CHICAGO – The James Franklin Show made its first appearance at Big Ten media days on Monday, as the Penn State football coach strolled to the podium dressed in a sharp gray suit, white shirt and navy tie, his bald head and rimless glasses glistening in the hotel spotlights.
Less than seven months after getting hired away from Vanderbilt, the uber-polished Franklin already has become one of the most talked-about coaches in the Big Ten. Penn State is facing another rebuilding season, but its ticket sales have spiked along with its recruiting rankings.
As if on cue Monday, five Pennsylvania congressmen sent a letter to NCAA President Mark Emmert, asking him to lift all remaining sanctions from the 2011 Jerry Sandusky scandal. Last September, the team’s scholarship limits were eased, and there was hope the team’s four-year bowl ban could be shortened.
Franklin didn’t reference the letter at the podium, but a throng of reporters surrounded him with questions about it afterward.
“My focus is on what to call on third down against Central Florida,” Franklin said, referencing the Aug. 30 season opener in Ireland. “Obviously that [letter’s] floating out there, and we’ll see what happens. But again, I spend very little time thinking or talking about those things because I don’t want to be disappointed, and I don’t want our players to be disappointed.”
Senior linebacker Mike Hull is among the veterans who rode out the storm after coming to play for Joe Paterno. Bill O’Brien won Big Ten Coach of the Year honors after leading the team to a surprising 8-4 finish in 2012.
The Nittany Lions fell to 7-5 last year, including a 24-10 loss to the Gophers at TCF Bank Stadium. O’Brien left to coach the Houston Texans, and Penn State moved quickly to hire Franklin, a former Division II quarterback from the Philadelphia suburb of Langhorne, Pa.
“It’s been a crazy time,” Hull said. “I’m really fortunate to play for all three coaches. I got to play for a legend [Paterno], and coach O’Brien was really great at X’s and O’s. And now Coach Franklin — great at recruiting, really upbeat and energetic, and I’m really excited to play for him and see how this last season goes.”
Hull said it was eye-opening when the team drew 72,000 fans to Beaver Stadium for this year’s spring game, about 50,000 more than turned out for the 2012 spring game.
“Everybody was real excited about all the buzz that coach Franklin created, especially with recruiting,” Hull said. “They wanted to see what made him so special at Vanderbilt. That was really the first glimpse they got at the new offense and the new regime.”
Franklin has boosted recruiting the most. In the latest Rivals.com rankings, Penn State’s 2015 class ranks atop the Big Ten and includes 11 four-star commitments.
Before heading to Vanderbilt, Franklin was the offensive coordinator at Maryland, where he was considered the head-coach-in-waiting behind Ralph Friedgen.
“Coach Frank recruited me; he’s one of the main reasons I came to the University of Maryland,” Terps quarterback C.J. Brown said. “He’s a fiery guy. He’s very passionate about everything in life, and I’m absolutely not surprised at the levels of success that he’s had.”
At Vanderbilt, Franklin took over a team that had been overmatched for years in the SEC and was coming off back-to-back 2-10 seasons. The school’s strong academic standards made it tough for other coaches to recruit there, but Franklin found a way.
The Commodores went 6-7, 9-4 and 9-4 in his three seasons. Vanderbilt went 4-4 in SEC play last year, with victories over Florida, Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee.
At Penn State, Franklin inherits a team with only nine returning starters.
Allen Robinson departed for the NFL after winning Big Ten Receiver of the Year honors as a junior, and the big concerns this year are on defense and with the offensive line. Depth also is an issue with only 75 available scholarships.
But Christian Hackenberg returns after earning conference Freshman of the Year honors. He broke 11 school records and led the team to a 31-24 upset over No. 14 Wisconsin in the season finale, passing for 339 yards and four touchdowns.
“The thing that I’m most impressed with is how humble and how hungry and how open [Hackenberg] is to coaching,” Franklin said.
Franklin seems to say all the right things.
But soon he’ll put to a test with a schedule that includes home games against Ohio State and Michigan State.