STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — James Franklin’s black SUV arrives in the parking lot of Penn State’s Lasch Football Building at 6:35 on Wednesday morning. Not 6:34, and certainly not 6:36. Dawn has not yet broken over Nittany Mountain and the only sound on campus is the sloshing of a giant water can being hoofed up a nearby sidewalk by a platoon of quietly suffering Army ROTC cadets.
The head football coach executes a three-point turn so precisely it looks as if it has been photocopied from the DMV handbook how-to diagram as he backs in — backs in, not pulls in — to his 24/7 reserved parking spot. Staff meetings will begin at 7 a.m. on the dot, but only after Franklin walks up the same stairs beneath the same giant “WE ARE …” sign that hangs from the same ceiling and makes his exact same cup of coffee, sipped in an office so clean it could be the showroom used to sell furniture and accessories to all other football coaches. Even the song that pulsates in the background, Jay Z’s “Hard Knock Life,” is kept at a steadily perfect, not-too-loud volume.
“Oh, it’s way worse than this. Here’s me just a little while ago, and it’s me every morning,” the 45-year old says, his fingers leaving their grip around the coffee cup to pantomime the routine as he describes it. “I open the bathroom drawer and boom, my toothpaste goes out, my shaving cream goes out, my shaver goes out, my deodorant goes out and then my aloe that I use on my bald head, all lined up in their spots around the sink. Then when I’m done, they all go right back in the drawer in the same order they came out. Every single time. It never changes.”
None of it does, from his bathroom to Beaver Stadium and from Week 1 to whatever postseason game Penn State ends up participating in this winter, perhaps even the biggest one.
Franklin brushed his teeth, shined his head and adhered to the same meeting and practice schedule for Penn State’s matchup with Akron that he did prior to playing archrival Pitt. Speaking of which, he claims that’s what he was trying to explain when his comparison of the two — “For us, this [win over Pitt] was just like Akron” — made national headlines.
“Anyone who is around me or covers me on regular basis knows that’s what I was saying, because they know that’s how I approach every game,” Franklin says. “Prepare, hopefully win it, move on to the next one. No matter who it’s against.”
That includes Michigan, which rolls into Happy Valley on Saturday (ABC and ESPN app, 7:30 p.m. ET,). The game that night — only the 10th-ever full-stadium “white out” — will be the payoff at the end of a two-week hype train that started with Nittanyville student campers pitching tents alongside the stadium during the team’s bye week and will continue with College GameDay on Saturday morning.
“I told the guys Tuesday, ‘Own it, enjoy it, but don’t overdo it,'” Franklin says when asked about managing the flood of “other stuff” that comes with what is easily the season’s biggest home game. “The reason we all came here to Penn State was for nights like Saturday and to play against teams like this one. But, and I know you don’t want to hear this, this is just the next game on the schedule. We have to treat it that way. That’s how we’ve done it up to now, and I would argue that approach is what has gotten us to this point, to the point where this game is such a big deal to so many people. But within these walls, we’re just getting ready for our opponent. That opponent just happens to be Michigan.”
Michigan just happens the curtain-opener of what might very well be the most crucial three-game stretch for Penn State football in 35 years. Not the toughest. Not the biggest. The most crucial.
In 1982, the trio of games that closed out the regular season — against a pesky 5-2 NC State team, a trip to 13th-ranked Notre Dame, and a visit from No. 5 Pitt — was the run that propelled Penn State to the Sugar Bowl to face Herschel Walker and Georgia. Its 27-23 win over the Dawgs got the program over the hump, finally winning a long-elusive national championship. It added another only four years later.
Leading into those three games in ’82, then-head coach Joe Paterno stepped out of his own James Franklin-like practice of refusing to address anything more than the game immediately ahead. Frustrated by five previous national title near-misses, he not only got into the topic of future opponents, he addressed their combined importance as a “playoff.”
“I remember that was so out of character for Joe that it really got our attention,” recalls Todd Blackledge, the quarterback of the ’82 team and now an ESPN college football analyst. “On the one hand, it made us feel good that he believed we were up to the challenge he’d just laid down. But on the other hand, there was some serious pressure that came with our head coach laying out what our future could be.”
Franklin, no matter how much he is baited, still refuses to do any such framing of big pictures, even when reminded that Paterno himself gave in and did it, even if just that one time. He refuses to budge, even out in public, where the citizens of State College routinely stop him in line at Starbucks to break it all down.
“This is not a big town. You don’t have to go far to feel the enthusiasm when it builds,” Franklin acknowledges. “But we have work to do, so you just can’t think about all that.”
So, let’s do it for him.
This year’s team hosts 19th-ranked Michigan, which embarrassed the Lions 49-10 a year ago. Then it will make back-to-back trips to sixth-ranked Ohio State and 18th-ranked Michigan State. Should they make like ’82 and successfully run the gauntlet ahead of them, the Lions would no doubt emerge in mid-November, having galvanized their current ranking of second with a solid argument to be one spot better. They also are likely to have boosted running back Saquon Barkley into his own lane in the Heisman Trophy race. But most importantly, they would be in the driver’s seat to win their second consecutive Big Ten title and in position to correct what many still believe was 2016’s biggest error, leaving the 11-2 conference champs out of the College Football Playoff. They ended up settling, if one is allowed to use that word in this context, for a Rose Bowl berth and a 52-49 shootout loss to USC.
“Did missing out [of the playoff] bother us?” Franklin asks now. “Of course it did. But it also served as a lesson, and one we’re using this week. We could have pouted about last year. But instead, we said, ‘Hey, Rose Bowl? That isn’t exactly bad, is it?’ And we didn’t win, but we played a great game. So, what can you control? You can control you. We can control how we prepare and practice and play. That’s what we focus on. You can’t control the polls. You can’t control who is chosen to be in the College Football Playoff. And you sure can’t control everything everyone says about you, right or wrong. You start trying to control the drama, or even thinking about it, and that’s time you aren’t thinking about the next game.”
But Coach, this drama, it is so delicious. The storylines are custom-made for this proud but oft-jilted fan base, complete with comebacks and revenge and chips on shoulders as large as the 13-ton limestone Nittany Lion statue that guards the edge of campus. Deep down, you gotta dig all this, even just a little, right?
He responds with the polite equivalent of sticking his fingers in his ears and screaming “Na na na na … I can’t hear you!” Instead, he recites, without even a hint of a smile: “Michigan, Michigan …”
Here on Wednesday morning, he’s actually dialed back. On Sunday he posted a tweet declaring that the bye week was over and the focus was now on “Michigan Michigan Michigan.” On Tuesday, during his weekly meeting with media, he dropped four — “Michigan, Michigan, Michigan, Michigan” — in response to a question about last week’s report that he was being courted by Texas A&M. As he went on to address larger issues of potential distractions for his team during the season’s second half he rattled off, count ’em, NINE straight: “Michigan, Michigan, Michigan, Michigan, Michigan, Michigan, Michigan, Michigan, Michigan.”
You win, Michigan it is.
“This approach that we have here, focusing on the here and now, this is not something new,” Franklin continues, clearly not talking about Michigan. He rolls his office chair to a bookcase that is topped with a Nittany Lions auto racing helmet and a Bear Bryant houndstooth fedora. He pulls out a homemade three-ring binder titled “Blueprint for Success,” rolls back and drops the notebook, at least six inches thick, onto the table with a thud. “Every coach I have ever worked for or worked with, I have learned something from them all and that has all made it into this book. If you don’t want to work, don’t look in here.”
He explains that the day-to-day grind is a philosophy he learned during every other stop on his extensive coaching résumé: Vanderbilt, Maryland, Kansas State, Idaho State, Washington State, even the Roskilde Kings of the Danish American Football Federation. None of those programs, while all plenty proud, come anywhere close to matching the prestige of Penn State. It is a lineup of underdogs. But, Franklin explains, the laboriousness of trying to build something out there taught him how to do the same here.
He was part of some of the greatest single seasons in the history of those other programs. In State College, they expect that kind of season every season.
“We are blessed with the resources we have here,” he says. “But as soon as you start leaning back on those, you start losing ground. Before we took this job, we agreed, it might be Penn State, but we’re going to attack this just like we did at Vanderbilt or Maryland or East Stroudsburg.”
His fingers flick through tabs covering every conceivable topic, from how to structure practices to recruiting to pregame prayers. Like everything in James Franklin’s world, it is immaculately organized. “I told you, that’s how I roll.”
It’s not a long, psychological walk to figure out why that is. No one understands that better than Franklin, who has a psychology degree from East Stroudsburg University. His father, also James, was an Air Force airman stationed in England, where he met and eloped with a local girl named Jocelyn. The couple eventually moved to the outskirts of Philadelphia. At a young age, little James watched his parents fight and split up. His increasingly volatile father essentially vanished, leaving the woman with the British accent to raise her mixed-race children in an area where that couldn’t be done without constant whispers and headshakes from those around them.
She took a job as a school custodian so she could be close to James and his sister, Debbie. The Franklin kids were raised by committee, their mother receiving help from their paternal grandmother and three aunts who’d moved north from Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Soon, Josie became known as the British mother who cooked crazy-good Southern soul food.
Meanwhile, a kid whose world could have easily fallen apart did not. Why? Because he learned how to control what he could control and not worry about the stuff that he couldn’t.
“That’s why James was the right guy to take the job at Penn State when he did,” says Bill O’Brien, Franklin’s predecessor in State College. Now the head coach of the Houston Texans, O’Brien became friends with Franklin during time spent together on the staff at Maryland.
It was O’Brien who took on the impossible task of being the coach who replaced Joe Paterno. In 2011, Paterno was removed from his post after six decades on the Penn State football staff, 46 years of them as head coach. His firing came in the middle of revelations that longtime Paterno assistant coach Jerry Sandusky sexual abused dozens of children.
After two years and a miraculous 15-9 record, O’Brien returned to the NFL. When his friend James Franklin’s name came up for the job, the two talked extensively before Franklin decided to leave Vanderbilt for Penn State.
“James has an incredible ability to focus what really matters,” O’Brien says. “What mattered most when he took that job was football and the kids in that locker room. The person who took that job needed to be someone who could filter out the noise. That job in that situation came with a lot of it, and that was understandable considering everything everyone there went through.”
Franklin took the job in January 2014. While the university grappled with the post-Sandusky fallout, he grappled with facilities that had fallen off pace, such as broken and mismatched blocking sleds. He lobbied to modernize the offices. He talked about new offenses and heavy statistical analytics and pounded the pavement of Pennsylvania — his home state — to spread to gospel of a new Penn State, all the while promising to never forget the efforts of those before him who had worked so hard to turn a cow college into a college football citadel.
“That’s been the biggest challenge here, and it’s not even close,” Franklin says, swirling his finger to encompass all that is around him, thumping the cover of his Blueprint notebook and then pointing to the football office lobby filled floor to ceiling with trophies won by Paterno’s teams. “There was a way of doing things here and that way worked so well for so long. Now we have to strike the balance between honoring that way, but still pushing to make sure we aren’t stuck in the past.”
He laughs about the reaction of Penn State fans when the team decided to get in on the alternate uniform craze earlier this season. Sort of. Against Indiana they took elements from the uniforms of great teams of the past, simple stuff like adding numbers to the helmets, using block numbers on the jerseys and adding some additional stripes here and there.
“All these teams are doing all this crazy stuff, and we’re adding stripes to the pants like they did in the ’50’s and at first people were like, ‘Hey now, wait a minute!” Franklin laughs. “They ended up loving it and it did honor the past. But it took a minute to come around. It’s a tricky tightrope.”
Franklin isn’t walking it alone. The entire town is wobbling along with him. How to handle the Paterno legacy is still a plainly visible struggle in Happy Valley. They still serve Peachy Paterno ice cream at the legendary Penn State Berkey Creamery. On Tuesday afternoon, a couple dressed in Nittany Lions gear snapped photos of the Paterno home on McKee Street. The Penn State All-Sports Museum, adjacent to the Beaver Stadium football facility, includes little of JoePa throughout the first three-quarters of the tour, but dedicates nearly the entire last wing of the museum to the coach, complete with his trademark glasses, cleats and high-water pants enshrined in glass.
But it all feels as uncomfortable as it does glorious. Every fall, op-eds are written to further erase Paterno from State College, demanding that his name on the library and even his ice cream flavor join his statue in being amputated from the campus. Just this week, pre-Michigan White Out headlines were forced to share column inches with Sandusky news, as his appeal from prison to receive a new trial was denied.
James Franklin likely knows nothing about any of that. Not this time of year. Certainly not during Michigan, Michigan, Michigan week. He’s too busy controlling what he can control. His first two seasons at the helm his teams finished 7-6. Last year they were 11-3. This year they are 6-0.
Now the still-new leader of Penn State football finds himself staring at a three-game stretch that might very well put his program over the top, as it did 35 years ago for the man who built the foundation Franklin now stands upon.
“Every win is a step away from having to hear about all of that other stuff,” he says. As Joe Scarborough stood in the All-Sport Museum, his voice quivered, looking at the display honoring the 2012 team, the seniors who returned when they were given the chance to leave. He’s from Altoona, Pennsylvania, he’s in his mid-70s and he went to school here in the ’60s, just as Paterno was being promoted. He is about to start crying. “Coach Franklin has us talking about football around here again, dammit. That’s a big deal.”
That’s why the next three weekends, starting with Michigan, are so important. An importance that could have far greater impact than this season alone. Even if the head coach refuses to look past the morning staff meeting that is about to start.
“I don’t look too far ahead. I think we’ve established that,” Franklin says, chuckling as he stands to leave. “But I do know this about the future and it’s the same as it was in the past. The next game is the most important one. You take care of that one and you’re one step closer to achieving your goals.”