Coach Franklin exclusive: proud of the past, but always looking to the future

Since becoming head coach of Penn State football, James Franklin has launched the Nittany Lions back to the top of college football and worked his way to many career-defining moments.

The Big Ten championship. A Fiesta Bowl victory. An appearance in one of the most iconic Rose Bowl games in history. Defeating the second-ranked team in the country as the heavy underdog. Back-to-back undefeated seasons at home.

Still, after all this and totaling 22 wins the past two seasons, Franklin doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about what has been accomplished. He’s focused on what can still be accomplished.

That’s his style, and really, the mindset of the entire football program.

According to Coach Franklin, the new coaches have acclimated well, and with Trace McSorley set to lead the team again—and be a Heisman Trophy candidate—there’s plenty for fans to look forward to.

We recently sat down with Franklin and discussed what he enjoys about living in the State College community, what about the team gives him the most confidence heading into fall camp and what makes McSorley an elite quarterback. What stands out to you about the success you’ve achieved over the last few seasons, and what are the advantages of now having some longevity at Penn State?

James Franklin: I don’t know if I spend a whole lot of time thinking about that. Obviously, we’re very proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish in a fairly short period of time. We’re pretty much task-masters, masters who are on to the next challenge and some of the next issues. I do think with our players, and with our fan base, and with the media, and with recruiting, the things that we’ve been able to do the last couple of years—undefeated at home in back-to-back seasons, Top 10 finishes, back-to-back New Year’s six bowls, and recruiting—I do think it’s created a real buzz and excitement around the program.

But I would also say that going into this year, we probably have more question marks than we’ve had in the last two or three. When you have six players drafted and 15 guys make NFL teams, that’s a lot of players and a lot of production that needs to be replaced. I think there’s excitement, and I think people see that the model and the philosophy works. I think we are talented, but we’re young and inexperienced, and we’re going to have to find a way to make those things up as quickly as possible. As you assess the program now, what gives you the most confidence about this team looking ahead to fall camp?

James Franklin: I think the staff. We’ve got, I think, a really strong staff, from top to bottom. Not just the coaches, but support staff, as well, I feel really good about that, strength and conditioning, the whole package. I think everyone really kind of understands the overall philosophy, how we do things, and why we do things. Even the new staff members that we’ve hired have integrated themselves in really well, I think, in a short period of time. And then, I think, obviously, whenever you’re going to return a starting quarterback—and not just a starting quarterback, one of the better starting quarterbacks in college football, and one of the better quarterbacks in Penn State history—I think that always helps. I think the other thing that you guys have heard me talk about is the importance of the O-line and D-line; we’ve come light years on the O-line and D-line, and specifically the offensive line, since we’ve arrived here. When you have those types of foundations—O-line, D-line, and quarterback—then really you can build everything else around that. So I’m very, very pleased with those things and excited about some of the opportunities that they present. How do you see the offense remaining formidable, and how does Tommy Stevens fit into that picture? 

James Franklin: Obviously, Trace has got a really good understanding of the offense and the O-line. Our staff, and Ricky Rahne, who’s done a great job for the last couple of years, and I think Matt Limegrover, are going to have a huge part in what we’re able to continue doing. Being able to get Tyler Bowen to come back, who’s been a part of this offense now for multiple years, and Ja’Juan (Seider’s) experience at West Virginia, and then David Corley, just knowing him for a number of years and what he’s going to be able to bring from his experience at Army and UConn, I think there are a lot of opportunities to not only continue what we’ve been able to do the last couple of years, but also really be able to build on it.

Tommy Stevens is a little bit of a challenging situation, because he’s a playmaker, and we’ve got to be able to get him involved in the offense, but we also have a responsibility to keep developing Tommy Stevens as a quarterback—not only for us, but for him—and that’s the fine line. You have to be careful in how much you start asking him to do other things, because then you’re taking away of his true development at his true position. He’ll be a part of what we’re doing, but it’s going to be with those things in mind. You mentioned Trace—what separates him from other quarterbacks, and makes him not just great, but elite? 

James Franklin: I think the most important thing at the quarterback position is decision-making; it is accuracy, it is third-down percentage, and obviously it’s wins and losses, and he’s been really successful in all of those areas. I think the only thing that anybody can knock Trace on is he’s not 6-foot-4, but even that has changed. You look at the NFL, and you look at the guy who got drafted first this year (Baker Mayfield), probably is more similar to Trace than he is to Tom Brady. You look at Russell Wilson, I can go on and on with examples of quarterbacks that don’t fit, necessarily, the prototype old-school philosophy and style. He’s just a winner, he’s been a winner his whole life, he was that way in high school, and he’s been that way in college. He is universally respected throughout our program, from players and from coaches and from old players and from young players, offensive players and defensive players, because of the way he works, because of the way he carries himself and how productive he’s been. Switching gears, the team has finished undefeated at home the last two seasons, and after the Ohio State win in 2016, you said you couldn’t imagine a better environment. What is it about Beaver Stadium and the Penn State campus that creates arguably the best atmosphere in college football?

James Franklin: I think a couple things. When you look at our town, I think people are amazed; you look at our town, and then all of a sudden, there’s 200,000-plus people on game day. I think the fact that we fit right in the central part of the state allows people from the east, and the west, and the north, and the south to all travel and get here, so that we can truly represent the entire state of Pennsylvania. A large percentage of our fan base that comes each weekend is driving three hours, whether that’s from Pittsburgh, or whether that’s from Philly, or whether that’s from Scranton, or whether that’s two hours from Harrisburg, and so on and so forth, I think that is special.

I think the other thing is it’s hard for programs that haven’t been established to get going, and we have such tremendous history and tradition here. So, to think that we were able to get 110,000 fans for Michigan, 109,000 fans for Pitt and average over 106,000—when everybody else across the country is going down in attendance, we've gone up. And it's one thing to go up from 60,000 to 70,000, it's another to go from 90,000 to 106,000. I think just the passion, I think the pride (in) our Penn State graduates, our Penn State lettermen, and then really just our Penn State fans that aren't graduates or lettermen. There's still just such a passion and a connection for this University—probably more so than (any place) I've ever been. I think THON is a huge part of that, and I think Penn State football is a huge part of that. When you can bring such a large number of people together, and it doesn't matter what your background is, rural or urban, or young or old, or black or white, or Catholic or Jewish, none of those things matter on Saturday afternoon. I think that's what's so special about the game of football in our country, is it has the ability and power to bring communities together like nothing else. Along the lines of community, is there anything in State College that you and your family enjoy doing when you do have some free time, and what do you find appealing about living in a college town? 

James Franklin: I think what I love about living in a college town is, number one, that everything revolves around the university, that everything revolves around education. Typically, in college towns, and specifically, State College, the schools are great for our kids. Not only do you have great schools, but you have great schools because you’ve got all the professors’ kids there. Usually, college towns have a connection to the university, in terms of education, in terms of the students doing internships, or student-teaching. There’s usually a collaborative effect between the elementary schools and the high schools with the university as a whole, so that’s always wonderful.

And then for us, I wouldn’t necessarily say relaxed; we have ten- and eleven-year-old daughters who are into everything, whether that’s soccer or singing onstage, or basketball. There are so many activities and so many things going on, and because you’re in a small college town, you’re able to do all of those things. I don’t know how you’d do them and be sitting in traffic and all those types of things that sometimes you fight in larger areas. Living in State College, Pennsylvania, allows you to be the type of parent that you want to be. I can run over at lunchtime and have lunch with my daughter in between meetings, and get back, so it’s just been good. We’re more homebodies, we don’t get out a whole lot, but I think it’s just a combination of the family environment and a combination of great schools, and it’s a combination of my daughters being surrounded by great mentors [in] the players that are getting an education, and coming to the house. [They] are great role models, as well, big brothers. Following up, do you enjoy the random encounters with alumni and fans on campus and in the community where they say hello, congratulate you, or ask a question about the program—any stories that stand out?

James Franklin: I don’t know if I’d describe them as random. I think it’s just part of the deal; my family and I just understand football is a big deal here, it’s very important. It’s somewhat strange to me, because I still feel like the same guy that I’ve always been. I’m a dad, I’m a husband, I happen to coach football, and I happen to coach football at a place that people take a lot of pride in it. So yeah, going to Wegmans is usually an experience, and going out to dinner is usually an experience. But the good thing for us, is my wife and kids, we know nothing else, so we think this is normal. But there are some times, you’re out to dinner or you’re out with your daughters, or you’re going bowling, or something like that, and there’s a time when you’d love to just be “Dad,” you’d love to just be your wife’s husband, and that’s not the reality of our world. I’m very appreciative that people are excited about the program, and I’m very appreciative that people are passionate about what we’re doing and where we’re going. It can be challenging, at times, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. The last few seasons, the team has used the hashtag #OpportunityIsNowHere, where you could see that as opportunity is “nowhere” instead of “Now Here.” The ability to see opportunity where other people might see adversity or an obstacle, is that something that distinguishes people who achieve different levels of success, and does your psychology background factor into that mindset? 

James Franklin: I think probably a little bit of all of that. That was something that my college coach, Denny Douds, did at East Stroudsburg years ago, and it was something that hit me, because I was one of those kids sitting there looking at it and reading it, and I was saying “opportunity is nowhere.” And he got up and said, “Well, there’s another way you can read it, and it’s "opportunity is now here,” and it just kind of was one of those “aha” moments for me and a slap of reality in my face.

Life is truly about how you perceive it. That’s one of the things that we talk about in our core values, is having a positive attitude. A slight change in perspective can go a long way. I think it’s no different than we all learn as we get older. People look at adversity and challenges, and when you’re going through them, they’re difficult. But I think we all realize that every time you go through those challenges and you go through adversity, it actually makes you stronger. I think they’re the things that we try to focus on and realize, usually, they’re the greatest time for growth.

I want our players to focus on their blessings, and not their shortcomings. I want them to focus on all the positive things that they’ve got going on in their life, because there are high school football players all over the country that would die to be in the position that they’re in. I think a lot of times when you’re just in the grind of going to school, going to practice, going to work outs and things like that, sometimes you can lose sight of that. We all do in our jobs. So I think waking up every single morning with the right mindset and the right attitude, again, focused on your blessings and not your shortcomings, is one of the most critical lessons and one of the most important things you can learn to propel yourself in life in the direction that you want to go. With Sean Spencer now adding the title of associate head coach and Ricky Rahne becoming the new offensive coordinator, in what ways have they established themselves as leaders, and how much do you enjoy giving guys opportunities and seeing them develop and advance their careers while still staying with you? 

James Franklin: If you look over most of my career, I’ve been a promote-from-within guy whenever possible. I think that makes sense for a lot of different reasons: from a consistency standpoint, from a motivation standpoint, from a loyalty perspective. Ricky’s been with me since he was a graduate assistant at Kansas State, Sean’s been with me since my first year as a head coach, so to see those guys grow within the organization, to see those guys be loyal to me, to see those guys be loyal to Penn State, and to see those guys be loyal to our players—they’ve earned it. We haven’t given them anything. They’ve earned these opportunities, and I know they’re going to do a great job.

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