STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — James Franklin grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, a strong-willed if not exactly strong-armed high school quarterback who believed he was good enough to play at Penn State.
Joe Paterno’s coaching staff didn’t exactly agree, and while Franklin’s arm led to him a decorated career at Division II East Stroudsburg (Pa.), his will led him to the place he wanted to be all along.
More than two decades after a futile attempt to draw Penn State’s attention as a player, the university hired the charismatic 41-year-old as its next head coach on Saturday.
Franklin, who turns 42 next month, also is the first permanent African-American head football ever at Penn State.
“I’m a Pennsylvania boy,” Franklin said, “with a Penn State heart.”
“My dad is from Pittsburgh, so I would spend all my summers and holidays in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Franklin added.
“My dad was from the Hill District, Bedford Avenue. I grew up just outside of Philadelphia in Langhorne, Pennsylvania.”.
One charged with continuing the painstaking and sometimes painful rebuilding process started by Bill O’Brien, who took over in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal more than two years ago.
But O’Brien bolted for the NFL’s Houston Texans on New Year’s Eve, opening the door for Franklin, who breathed life into a moribund program at Vanderbilt, winning 24 games over three seasons and leading the Commodores to three straight bowl games.
More will be expected here — eventually. That’s fine by Franklin, who insists he didn’t sign the six-year contract reportedly worth around $4.5 million a season to use the Nittany Lions as a stepping stone.
Franklin littered his hour-long introduction with all the right touches. Wearing a blue suit with a blue-and-white tie, he called Penn State his “dream job” and dubbed Saturday “the best day of my life” before quickly amending it to the “third best” after his wedding day to his wife Fumi and the birth of their twin daughters Addy and Shola.
Pointing to his family as they watched from the front row, Franklin described himself as having “two daughters and 95 new sons.”
Yet he knows the branches of the family tree run far deeper. He promised to reconnect the glorious past with what he believes is an ambitious future and vowed to have lunch with every provost and dean while pledging not to turn down any speaking engagement.
“We’ll do everything we can to bring this community back together,” he said, “and really take pride in this program.”
A pride still in the process of healing following the shocking revelations about Sandusky’s criminal behavior and the subsequent fallout that included Paterno’s unceremonious firing after 45 years at the helm. Then, there were the near-fatal NCAA sanctions that stripped the program of dozens of scholarships and barred the school from postseason competition for four years.
As far as O’Brien brought Penn State in two years, leading Penn State to a 15-9 record and ushering the Nittany Lions fully into the 21st century, much work remains to be done. The standard isn’t to merely be competitive.
Scanning a throng that dwarfed anything Franklin ever saw at Vanderbilt in a facility that in many ways rivals the jewels found in places like Alabama and Oregon, Franklin left little doubt as to his intentions.
“Our plan is to go out and win a bunch of games,” he said, “so we can stay here a long time.”
It’s something Franklin insists he planned on doing at Vanderbilt, where he produced one of the more stirring turnarounds in recent college football history. The Commodores went 16-4 over his final 20 games, second only to Alabama over that span in the SEC. Vanderbilt won the final seven games of 2012 and the final five of 2013.
And, Franklin led Vanderbilt into the final Associated Press poll each of the past two seasons, including No. 24 in the rankings released Tuesday.
As impressive as Franklin’s credentials may be, Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner believes they put Franklin through the “most thorough vetting process of any search perhaps of any position at this university.”