When he was a Maryland quarterback, Chris Turner told a story of his phone once ringing at 4:34 in the morning.
It was passionate, intense James Franklin — an amped-up electron of a football coach for whom sleep is apparently an overvalued commodity — calling to see if the player was awake and ready for a spring practice.
"I don't think he sleeps, to tell you the truth," former Maryland receivers coach Lee Hull said Thursday of Franklin, the former Terps offensive coordinator who left for Vanderbilt in 2010 and, according to multiple reports, is now close to becoming Penn State's head coach.
"I think he gets like three, maybe four hours a day. I'm not kidding — he's always on his phone," said Hull, who Thursday was announced as Morgan State's new head coach.
Franklin, a two-time Maryland assistant, was once in line to become the Terps' head coach. At Penn State, he would find himself competing with Maryland in the Big Ten's East Division and — perhaps more importantly — in recruiting the Baltimore-Washington region.
"He [Franklin] gets a job like that, it's going to be tough — real tough for us, especially for the recruiting battles, because he's a great recruiter," said former Maryland wide receiver Torrey Smith, now with the Ravens. "I can't imagine what it would be like to put him in an environment like that. It'll be [Maryland offensive coordinator Mike] Locksley versus him in recruiting. It'll be a good one."
In his three years as the head coach at Vanderbilt, long-frustrated Commodores fans loved the intensity Franklin displayed. He operates on a low boil but usually has the restraint and smarts to keep himself in check.
The fans began to know the real Franklin after Vanderbilt lost to Georgia in 2011, the Commodores' 16th loss to the Bulldogs in 17th games. Looking grim — almost defiant — the animated, then-first-year head coach was eager to declare that enough was enough.
"We are not going to sit back and take stuff from anybody. Anybody. No one," Franklin told reporters in a news conference following the 33-28 defeat that ended with Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham shouting at Franklin and poking a finger into his face.
"Those days are long gone. And they're never coming back. Ever," Franklin said with an unblinking expression that barely masked the roiling emotions inside.
While he can come off as overly confident or combative, Franklin's passion and football savvy helped turn around the Commodores' program, leading them to three straight bowl games and a 24-15 record. His accomplishments made him one of the hottest names in college coaching, with his name linked to several openings including ones in the NFL.
'In your face'
While plenty of coaches are passionate, Franklin, 40, manages to convey a sense that he is on his players' side. As Maryland's offensive coordinator, he was known to leap up and down while his players conducted drills, cajoling some to work harder and chiding others. Younger than most coaches, he didn't seem above the fray.
"He'll get in your face," said running back Davin Meggett, a member of the Washington Redskins' practice squad who played for the Terps while Franklin was the offensive coordinator and "coach-in-waiting."
"He'll come off as a little too energetic, but only because he is very, very passionate about his kids being successful," said Meggett, recalling a 2008 halftime speech in which Franklin punched an erasable board used to diagram plays, sending it tumbling to the ground. "He's extremely intelligent. He likes to win and he likes for his ideas to work."
In 2012, Franklin stumbled by joking publicly that he could tell a lot about an assistant coach's confidence by how attractive the assistant's wife was. He quickly apologized on his Twitter page, which he often updates.
In two stints as a Maryland assistant — 2000 to 2004, and 2008 to 2010 — Franklin was an aggressive salesman for the school. He frequently made himself accessible to the media, going further than most coaches in explaining internal operations such as play calling or how players are graded by coaches after games. He fist-bumped reporters as they arrived to interview him.
"He's intense, but it's not negative," Smith said.
Franklin is known for his recruiting and "tenacity," said JC Shurburtt, national recruiting director for 247 Sports. Franklin's approach is "positive and motivational, yet direct and no-nonsense."
Assuming he assembles a formidable staff to help him, Shurburtt said Franklin's recruiting "is going to resonate with high school coaches, prospects and their families throughout the I-95 corridor [Baltimore, Washington, Eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey], which is talent-rich and an area Penn State has made a living on during the past half century."
It is an area in which Maryland and Penn State often go head-to-head. Former Penn State coach Bill O'Brien — another former Maryland assistant, who recently accepted the head job with the Houston Texans — made sure that his offseason "coaches' caravan" road trips included stops in Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
"That's [Franklin's] lifeline, that's his baby — he loves recruiting," Hull said. "He's a relationship guy. He's nonstop. He's a relentless recruiter."
Maryland said its coaching staff was in a series of meetings Thursday and not immediately available to comment about Franklin.
Details of the divorce
In 2009, Franklin — who favors the West Coast offense — was considered the future of Maryland football. The former East Stroudsburg (Pa.) quarterback was in his second stint as a Maryland assistant when he signed a contract promising him $1 million from the school if he was not named to succeed Ralph Friedgen by Jan. 2, 2012. Franklin had attracted the interest of several college and NFL teams, and Maryland wanted to make sure he stayed around.
But Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow left for the same position at North Carolina State in June 2010, and her successor — former Army athletic director Kevin Anderson — disapproved of "coach-in-waiting" agreements, which he considered divisive to the staff. With no guarantee that he would be Friedgen's successor, Franklin left for Vanderbilt in December 2010.
"We all thought that Franklin was going to get the [Maryland] job," Meggett said.
Meggett had heard the reports that the Redskins were interested in Franklin to replace Mike Shanahan and said he would like to play for him again. The Redskins introduced former Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden as their new head coach Thursday.
Franklin, who is married with two young daughters, brought several Maryland assistants with him to Vanderbilt. Offensive coordinator John Donovan, special teams coach Charles Bankins, strength coach Dwight Galt and football administrator Jemal Griffin all left College Park for Nashville, Tenn.
After the 2011 season, Maryland complained to the Southeastern Conference — to no avail — that Franklin improperly made contact with quarterback Danny O'Brien, who transferred to Wisconsin and then to Division II Catawba College.
Shortly after Franklin departed, Maryland announced it was buying out the remaining year of Friedgen's contract. Anderson wanted to choose his own coach instead of inheriting one. Anderson found a match in former Connecticut coach Randy Edsall
, who he believed would hold Maryland players more accountable academically. In 2011, the NCAA had stripped Maryland of three football scholarships because of poor classroom performance, particularly during the 2-10 season of 2009 — Maryland's worst under Friedgen and Franklin.
"We'll get this thing turned around," Franklin said with typical bravado after the Terps had lost their last seven games of 2009. The team went 9-4 the next season.