Barkley gives inside look at Franklin recruiting pitch
- Saquon Barkley was originally committed to Rutgers, but James Franklin changed his mind.
- Barkley was impressed by Franklin's plan to "dominate, educate, graduate" at Penn State.
- Franklin also impressed Barkley's family with his salesmanship and personal approach.
First, Penn State coach James Franklin walked into the house without saying much. He looked around quietly at the photos and awards for a moment before beginning to introduce himself.
"We know who you are," Alibay Barkley responded with a laugh.
Then, less than two months into his new job at Penn State, Franklin told Saquon Barkley and his family why the Whitehall High running back would not be leaving Pennsylvania to play college football. He was persuasive.
"Like my mom said, he could sell you a stone and make you feel like it's the best stone ever," Saquon Barkley said recently.
What is it like to be recruited by James Franklin? From the Barkley family's perspective, it was a combination of selling home and family, of making everyone feel included and of making parents feel as though their son would be in good hands.
Franklin has made dozens of these stops over his six seasons as a head coach, and on Wednesday (National Signing Day) he'll welcome another group of recruits who bought into his pitch.
But one of the most important stops Franklin made for Penn State was to Coplay in 2014, when he began recruiting the players who would compose his first full class. The class included Barkley, John Reid, Ryan Bates and Manny Bowen, who played instrumental roles in the Lions' 2016 Big Ten championship.
And it began with a phone call on National Signing Day three years ago.
Franklin changes minds: Almost immediately after conducting an interview with ESPN about his recruiting class, Franklin called Barkley, then a Whitehall High junior who was committed to Rutgers. Barkley watched the interview, then listened as the coach insisted that Barkley would "help Penn State take over college football." They set up a home visit soon after.
The Barkley family was uneasy with the attention at first. Barkley had committed to Rutgers the previous year and was fairly set on going there. Alibay Barkley, Saquon's father, insisted that his son keep his commitment.
"Then Franklin came calling strong," Alibay Barkley said in a recent interview. "He came strong. Saquon said that he's going to make the decision. I said, 'It's up to you, but I prefer you to go to Rutgers, because that's what we talked about.'"
Convincing argument: What convinced Saquon Barkley was the base of Franklin's plan — "Dominate, educate, graduate." For his parents, that three-hour meeting went a long way toward making them more comfortable.
"Coach Franklin can sell you," Tonya Johnson, Saquon Barkley's mother, said in a recent interview. "At first we were skeptical about a lot of things. But after speaking with us, everything made sense. It felt like Coach Franklin had a more personal approach. It felt like home."
Added Alibay Barkley, "He makes me feel like Saquon's in the best hands. That's a good feeling for a father to have, that another man is going to protect and encourage his son but also keep him in line when he needs to. Because Saquon needs that sometimes."
Playing time: One point Franklin made that stuck with Alibay Barkley concerned early playing time. Saquon Barkley left for Penn State in 2015 intending to play as a freshman.
Franklin never promised a spot in the lineup, though, Barkley's father said. In fact, the coach pressed the opposite.
"[Franklin] always told us, 'He's not going to play,'" Alibay Barkley said. "He said, 'I'm just letting you know, so don't call me asking why my son isn't getting time. But if he does what he's got to do on the field, I'll make sure he gets the best opportunity he can.' And Coach Franklin was a man of his word."
Character approach: Franklin didn't recruit just the family. At Whitehall, Franklin brought a "character-reference approach" to recruiting, football coach Brian Gilbert said.
That meant speaking with those who knew Barkley well, like Gilbert and his assistants and Athletic Director Bob Hartman, and even those who didn't. Gilbert took note that Franklin stopped custodians to ask about Barkley, along with the woman who washed the school's laundry.
And later that year, when Franklin and assistant coach Sean Spencer took a helicopter to watch Barkley play at Nazareth High, Gilbert knew they were serious about maintaining Barkley's commitment.
"I've heard other people say that [Franklin] is a salesman, but I just think people get lost in his personality," Gilbert said. "Sometimes people think it comes off as being too good to be true, but I've been on the sideline. He's like that on gameday with his players. He's a passionate coach, and it shows in recruiting. The college coaches I look up to have that personality: Have fun and get business done. That's what Saquon saw in him."