Tri-State Coach of the Year James Franklin
By Joseph Santoliquito
The walls were beginning to creep closer. Penn State Nation was rambunctious. The white noise was growing more audible. Penn State had just got smoked by Michigan, 49-10, and the Nittany Lions were sitting at 2-2 in the first month of the 2016 season. From the outside looking in, you would think the whole thing was about to collapse. That the Nittany Lions would limp and scratch their way to another barely-above .500 year.
Inside was a little different. The walls stood where they should. The volume was turned down. The first practice after that loss Penn State coach James Franklin walked out and addressed his team like he usually did. Mistakes were pointed out, good plays were lauded—and then Franklin proceeded to do absolutely nothing different than when the Nittany Lions first reported to training camp.
Franklin kept everything the same. The attitude. The personnel. The coaching philosophy. His coaching demeanor. There were no slight alterations. There were no dramatic overhauls. No one panicked, because Franklin wasn’t going to let them panic.
Penn State proceeded to go on a nine-game winning streak. The Nittany Lions won their first Big Ten Conference title since 2008, when they shared the title with Ohio State, and first Big Ten title outright since 1994—before most of the Penn State players were born.
At the hub of the Penn State resurgence was Franklin, an intense, incessant hands-clapping optimist who you will never see scold a player publicly on national TV.
Franklin guided the Nittany Lions to an 11-3 record, the first double-digit winning season since Joe Paterno’s 2009 team went 11-2 and were a top-10 team. Penn State played in the Rose Bowl for the first time since 2008.
When things appeared to grow shaky, it was Franklin that settled everyone down. That leadership has been rewarded by Franklin receiving the Maxwell Club’s 2016 Tri-State Coach of the Year award, joining his quarterback, redshirt sophomore Trace McSorley, as the Tri-State Player of the Year.
“I’m a true believer in this, and I tell our guys all of the time, there are no true individual awards in football,” Franklin said. “I’m honored by it. But it’s football. It’s the ultimate team game. A running back doesn’t make all-conference or the Heisman Trophy by himself. It’s impossible. It’s the offensive line, it’s the play call, it’s the receivers, it’s everybody. It’s the defense getting the ball back for the offense.
“All of the awards we get, our players, they’re all just great examples of our team. That’s how we look at it. Someone is going to accept the award, but we’re accepting the award on behalf of our entire team. This is an honor to our entire team and to everybody involved, from the 15 walk-ons to the starting quarterback, to everybody in between. This is a recognition of our program and the sacrifices that everyone made, and toward the direction that we’re going.”
That’s just it, on Sunday, September 25, Penn State didn’t look like it was going anywhere. The young Nittany Lions were on the brink of imploding. What Franklin may be reluctant to take credit for was actually his doing. He kept the ship calm. His influence and attitude kept everyone stable.
“Coach Franklin did a tremendous job and one of the big things he preaches about is loyalty,” McSorley said. “We always stuck together and as a team, that’s something we really needed, because when things were going south, especially after we lost to Michigan, a lot of people weren’t pleased with how we were playing. We were 2-2 and we needed to hear someone preach to us about staying together and trusting the process.
“What this team was doing and where we were going, a lot of guys could have fallen off and had the idea that it was what it was. We were 2-2. We didn’t accept our fate. From there, we put our heads down and began grinding through. I think a lot of that can be attributed to coach Franklin and what he kept telling us the whole year. There was a mentality that formed that we trusted the process, and trusted the coaches, and trusted in ourselves and our team.”
There was light through the other end of that dismal tunnel. McSorley found a comfort zone. The defense began making big stops—especially in the second half of games.
The Nittany Lions were down, 28-7, with 5:15 left in the first half in the Big Ten championship game against Wisconsin. McSorley and Franklin never had a doubt that could climb out of that—and win. McSorley threw for Big Ten championship-game records 384 yards and four touchdowns in an amazing comeback 38-31 victory, as the defense held the Badgers to only a second-half field goal.
Through it all, Franklin was never frazzled.
“What we do in practice and morning workouts is make things as difficult and challenging as possible, so when the games come, they’re easy,” said Franklin, again deflecting any praise. “Confidence and poise comes from putting yourself in adverse situations over, and over and over again. The more you push yourself outside your comfort level, the more you get comfortable with those things.
“Another example is the more you invest in something and the more you prepare, there really is no time to panic. When adversity comes, you have that believe and faith in one another. Our defense was playing well, especially in the second half of games, and because our offense was able to score so many points, our kids never felt like they were out of a game, even when we were down by 21.”
Franklin stresses consistency. He said it’s the mantra of his staff, where 16 assistants followed Franklin from Vanderbilt when he took the Penn State job. That rarely happens in major college football.
“Our group of people have been together for a long time, which is important,” Franklin said. “When adversity hits, I know how those guys are going to react, because we’ve all been through tough times together. I guess I would say I’ve been in this profession long enough, where loyalty is a one-way street, but I believe that has to go both ways.
“I wouldn’t be where I am without them. Awards are nice, but it belongs to everyone. You know everyone in football talks family, but very few places truly are. That’s not just something we throw around. We believe it here, we live it.”
Winner: Tri-State Coach Award – 2016 Penn State University