In the corner of James Franklin’s office sits an oar, painted Penn State blue.
P.J. Fleck personally delivered the symbol of his Row the Boat culture to one of his best friends in the coaching business, handing it to Franklin as soon as he disembarked the plane in State College, Pa., on a visit after Franklin took the job in 2014.
Franklin’s eyes take in that gift every day, maybe catching it more these past few weeks, as his Penn State squad prepares to take on Fleck’s Gophers on Saturday. Franklin even thought about snapping a pic of that oar and texting it to Fleck — until he realized maybe the week of a sold-out No. 4 vs. No. 17 all-undefeated conference showdown wasn’t the smartest timing.
“I was afraid that maybe he would use it against me and put it out on social media,” Franklin joked. “And say, ‘Even Coach Franklin’s rowing the boat!’ ”
Not quite, but building teams with an emphasis on “culture” has bonded Franklin and Fleck, creating a deep mutual respect that has transcended fierce recruiting battles and now, for the first time, an on-field matchup.
Franklin will bring his suffocating defense, playmaking offense and roster loaded with highly touted talent to TCF Bank Stadium for the first matchup between these teams since 2016. Fleck will counter with a team that emerged from close nonconference calls to reel off five consecutive Big Ten wins, four of them lopsided. Their customary pregame chat could cut the tension.
Franklin and Fleck had known of each other, probably met at a coaching convention somewhere, before Fleck — fresh into his first head coaching gig at Western Michigan — first visited Vanderbilt when Franklin was coach. This meeting, like many others since, was all about idea-sharing/stealing, though both coaches might play a little more coy now in the same conference.
In his three seasons at Vanderbilt, Franklin led an SEC underdog with tepid results to three consecutive bowl games. In four seasons at Western Michigan, Fleck took the Group of Five program from 1-11 to 13-1. Both preach a “1-0 this week” mentality, in Franklin’s words, which helps them accumulate wins without worrying about the season as a whole.
Each had started as a wide receivers coach, and those first head coaching stops proved what they could do on the sideline. Their current programs showcase what they bring off it.
Culture, culture, culture
Franklin came to Penn State after Bill O’Brien’s two seasons, which led the Nittany Lions directly out of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. Franklin had the task of maintaining the powerhouse program’s traditional success while continuing to repair its national image. Fleck joined the Gophers in 2017 after a sexual assault scandal and player boycott had rocked the team, along with a long history of mediocre seasons.
That is when the coaches’ cultures and relationship-building abilities became invaluable, grounding them through adversity at first and triumph now. Fleck’s Row the Boat mantra focuses on developing good players and good people. Franklin’s doesn’t have a trademarked name, but it strives for the same ideal.
“Both P.J. and James have done a really good job of establishing the culture that they want and recruiting to it, building to it, teaching to it,” said ESPN analyst Todd Blackledge, who will call Saturday’s game on ABC. “That’s a really good foundation for success.”
Heather Fleck, P.J.’s wife, said Franklin and her husband share a charismatic and passionate personality, which initially drew them to each other, especially at Fleck’s first Big Ten Media Days, when he was the new, young coach who didn’t really know anyone.
“When I first met James … from the second I met him, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, you are my second-favorite head coach ever,’ ” Heather Fleck said, adding she texted him a couple of times the past few weeks to say she wished both teams could win Saturday.
Franklin wrote back, “Do you come in peace?” making sure she wasn’t a double-agent.
The pair share many commonalities as coaches, husbands, fathers, proud bald men. But they’re not the same person. Franklin, 47, has coached more than 10 years longer than Fleck, 38. Fleck is more outspoken and hyper, a fast talker and a charmer but still inherently genuine. Franklin is more laid-back and considering, with his dry sense of humor, sometimes easy to miss.
“One thing that he’s really good at [is] to be able to bring calmness to chaos,” Fleck said of Franklin. “… There are only so many people that can do that and so many people that want to do that. James is a guy that runs into a fire, not away.”
Fleck hasn’t been shy about spilling his admiration for Franklin even before this week’s game, mentioning how he tries to watch Franklin’s news conferences every week to see how his friend handles certain situations in the media. Franklin has tried his best to downplay his role as Fleck’s mentor or role model.
“He’s doing a great job of killing me with kindness,” Franklin said.
Despite not spending really significant time together outside of job-related outings, the two want the best for each other — minus winning Saturday’s game. Franklin said coaching can be lonely, as there are only a few people — such as his wife, agent and athletic director — he can turn to who will understand his situation.
Fellow coaches, too, but they’re few and far between, since the nature of the job makes navigating friendships tricky.
“Year-round, you compete with these people in recruiting, you compete with them on the field. It’s constant and it’s relentless,” Franklin said. “It can strain relationships. It really can. But for whatever reason, me and P.J. have been able to kind of find that balance of being able to compete but still respecting one another and still not crossing the lines where it sours the relationship. Because it happens. It happens a lot.”
Just not to Franklin and Fleck.