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Penn State had little choice but to capitulate to James Franklin in coaching rat race

JOE STARKEY
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)
Penn State head coach James Franklin reacts during an NCAA college football game against Auburn in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Sept.18, 2021.Penn State defeated Auburn 28.20. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

Something almost as rare as last week's near-total lunar eclipse happened Tuesday at Penn State:

James Franklin won a big game.

The matchup pitted Franklin and his recently hired, highfalutin agent, Jimmy Sexton, against the powers that be at Penn State. They kicked off nine weeks ago, and unlike the horrific nine-overtime loss to Illinois, this one was never close.

Franklin-Sexton ran up the score on a 10-year, $85 million deal (really a six-year extension on the contract Franklin signed two years ago). I'm guessing the lure of a potentially transformative 2022 recruiting class — headlined by perhaps the best quarterback prospect in the country — played a pivotal role in the powers that be acquiescing to the Franklin-Sexton demands.

And there were many.

Basically, Franklin, who already was the highest-paid coach in the Big Ten, will receive a significant raise, the promise of major program upgrades and the freedom to leave practically without penalty beginning in 2024.

Oh, and if he is fired without cause, the university would owe him the world.

I won't bore you with all the numbers. Just know that if Franklin were to leave in, say, 2024, he would owe the university a mere $2 million, whereas if Penn State were to fire him that year, it would owe him $56 million.

That sounds about right for the final score of this game: 56-2.

Now you know why Franklin, who might never be in such demand again, hired a super agent. Sexton might be the most powerful man in college football. His clients include one Nick Saban.

The rat race: The whole thing is ridiculous, of course, but what isn't ridiculous when it comes to the money thrown around in college football?

I always refer to a quote from long-time Princeton basketball coach Pete Carril, who was asked why he never sought a bigger job. He basically said that once you join the rat race, you're a rat.

So welcome to the rat race, where everybody's looking for that magical solution — the coach who will permanently solve all of life's problems. And he better solve 'em fast.

Michigan State has given coach Mel Tucker $95 million over 10 years. This is his first good season (we won't mention the 56-7 loss to Ohio State). Dan Mullen will make $12 million to not coach Florida through 2027. In fact, over the past decade, FBS schools paid more than $500 million in dead money to fired coaches.

You can't blame PSU: It's all part of the reason I can't blame Penn State for capitulating here, even though Franklin has fallen on hard times since the beginning of last season. He is 8-9 in his past 17 Big Ten games, compared to 28-8 over the previous four.

This is a coach who, for all his failures, has three 11-win seasons and a Big Ten title on his resume. He owns a top-10 winning percentage (.726) since 2016 and, with an expanded playoff, would have qualified multiple times.

More importantly, he remains a master recruiter. That's the key here. If Franklin were losing games and his salesman's touch, there wouldn't be much of a discussion. You play hardball. Maybe you let him walk.

But if you're Penn State, do you really want to scrap a top-five recruiting class, say goodbye to premier quarterback prospect Drew Allar and launch a non-guaranteed coaching search because the terms of a buyout clause weren't satisfactory? Or because Franklin demanded wide-ranging program upgrades?

Do you really want to start over on account of a bad season or two?

Judging Franklin: I suppose it depends on the slice of time by which you judge him. The past 13 months, or the six years prior? Penn State doubling down here isn't unlike the Steelers extending Bill Cowher in 2001.

Like Franklin, Cowher had a good overall record but was struggling at the time (22-26 over the previous three years) and had mostly failed to win his biggest games.

You don't want to become Florida, which soon will have its fourth "magical solution" in eight years. Look at Michigan. It easily could have moved on from Jim Harbaugh to look for the next potential savior. But he does have four 10-win seasons in six full years and is 10-1 this season.

Harbaugh also has an Ohio State problem. Who doesn't? Tucker and Franklin can relate. They're all stuck in the same division.

If the slide continues, if the '22 class and those after it fall short, Penn State can easily move on. Franklin's buyout would hardly bankrupt the university.

Of course, he could choose to move on long before the school ever does.

These are the bets you make in the middle of a rat race.