A year ago at this time, James Franklin was in trouble.
After a blowout loss against Michigan State in the regular-season finale, the Penn State coach was left with little choice but to fire ineffective offensive coordinator John Donovan almost immediately. His ace defensive coordinator Bob Shoop dashed off to Tennessee soon thereafter. And such violent turnover left fans and media fairly questioning what kind of vision Franklin had for the future of his program.
A lesser coach in such a situation may have been tempted to consolidate power with two open coordinator jobs. Hire malleable “yes” men and take control of his own fate in terms of X’s and O’s, or bring in retreads who’d be happy just to have a job.
First Franklin went out and hired Joe Moorhead, then the Fordham head coach, to replace Donovan. Moorhead was the furthest thing from a “yes” man, having built a prolific offense in a long stint with the Rams. His was a resume that could have helped him get a plum coordinator job just about anywhere.
If that wasn’t clear when Moorhead was first hired, it certainly became clear over the summer as we learned that Penn State flew Fordham’s football staff — including Andrew Breiner, Moorhead’s replacement as Rams coach — to help teach Penn State’s assistants the new offense. This was Moorhead’s vision, and Franklin got him on board by being willing to give him the room to implement it.
Then Franklin made the gutsy decision not to hire an outside guy with experience to be the defensive coordinator, instead going in-house to linebackers coach Brent Pry, a Shoop disciple.
Franklin, of course, comes from an offensive background, having played quarterback in college and worked mostly in offensive assistant jobs during his rise through the coaching ranks. In hiring Pry, Franklin was entrusting what was an elite unit in 2014 and 2015 to a man who had never held the top job on a defensive staff before. (Although technically he’d been given the title of co-defensive coordinator, still a step down from the office Shoop occupied as the unqualified “defensive coordinator. Franklin’s job titles are weird, man.) So it was an unconventional leap of faith for a man in his situation and without many of his own defensive chops.
Obviously, both decisions were good ones.
Moorhead’s offense was explosive pretty much all the way through 2016, with a sole hiccup against Michigan in Week 4 in which it scored just 10 points. Using a mix of tricky zone-read runs and downfield passing, the unit improved its points per game figure by 13.
Pry, meanwhile, led a unit that got better every single week, especially after linebackers Brandon Bell and Jason Cabinda returned from injury in the win against Ohio State. He helped Penn State’s inexperienced defensive linemen mature quickly enough to make some very timely plays in key spots, the game-ending sacks against the Buckeyes and fourth-and-1 stop against Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship being the most vivid examples.
Of course, making good staff hires doesn’t write the Next College Football Genius stories that typically follow coaches this time of year following unexpected success. People want to read about the football technocrat who sleeps on a cot in his office and, perhaps like one of Franklin’s famous predecessors, watches film with classical music blaring.
Penn State fans should be thankful Franklin’s not that guy, though.
Instead, be glad he’s known when to delegate the nitty gritty of tactics to good people who he trusts, and when to use the communication and social skills he oozes to lift Penn State recruiting to heights it hasn’t seen in decades, netting stars such as running back Saquon Barkley and quarterback Trace McSorley in the process.
None of which is to say that Franklin can’t ultimately become a brilliant tactician, too. At age 44, he’s a lot younger than more celebrated Big Ten colleagues such as Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio (60), Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh (52) and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer (52), so he still has a lot of time to develop into the type of field general who gets the big, bold headlines.
For now, though, the truest compliment you can give him is to call him one of the best CEOs in college football. He’s humble enough to recognize his shortcomings, adept enough in his talent evaluation to make up for them, and trusting enough to give that talent room to blossom.
Some people might see that as a dig at his coaching abilities, especially because it plays into the narrative some have pushed that he’s in over his head in a Big Ten East division with so many great football minds. But if he saw it as a dig, then he probably wouldn’t have hired Moorhead and Pry in the first place.
And he probably wouldn’t be a Big Ten champion today.