HEISER: Franklin on losing streak
James Franklin is on a serious losing streak.
The Penn State football head coach watched his Nittany Lions stumble badly down the stretch, losing their final four games to finish at 7-6.
Since the calendar turned to November, he's also suffered numerous defections by recruits, coaches and players.
It's truly been a winter of discontent in Not So Happy Valley.
The unwanted departures really picked up steam in the past week.
Recruits: First, four-star defensive tackle Karamo Dioubate backed out of his verbal commitment to Penn State. He became the second four-star PSU recruit to recently change his mind about playing for Franklin, following Lavert Hill in late November.
A recruiting class that was once ranked in the top five in the nation this past summer has now dropped out of the top 10 and is rated as low as No. 20, according to Rivals.com.
Then, over the weekend, the news broke that two assistant coaches were abandoning the PSU ship. Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop was leaving the Lions for Tennessee, while offensive line coach Herb Hand was departing PSU for Auburn. Both men took the exact same jobs with their new schools. The decisions to exit in purely lateral moves certainly could not have made Franklin happy, who said recently: "I don't want (my assistants) to ever leave for lateral moves."
Shoop's exit had to be particularly distressing. Before the TaxSlayer Bowl loss to Georgia, Shoop was quoted as saying: "I don't plan on going anywhere. ... I hope Penn State will have me forever and ever and ever. I love being a part of Coach (James) Franklin's program, I love what we're building here, and I've said this millions of times — I think we're a 30 for 30 story ready to rock 'n' roll. It's just a matter of time before we get this thing rolling."
Less than a month later, he announced he was leaving PSU, and according to reports, is personally paying the $800,000 buyout in his PSU contract. Normally, the school he is leaving for, in this case Tennessee, would pay the contract buyout. That would seem to indicate that Shoop, despite his previous statement, desperately wanted out of Happy Valley.
Franklin quickly announced that linebackers coach Brent Pry would be promoted to defensive coordinator. Hand's replacement has yet to be named. That means PSU will have two new coordinators next season. Offensive coordinator John Donovan was fired immediately after the regular season and soon replaced by Fordham head coach Joe Moorhead.
Players: That follows a number of player departures. Immediately after the bowl game, quarterback Christian Hackenberg and defensive tackle Austin Johnson announced they would make themselves eligible for the NFL draft. Neither move was a surprise.
Hackenberg has shown little, if any, improvement since Franklin became head coach. It was clear that Franklin and his staff had difficulty coaching a drop-back QB. It was also clear that the Franklin and Hackenberg didn't have a particularly close relationship. Hackenberg, when announcing his decision to go pro, thanked nearly everyone associated with the PSU program, except Franklin. A parting of the ways seemed in the best interests of both PSU and Hackenberg.
Johnson's exit was also expected. He had nothing left to prove at the college level.
A few other players also departed for differing reasons. Tight end Adam Breneman quit football because of a chronic knee injury, while wideout Geno Lewis transferred to Oklahoma in search of more playing time. Little-used linebacker Gary Wooten is also reportedly planning to transfer.
Then on Tuesday, it was reported that sophomore linebacker Troy Reeder was transferring to Delaware. Reeder, who was forced into unexpected playing time year because of an injury to Nyeem Wartman-White, racked up 67 tackles for PSU, which was fourth on the team. Next season, however, with the return of Wartman-White, Reeder may get pushed back to the bench. In addition, the Wilmington native has significant ties to Delaware. His father played for Delaware, while his younger brother recently committed to the Blue Hens.
Lewis, Wooten and Reeder will be able to play immediately for their new teams — Lewis and Wooten because they will be a graduate students, and Reeder because he is transferring to a Football Championship Subdivision school.
Going into spin mode: Franklin, the ultimate salesman, will no doubt put the best spin possible on the numerous departures, saying it's just a natural part of college football in the 21st century.
To a degree, that's true. Keeping a staff intact for decades, like what happened at PSU during the Joe Paterno era, is a thing of the past.
He'll also, no doubt, claim that the changes will present the Lions with new opportunities to incorporate new ideas and improve.
After all, Hand's offensive lines were PSU's biggest weakness over the past two years, while Shoop's defense struggled mightily vs. big-time foes. The best three teams that PSU faced in 2015 — Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State — averaged more than 40 points per game vs. the Lions.
Lewis and Reeder, meanwhile, would likely be backups in 2016, while Hackenberg and Johnson simply moved on to greener pastures.
Mediocre record: No amount of spin, however, can deflect attention away from Franklin's coaching record, which stands at a mediocre 14-12 after consecutive 7-6 seasons. Franklin's teams have yet to post a marquee win over a quality foe. Much of that could be blamed on the Jerry Sandusky scandal and the resulting NCAA sanctions that left Franklin with a thin roster of scholarship players.
The sanctions, however, are no longer in place and, starting next year, Franklin will no longer have any excuses. He needs to start producing.
A recent study published by the Wall Street Journal that was conducted by Ryan Brewer, an assistant professor of finance at Indiana University-Purdue University Columbus, reported that the PSU football program was still the 10th most valuable in the nation, despite the fallout from the Sandusky scandal.
Franklin has certainly not produced top-10 results, however, and the outlook for 2016 does not look particularly promising. The Lions lose their QB and their top three defensive players (Johnson, Anthony Zettel and All-American Carl Nassib). Those are some big holes to fill.
Another 7-6 season, or even worse, is certainly possible.
If that happens, and attendance and booster donations flat line or decease, Franklin could find his job security in serious doubt. That's especially true when you consider that the athletic director who hired Franklin (Dave Joyner) is no longer at PSU. The new AD, Sandy Barbour, may want to make her own imprint on the program by hiring her own head coach.
Pivotal year ahead: Put all of that together, and Franklin is facing a pivotal year ahead.
It starts over the next month. Franklin will try to regain some momentum on the recruiting trail without two of his top recruiters in Hand and Shoop.
Then, in the spring, he'll need to adjust to two new coordinators, sort out his quarterback situation, try to piece together a competent offensive line under a new coach and rebuild his decimated defensive front.
Finally, in the fall, he needs to start winning more games. No realistic observer expects a Big Ten title, but eight or nine victories and a win over a highly ranked foe would at least be a sign of progress.
If no improvement is visible, however, Barbour and the PSU administration may decide that it's time for yet one more change, and Franklin may be facing the ultimate loss — his job.
Steve Heiser is sports editor of The York Dispatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.