James Franklin met a Penn State locker room in 2014 that, in some corners, wondered how long he would be there.
He was the team’s fifth head coach (including interims) in 27 months, so why should the players expect him to stay?
“That’s like you having a stepfather, then another stepfather, then another stepfather,” Penn State senior safety Marcus Allen said. “And they all have different rules. And you’re like, ‘I’m not listening to this stepfather.’”
Three seasons and one unexpectedly quick Big Ten championship later, Franklin has what he calls “buy-in:” a locker room that has heard nothing but his message and committed to it after the rolling turmoil post-2011.
Penn State begins Year 4 of Franklin’s tenure Saturday, Sept. 2, against Akron with the nation’s No. 6-ranked team, one that expects to compete for the College Football Playoff. Moreover, Franklin said it has pushed through what he called the biggest challenge of his start at Penn State: getting a locker room of players splintered by various voices to trust and commit to him. For the long term.
“At some point as a player you say, ‘You know what? I'm just going to worry about myself and not buy into somebody else's plan because I keep getting my heart broken,’” Franklin said. “So getting that trust and that relationship in the locker room and building that love, that was probably our biggest thing to overcome, because there was a lack of trust that there was going to be a coach that was going to stay and invest in them and the program.”
Recruiting: In January 2014, Franklin became Penn State’s fifth head coach since November 2011, following Joe Paterno, interim Tom Bradley, Bill O’Brien and interim Larry Johnson Sr. Initially, his focus was on recruiting, including a Signing Day phone call to Saquon Barkley, who was committed to Rutgers at the time.
“I think we took over after the three worst recruiting classes in school history,” Franklin said. “And that's not a slight to our kids, because we've got really good kids here and we've got really good players. But if you study rankings, that's how it came out. That was one of the things we had to get solved as quickly as we possibly could.”
Program building: After that, Franklin took his program-building process, which he first put into practice as Vanderbilt’s head coach, into Penn State’s locker room. Franklin is a messages coach: core values, process instead of goals, etc. He drives them home with PowerPoint presentations in every team meeting.
Some players bought in; others didn’t. There was turnover on the roster, particularly among some older players who had reached their fill of inspiring speeches. They also struggled with something that Penn State hadn’t faced in more than 40 years.
“In the outside world, not everybody understands how important stability is,” said Jason Cabinda, senior linebacker and a team captain. “Seeing coaches get fired and leave, it’s more than just that, especially at a place like Penn State. It’s family there. When somebody leaves, it’s a big deal.”
Lessons from Vanderbilt: Franklin met some of those same challenges at Vanderbilt in 2011, when he also was forced to recruit walk-ons from fraternities to fill out his scout teams. Franklin remains quite proud of what he and his Vanderbilt assistants, five of whom now are on Penn State’s staff, did in going to three bowl games. It prepared them for some of the sanctions issues they would face at Penn State.
“I make the argument that our best years coaching [at Penn State] were years 1 and 2,” Franklin said. “Years 1 and 2 laid the foundation for year 3.”
Trust grows: Players said their trust began to strengthen during 2016’s winter workouts, shepherded by sophomore and junior classes about to become vital starters on the team. Winning certainly helped.
Penn State begins the 2017 season with eight captains, only one of whom didn’t sign with a Franklin recruiting class (fifth-year senior receiver DaeSean Hamilton). Six either committed to Franklin (Barkley), committed to O’Brien and re-committed to Franklin (Cabinda, Allen, Nick Scott) or committed to Franklin at Vanderbilt and followed him to Penn State (Trace McSorley, Grant Haley). Kicker Tyler Davis joined Penn State as a walk-on in 2014.
In addition, more than 90 percent of the scholarship players come from Franklin-signed classes. Penn State has six fifth-year seniors, the last remaining ties to O’Brien’s 2013 recruiting class.
One message: As a result, the overwhelming majority of Penn State’s roster not only has heard one message but also helped deliver it. And Franklin recently signed a new contract that will keep him in State College through 2022.
Allen said that the players no longer view Franklin through that ‘stepfather’ prism.
“Now that you build this trust, you know his family, you know his background, you know everything, I would give my all for this man,” he said. “Now that we all have this type of relationship, it’s truly a family.”