Franklin's winding road from East Stroudsburg to PSU
In 1998, while laboring as a graduate assistant and master's degree student at Washington State, James Franklin got a call about pretzels.
Two of Franklin's former roommates and fraternity brothers at East Stroudsburg University, Dan DiZio and Len Lehman, had just opened their first soft-pretzel shop in Philadelphia. They didn't have a cash register, worked 20-hour days and slept occasionally on bags of flour in the store. And they wanted Franklin to become a partner.
Franklin, having already decided that he didn't want to be a psychologist, told his Phi Sigma Kappa brothers that pretzel-making wasn't his calling either. He planned to stick with coaching.
"They're like, 'You're crazy,'" Franklin remembered. "All of the hours you work, if you did this in any other industry, you'd be really successful by now."
Turns out, they all are. In his third year as Penn State's head coach, Franklin has guided his team to the Big Ten championship game and on Tuesday won the conference's Dave McClain Coach of the Year Award, as voted upon by the media. DiZio and Lehman, meanwhile, preside over Philly Pretzel Factory, the popular nationwide chain that will make 175 million pretzels this year.
All three trace some of their success to East Stroudsburg University and that fraternity, which Franklin ran as tightly as he does Penn State's football team.
Even now, DiZio says, his offer still stands.
"If he would have come with us, James would have put this company at another level," said DiZio, co-founder and CEO of Philly Pretzel Factory. "We have 200 stores. There's no doubt in my mind that, with James, we'd be double that now."
East Stroudsburg roots: East Stroudsburg remains the starting line of Franklin's journey to Penn State. Denny Douds, the PSAC's winningest coach, who just completed his 43rd season, recruited Franklin as a quarterback from Neshaminy High School in 1991. Franklin was a two-time all-PSAC selection who tied or broke 23 ESU records.
While playing at East Stroudsburg, Franklin met Brent Pry, then an assistant coach on defense. Pry joined Franklin's staff at Vanderbilt in 2011, came with him to Penn State and became defensive coordinator this year. He now leads a defense ranked 20th in the nation that hasn't allowed a touchdown in its past two games.
Douds hired Franklin as a graduate assistant in 1996, a job Franklin took seriously. That year, Franklin was playing and coaching for the Roskilde Kings, a team in the Danish league of American football. Franklin's contract in Roskilde overlapped with his at East Stroudsburg, causing a hectic few weeks.
Franklin flew home from Denmark after the regular season, went to school for a week, then flew back to quarterback the team to the Danish league championship. Two days later, he was at ESU.
Franklin lived with Douds and his wife Judy for a few months, spending nights on Douds' deck talking about coaching. Franklin learned about building his coaching manual from Douds, whose 50-year manual is even more detailed than Franklin's.
In those conversations, Douds stripped his coaching advice to one central idea: "Do it right." He sees that imprint on Penn State today.
"I think some Penn State fans thought that, as long as the team was wearing blue jerseys, they should be able to play with anybody in the country," Douds said. "If it were that easy, you could go to the local bar and get 11 guys off the stools to play. It's not. James built that program one brick at a time. He built it the right way, not just to be a flash in the pan."
Unusual meeting: Franklin rarely talked about coaching while at ESU's Phi Sigma Kappa, where DiZio and Franklin first met. It's a good story.
DiZio went to his first fraternity party there, got into a fight and went back to his dorm. Franklin called DiZio that night, told him, "That's not the type of place this is," and invited him back. They have been friends since.
DiZio thought Franklin might pursue a career in psychology, which he studied at East Stroudsburg. Franklin did an internship at a treatment facility, where he met people with severe depression. But the experience made him sad. Worse, it made him fearful that he would become desensitized to that sadness.
"She's not happy and just wants to be happy, you know?" Franklin remembered of one person he met. "And I'm like, 'Jeez, I don't know if I can do this. It's going to be emotionally draining.'"
When DiZio called Franklin in 1998, he knew the young coach was grinding. Franklin was four years in, on his fifth stop, and combining his football duties with his pursuit of a master's in educational leadership. Still, Franklin thanked DiZio for the offer but said, "I'm going to stick it out."
"I knew he'd be successful no matter what he did," DiZio said. "I just never dreamed he'd be a football coach. Now I tell people, eventually he's going to win a national championship. There's no doubt in my mind."
Returning to East Stroudsburg often: Franklin said that Douds and East Stroudsburg "had a huge impact on me and always will." It's why he returns so often.
Franklin brought his Penn State Coaches Caravan to the university in 2014 and spoke at commencement later that spring. In October, Franklin had a hectic recruiting schedule planned for Penn State's bye weekend but assured his ESU crew that he'd be coming home again.
Franklin was part of this year's class of eight inductees into the East Stroudsburg Athletic Hall of Fame. He attended the Oct. 15 induction ceremony that morning, then flew off to a recruiting visit out of state. Before leaving, Franklin promised to return that night for East Stroudsburg's homecoming game.
Mike Santella, Franklin's former teammate and roommate at ESU, considered it a nice but unnecessary gesture. As East Stroudsburg's offensive line coach and recruiting coordinator, Santella knows the rigors of recruiting too well. So he was surprised to receive a text from Franklin just before kickoff.
"I'm here," Franklin said. He watched the rest of his alma mater's game from the sideline, chatting with people who realized that Penn State's coach was there.
Afterward, Franklin and his crew went to Rudy's Tavern, the East Stroudsburg spot famous for its pork rolls with cheese. Franklin had one. Santella had one. DiZio did, too.
In fact, DiZio occasionally has pondered how the pork roll might work as a pretzel.
"He didn't have to do that," Santella said of Franklin's return. "Denny didn't expect it. I didn't expect. No one did. But that's the thing I'm most proud of about James. He never forgot where he came from."
Big Ten title game
Who: Penn State vs. Wisconsin
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis
James Franklin's road to Penn State
1995: Kutztown, wide receivers
1996: Roskilde Kings/Danish American Football Federation, offensive coordinator/quarterback
1996: East Stroudsburg, graduate assistant/secondary
1997: James Madison, wide receivers
1998: Washington State, graduate assistant/tight ends
1999: Idaho State, wide receivers
2000-04: Maryland, wide receivers/recruiting coordinator
2005: Green Bay Packers, wide receivers
2006-07: Kansas State, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks
2008-10: Maryland, assistant head coach/offensive coordinator/quarterbacks
2011-13: Vanderbilt, head coach
2014-present: Penn State, head coach