gone 2-10 in back-to-back seasons before James Franklin arrived. Which means that Franklin finishing 24-15, with a 2-1 record in bowl games, is nothing short of astonishing for a Commodores program that stands out above the rest of SEC academically but has floundered as the perfect pushover Homecoming opponent for the rest of the football-mad conference.
Penn State could not have made a better hire.
On Saturday, Penn State finally confirmed days of reporting and speculation by officially tabbing Franklin, a Pennsylvania native, as its 16th head coach — of course, only its third since 1966 — replacing Bill O’Brien, who left on New Year’s Eve for the Houston Texans after a successful two-year stint in which he kept the program afloat in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal and unprecedented NCAA sanctions. Thus begins Phase II of the post-Paterno era, with scholarship restrictions already rolled back and further sanction reductions still possible. Franklin’s decision confirms that Penn State remains an attractive job, that the Big Ten — and its deep pockets — can continue to attract top coaching talent.
Once Maryland’s coach-in-waiting — welcome to the new Big Ten East Division, Terps — Franklin quickly made a name for himself at Vanderbilt as an energetic face of the program adept at doing the unthinkable, which is recruiting talent to a school never known for beating other SEC teams to quality prospects. While not as acclaimed as O’Brien as an X’s and O’s coach, Franklin is known as a bright, progressive offensive and flexible mind. That makes him a solid post-O’Brien fit to try to keep the program moving forward around quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who’s ostensibly the franchise player as a five-star recruit who threw for nearly 3,000 yards in 12 starts as a true freshman.
It’s hard to imagine Penn State finding a more fitting candidate. Franklin didn’t recruit under scholarship restrictions at Vandy, but he might as well have, given the difficulty trying to lure recruits who fit in academically there. According to Rivals.com, Vanderbilt’s 2013 recruiting class ranked 19th nationally — ahead of Miami, Texas and Oregon, among others — and its 2012 class ranked 29th. This was a program accustomed to finishing in the bottom half of the FBS in recruiting; maybe Franklin wasn’t pulling in the best of the best, but simply competing for good recruits meant a whole new reality for Vanderbilt football. Even with the restrictions, it’s much easier to recruit to a place like Penn State, which can own Pennsylvania and the mid-Atlantic. Not surprisingly, Franklin made several references to wanting to “dominate the state,” in addition to calling himself a “Pennsylvania boy with a Penn State heart.”
There has been one large issue hovering over all of this, of course. A reasonable argument can be made that Penn State should have been very conservative with any hire, steering clear of even the potential for controversy. At Vanderbilt, four players last summer were charged with rape and dismissed from the team, with another dismissed after being charged with helping to orchestrate a cover-up. Despite speculation about Franklin’s knowledge of what happened, Nashville deputy district attorney Tom Thurman said “there’s no evidence whatsoever where Coach Franklin was involved in any way in the cover-up or has done anything inappropriate. He’s cooperated with us.” On Saturday, The Patriot-News published a story quoting an official from the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape saying, “The district attorney has publicly stated he (Franklin) was not involved in a cover-up, based on their investigation… So there’s not even reason to speculate about that at this point.”
All of which points to James Franklin being fair game for anyone to hire — even Penn State. At Franklin’s impressive introductory press conference on Saturday afternoon, athletic director Dave Joyner made a point of emphasizing the thorough nature of Penn State’s vetting process, while Franklin said of the case, “We were honest, we were up front and we made decisions quickly.”
So Penn State has its 16th football coach, hiring someone labeled by many as the most attractive young (41 years old) coaching candidate of the college football offseason. While it’s possible the NFL will come calling, Franklin’s background and personality indicate that he’ll be comfortable at the college level, back in his home state in familiar recruiting territory, with a job that, while certainly not among the top tier with Texas, Florida and Alabama, was an attractive coaching destination until 2011, and can still be.
With a massive alumni base fractured by the scandal, Penn State needed somebody, post-O’Brien, with a bold, confident and outspoken manner to deal with the messy politics currently involved with the Penn State job on top of winning football games. It’s hard to see how they could have improved on Franklin.