Penn State's James Franklin opens up about sanctions, commitment level and expectations
James Franklin sat on the balcony outside of his office in the Lasch Building on May 31, taking a moment to contemplate a question.
Franklin has been Penn State's head football coach since January 2014, helping it navigate sanctions that could have crippled the program for the foreseeable future.
The head coach let out an exasperated "yeah" as the memories of those trying times seemed to flood back into the forefront of his consciousness.
"So, I think what happens, is a couple things," Franklin said to the Centre Daily Times, gathering his thoughts on what he remembered about the process that led to him being hired and how long it could take to accomplish his goals.
"During the interview process and that whole thing, coming to Penn State and with the sanctions, I don't know if I completely understood the sanctions when I got the job," he told the CDT. "And strategically I don't know if they completely explained the sanctions when I got the job. ... The program was probably in a more challenging place than I realized. ... Once we got here we realized that we probably didn't have as much as we thought we did in terms of the roster, in terms of the facilities, in terms of infrastructure, a lot of those things."
Entering year nine as the leader of the program, Franklin has the job security to build how he sees fit with the first chapter of his tenure — for better and for worse — distant in the rearview mirror.
Impact of NCAA sanctions: Of course, the lowest points of the first chapter include those sanctions. They were ultimately rescinded by Franklin's second year in charge — 2015 — but damage had been done. The program had little to no depth as it tried to build a roster that lost scholarships in 2013 and 2014 and was limited to 65 scholarship players from 2012 through 2014.
Despite those difficulties, understanding of the situation was not in vast supply early in Franklin's tenure. Those frustrations were apparent from the fans when "Fire Franklin" chants reached a fever pitch in a 2016 game against Minnesota that — ironically — served as the turning point for the team that won the 2016 Big Ten Championship.
The Penn State head coach remembers the game, and remembers those difficulties.
"The Minnesota game and how that game was going and the response of the stadium, in year three, first year off of sanctions," Franklin said. "... People acted and responded as if we were supposed to be competing for Big Ten Championships in year one and year two."
While Franklin may not have known what he was up against when he took the job, he understands now the impact — or lack of impact — the sanctions had on the fan base's expectations.
For a base of people as proud of its past accomplishments as Penn State fans, the standard was the standard. There were no excuses to be made once games started being played.
"I tell people all the time, I would never suggest anybody take a job under sanctions again," Franklin said. "Because everybody says all the right things in the interview. 'We're gonna take time and the fan base understands.' Nobody cares. Once you start playing games, nobody cares, especially at a place like Penn State. The expectations at places like Penn State are really, really high."
That reality has been made abundantly clear in the years following the team's Big Ten title.
The Nittany Lions were expected to ascend and build off the title. Instead, that seems to have been a one-off experience — a compilation of factors going Penn State's way all at once rather than the beginning of a run.
The program made it back to New Year's Six bowls in the two following years but has since regressed. Some of that issue has been at quarterback, where Sean Clifford is entering his fourth year as the starter following the immense success Trace McSorley had leading the program. Clifford led the team to a Cotton Bowl appearance in 2019 but the team hasn't reached that level since.
What's next for Penn State football? To take the next step forward, Franklin said the program has to show the commitment required to do so.
"If we want to be able to sustain it and do it on a consistent level, then we have to make sure that our commitment level matches our expectations on a daily basis, with those programs that we're talking about," he said. "So the program in this conference, as well as the programs nationally, that have been able to be a part of that College Football Playoff conversation, I have to be able to bring up staff size, staff salary, facilities, dorms, NIL. All of those things have to match up or be consistent — if we say we're truly competing. All of it matters. ... Every single area is critical if you're trying to compete with those guys at that level on a consistent basis."
"Can you catch lightning in a bottle? Yes. We showed that we can do that. But for you to compete with School X, you have to be willing to do what School X is doing on a consistent basis."
While Penn State hasn't reached the upper echelon on that consistent basis, there is a clear level of belief from the athletic department that he is the right leader into the future and to achieve whatever comes next. He was rewarded with a 10-year contract extension that is valued at $85 million and incoming athletic director Patrick Kraft praised Franklin when he was introduced as the new leader of the athletic department in late April.
The question, then, is what is expected to come next?
Publicly, it seems those expectations for what comes next are to consistently be at the top and competing for conference and national titles.
But it seems clear there is much more to be done to get to that level — at least in the eyes of the football program's current leader.