Rudel: Franklin’s deal solidifies future, raises bar for Penn State
James Franklin’s contract status has been widely discussed for the past year.
Franklin went from approaching the hot seat to landing in the catbird seat.
On the heels of consecutive 7-6 seasons that were understandable in the wake of the sanctions yet still frustrating, Franklin opened with a 2-2 September that included a not-ready-to-play loss at Pitt and a 49-10 humiliation at Michigan.
The wolves were assembling loudly on message boards and talk shows, and Franklin heard boos at Beaver Stadium when the Nittany Lions were on their way to what could have been a tenure-threatening loss to Minnesota.
Suddenly, the tide (OK, not that Crimson Tide) shifted.
Penn State regrouped to beat Minnesota in overtime, the team kept improving, and Franklin presided over maybe the most remarkable two months in school history.
The Lions found their stride offensively, started routinely overcoming two-touchdown deficits (Ohio State, Wisconsin, USC) in wildly entertaining fashion, closed out everyone but the Trojans defensively and were back in the national conversation.
Five years after being nearly relegated to football purgatory by an overeager NCAA, Penn State, incredibly, was all the way back.
Friday, Franklin was officially rewarded for his breakout season and his entire body of work since taking over for Bill O’Brien, who kept the roof on the building for two years, then raised a glass to Penn State on New Year’s Eve in 2013 and jetted off to the NFL.
As much damage control as O’Brien did, the rebuilding project was still very much incomplete — until last year.
Franklin was actually under contract through 2019 — three more seasons. The extension through 2022 and significant raise to an average of $5.8 million over the next six years place him among the nation’s top five paid coaches in the stratosphere of Jim Harbaugh, Nick Saban and Urban Meyer.
The length and the money are understandable. If Penn State is going to play with the big boys in the Big Ten East, it’s going to have to pay with the big boys.
Further, Franklin has proven totally committed to the way Penn State wants to do business. It wants to win at the highest level with players who belong in college, have success in the classroom and don’t embarrass themselves downtown.
To that end, Franklin has scored as well off the field as his team has on it.
Plus it’s not like he took over a senior-laden team — did somebody say Harbaugh? — and is headed for a swoon following last year’s breakout.
To the contrary: Penn State is trending upward and recruiting at a dizzying pace.
At the same time, Franklin’s contact will now put him in a position to be judged almost solely on how the Lions fare against Ohio State and Michigan and how often they land in the College Football Playoff.
That’s the mandate of this level of commitment.
You had a feeling when the contract was finally consummated, it was going to be a statement, and it is.
Just as Franklin had to endure the talk of who would eventually succeed him if he went 6-6 or worse last year — Matt Rhule’s name was coming up — his bargaining power, his leverage, had shifted.
And it’s clear Franklin and his agent, former Chicago Bears lineman Trace Armstrong, saw the opportunity and squeezed.
That’s the way the game is played today.
It’s not like the late 1960s when there were no agents, and Joe Paterno, following some interest from the Pittsburgh Steelers, asked sidekick Jim Tarman to check what Michigan was paying Bo Schembechler. Tarman found out, and JoePa wound up with a $20,000 raise.
Some of us sensed Franklin’s contract extension was coming earlier this summer when a news conference was curiously scheduled to follow an informal media barbecue in June.
Athletic director Sandy Barbour said that day it was taking longer than anticipated but expressed confidence it would still happen.
Two hours later, in less than ground-breaking information, Penn State rolled out a retro uniform, as Franklin’s extension apparently was still being ironed out.
Though Franklin hinted two weeks ago at media day that the subject was being put off until after this season, getting it done now removes questions and potential distractions this year and beyond.
It’s smart for Franklin, who despite a loaded offense might have trouble matching the magic of 2016.
It’s also smart for Penn State, which undoubtedly has to be content with finding stability again and surely would not want to embark on yet another search for its most visible position.
Really for the first time in a long time, since the middle of the Paterno Era, Friday’s development means Penn State’s future is both now and tomorrow.
And no matter your vantage point of the negotiating spectrum, there’s got to be some comfort in that.
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @NeilRudel.