The Time is Now
Will James Franklin get the job done at Penn State?
Having just been presented as the 16th head coach in Penn State football history, James Franklin stood under the bright lights and renewed pressures of his introductory press conference, schmoozing and empowering an expectant fan base waiting for its next savior, waiting for the man who would return the once-dominant Happy Valley to its formerly jovial state atop the world of college football.
At the time, Franklin seemed the perfect fit to lead the Nittany Lions as they rose from the ashes, once and for all.
He was young, charismatic and full of determination.
Now, after going 14-12 in his first two seasons and receiving what some consider to be aptly-aimed criticism from his departed quarterback, Christian Hackenberg, Franklin has many Penn State fans wondering if he should have stayed at Vanderbilt rather than preaching false hope in State College, only to produce mediocre results on a field where legends once stood.
During his first two years in Nashville, Franklin led Vanderbilt to a record of 15-11.
His third and final year with the Commodores produced a second consecutive nine-win season, a first in school history, bringing his final record at Vanderbilt’s helm to 24-15.
As readers may know, this isn’t a comparison between equal programs.
Yes, Franklin righted the Commodores’ ship rather quickly, as he nabbed three of the most highly-ranked recruiting classes in school history.
Yes, he’s led Penn State to decent records and two consecutive bowl games during his first two years in Happy Valley.
But, as programs such as Texas and USC well know, good isn’t nearly enough to avoid the fiery coals of the hot seat in the program Franklin is now leading.
With the abysmal, downtrodden past of Vanderbilt football serving as a haunting backdrop to Franklin’s short stint as head coach, fans in Nashville were happy to see their beloved ‘Dores qualify for a sub-par bowl game, let alone win nine games for two straight seasons.
Now, if Franklin leads his third Penn State team to yet another season riddled with mediocrity and questions of coaching, it won’t be hard to imagine the mindsets of Nittany Lion fans around the country.
The doubts will begin to seep into the minds of fans who follow what is now a program run ragged because of its past, and many will wonder if Franklin is indeed the right fit.
They will ask themselves if he can overcome Penn State’s years of suspension, probation and loss of not only several seasons’ worth of games, but program morale as a whole.
Finally, if worse comes to worse, these fans will follow Hackenberg’s lead and stop believing in Franklin altogether.
The return to prominence is essential for the future of a program such as this one, and if Franklin can’t get it done, he needs to be aware that Penn State won’t (and shouldn’t) stop searching until it finds someone who can.
The unspeakable ordeal involving former coaches Sandusky and Paterno, as well as so many victims of sexual assault, took place because a few people in Penn State’s program didn’t want to ruin its spotless reputation, nor did they wish to eradicate the wins that had, by that point, piled as high as Mount Nittany itself.
But what won’t change, no matter the coach, is this fan base’s thirst that can be quenched only by the taste of victory.
Yes, Penn State, Baylor and many other programs have chosen on-field success over off-the-field integrity. That point is obvious.
What serves as the only hope left, then, is that there just may be enough morally sound coaching talent left in the college football world that programs such as Penn State’s can squeeze these coaches dry until each respective program is back on top.
It’s not that Franklin won’t be able to guide the Nittany Lions back to their former glory. After all, he has had to use recruits from the era of current Houston Texans coach Bill O’Brien, whose pro-style attack (as opposed to Franklin’s spread scheme) suited the play of the long-gone Hackenberg to a T.
Rather, if Franklin can’t win enough games to satisfy such a demanding fan base, especially considering he’s going into his third year on the job, Franklin will be out in no time, and Happy Valley will be sad once more.
To his credit, Franklin has plucked three straight Top-25 recruiting classes at Penn State. and his grab of five-star running back Miles Sanders is something for fans to be excited about, especially when imagining the pairing of Sanders and rising sophomore Saquon Barkley to form a one-two punch not unlike that of Tennessee’s Alvin Kamara and Jalen Hurd.
Mix these guys with the mind of new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, and Penn State might just have the recipe for a lethal attack in the fall of 2016.
As many rebuilding programs well know, however, new coordinators and players thought to be high-powered weapons coming out of high school do not a national championship-caliber team make.
After two seasons, Butch Jones had led his Tennessee Volunteers to a record of 12-13.
Year three saw many promising changes, as the Vols sprinted to a 9-4 finish after losing three winnable games early in the season, then pounded Northwestern to a pulp in a 45-6 victory in the Outback Bowl.
Now, Tennessee is poised to make a big run in 2016, with perhaps even the hopes of a national championship settling like a delicate fog over the Smoky Mountains of Rocky Top.
The point in listing these facts is not to compare Tennessee to Penn State.
Instead, the point is to remind fans that even after a couple of years, a coach still needs an adequate period of transition to develop and install his own system. Only then will fans see results.
If he’s given enough time, Franklin can lead Penn State back to the Promised Land.
After all, the success he’s produced thus far in his career speaks for itself.
But seeing as how time is also his biggest enemy, Franklin better start leading pretty quickly.
Otherwise, he might just be given a bigger boot than the one Joe-Pa himself received after the scandal that sent Penn State’s football program spinning into such a downward spiral in the first place.