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Digesting Franklin’s new deal

PSU football commentary

The sweet potato pie is going to be especially tasty around James Franklin’s Thanksgiving table.

Franklin mentioned the other day that sweet potato pie is his favorite turkey-day fare.

Penn State announced Tuesday that it has agreed to a 10-year contract with Franklin, through 2031, worth $85 million including incentives.

The breakdown is $7 million annually, a $500,000 annual retention bonus and a $1 million annual life insurance loan.

Suffice to say much of the Nittany Nation will need time to digest it.

Word began circulating for the past week that an extension — even though Franklin was already signed through 2025 at about $6 million per year — was imminent.

But a 10-year deal? Was that smart, given that this season, which collapsed after a 5-0 start, has produced the least impressive work of Franklin’s career? Were other attractive suitors sleeping on his back porch?

Penn State apparently thought so and didn’t want to take a chance that USC, LSU or now Florida, which fired Dan Mullen last week, would swoop in.

If the Nittany Lions win at Michigan State and follow that with a bowl victory, Franklin could be 9-4 this year with three 11-win seasons to his credit, including a Big Ten title (2016) and two other major bowl wins (Fiesta, Cotton) in the last four years.

Take away the biggest stars in college football who probably aren’t leaving — Saban, Dabo, Lincoln, Kelly, Jimbo, Day — for the available openings, along with the other highly successful names (Smart, Fickell) who have it good or may be geographically tied, and there aren’t many choices with a proven track record to excite and deal with a blue-blood fan base.

Franklin and his agent, Jimmy Sexton, exploited that, and Penn State went along.

Time will tell if the Nit brass was right. Is it getting the Franklin who went 42-11 from 2016-19 or the one who has gone 11-9 in the last two years, albeit one wrecked by Covid?

Franklin checks a lot of boxes. He’s a terrific representative of the university and has stood for everything Penn State has prided itself over the years — recruiting quality kids while prioritizing academics and community service.

He has built or rebuilt two programs with either no history (Vanderbilt) or a challenged one (Penn State).

His negatives are significant: He is not very good on the day of the game, and there have been too many times, including this one, where as soon as his name comes up with another position, there’s no immediate denial and in fact has been converted into a better contract.

This is Franklin’s third extension since arriving in 2014 — after the 2016 season (through 2022), then after the 2019 season (through 2025) and second in the last 20 months.

Penn State fans never had to worry about Joe Paterno leaving so they’re not used to the rubber-necking, but unfortunately that’s the way the game is played today. Not only do head coaches have agents, but so do the coordinators.

Franklin said Tuesday that the university approached him “nine weeks ago” about a long-term commitment.

It’s understandable since PSU President Eric Barron is retiring in June, with athletic director Sandy Barbour potentially to follow when her contract expires in 2023. This takes a big item off their plate.

Now, flip the calendar, and nine weeks ago lands right after the Nittany Lions had just beaten Auburn in a great whiteout night at Beaver Stadium — which followed an encouraging season-opening win at Wisconsin.

Oh, and USC had just fired Clay Helton. Negotiations began, and Franklin’s work began to slip.

He didn’t have his backup quarterback ready at Iowa, he was completely lost against Illinois, he thought he was playing Illinois in the Big House, and then he decided to put the Michigan game in the hands of Rafael Checa.

And his supervision of the offensive line, general QB protection and between-the-tackles development have been a problem that goes well beyond 2021.

To be fair, he lost the one player he couldn’t — Sean Clifford — after the transfer portal taketh away Will Levis (but it has also brought Jordan Stout, Arnold Ebiketie and Derrick Tangelo). A healthy Clifford, we can agree, puts this season at least at 9-2.

Penn State is not elite but also only trailed the best team on the schedule, Ohio State, by a touchdown with eight minutes to play on the road.

That said, Franklin’s record against Ohio State and in big games must improve. He’s 1-7 vs. the Buckeyes, 4-12 vs. OSU and Michigan and 2-13 vs. the Top 10. Not to mention the occasional egg vs. the Minnesotas, Indianas and Michigan States.

And yet, his recruiting, at least of skill players, remains a foundation as the Lions should finish with a Top 5 class for 2022 with a running start on 2023.

Despite the ongoing uncertainty outside the program, recruits were busy tweeting Tuesday night that they weren’t surprised, that Franklin was keeping them in the loop that he was staying all along.

Much of what transpired was a victory for not only Franklin but also Penn State in the long run for it includes Board of Trustees’ approval for what Franklin called “a roadmap” of future improvements, which he’s become hoarse talking about.

Beyond its attendance and incredible atmosphere, Penn State has not been faring overly well in national surveys about facilities, even with its planned $48 million improvement to the Lasch Building, which is currently underway. Northwestern was ranked higher.

College football has always been about an arms race, and as much as any of his great successes, Paterno’s ability to get Penn State to match his vision for what the football program could do for the school, the town, the region and the state stands at the top.

And when the program was taking hold in the 1960s through the ’70s to the height of the Paterno Era in the ’80s — when the Lions played for three national titles in five years and won two of them — Penn State’s facilities were second to none, particularly in the East.

Plus the old man was pretty darn good — one of the best — on the day of the game.

Paterno often talked about “we have to keep up with the Joneses,” even though they were the Joneses. Nowadays, Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson and Oregon are the Joneses.

As for his new contract, Franklin has extended security, but he can and may eventually still leave — just not soon.

There is a buyout provision that if he exits before the end of April (2022), it will cost him $12 million. Why that needs to be included — before he even coaches another home game — speaks to the different stratosphere that exists today.

Now, please pass me a piece of the sweet potato pie: I’m willing to give it a chance.

Rudel can be reached at nrudel@altoonamirror.com.

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