It’s been nearly a decade now since James Franklin left Vanderbilt to become head coach of the Penn State Nittany Lions. As the first Black head football coach in Vanderbilt history, Franklin had an impressive record in a short period. His teams were 24-15 over that three-year run. That included appearances in the Liberty Bowl, Music City Bowl, and the BBVA Compass Bowl. There were even appearances in the Top 25 and a pair of nine win seasons. That success earned him plenty of national attention and was responsible for his being hired at Penn State. Not everyone was thrilled at either his leaving or the fact he only stayed three years, but it was pretty obvious Franklin was destined for a higher profile position at a bigger school.
As Penn State prepared to meet Rutgers Saturday, there was and remains lots of discussion regarding Franklin’s performance at Penn State. These questions are illustrative of both the benefits and pitfalls of being in a job where lots of victories are taken for granted and only winning championships satisfies many within the fan base. His current record as head coach is 86-38, 54-32 in the Big Ten. At most schools that would be grounds for celebration. Last year Penn State was 10-2, and they’re on track to repeat that record this season. Yet, there are both columnists and fans calling for Franklin’s ouster as head coach, for one very simple reason: failure to defeat Michigan and Ohio State.
The recent 24-15 home loss to Michigan resulted in a few hot headed types throwing things on the field after the game, plus angry verbal confrontations between players and fans. Franklin later made the first in-season coaching change of his career, firing offensive coordinator Mike Yurich. Yurich was in his third season, but had the misfortune to be 0-6 against Ohio State and Michigan. During the Michigan game, the Nittany Lions offense generated only 238 yards of total offense, and 75 of that came in a last-minute scoring drive that made things look a lot closer than they were. That performance followed a similarly lackluster offensive effort against Ohio State on the road that resulted in an earlier 20-12 defeat. Once again the offensive futility negated a strong defensive effort. That time the offense got only 240 yards and converted just one of 16 third downs. At the time of Yurich’s firing, Penn State ranked102nd in the nation in yards per play and 130th in plays of 20-plus yards. Considering there are only 133 teams in FBS, that says volumes about the lack of scoring punch.
QB Drew Allar, expected to provide more spark and energy to the offense has instead completed only 61.6 percent of his passes, averaging 6.3 yards per attempt. Franklin announced that running backs coach Ja’Juan Swider and tight ends coach Ty Howle would share offensive coordinator duties in an interim role for the rest of the season.
With games remaining against Rutgers and Michigan State, Penn State will most likely finish 10-2 once more, and be in a New Year’s Bowl. Should they win, James Franklin may be the nation’s only head coach on the hot seat despite winning 11 games in consecutive seasons. That seems absurd, but it’s a reality. Nittany Lions fans want at minimum Big 10 titles and at maximum at least reaching the College Football Playoffs. Franklin has only won one Big 10 title in 2016, and the losses this season to Michigan and Ohio State make his record against those two schools 4-16.
In a rational world, anyone with the overall coaching credentials of James Franklin wouldn’t have any worries about job security. He signed a six-year contract extension with Penn State in 2017 that was worth $5.738 million a year at that time. It included retention bonuses paid at the end of each year of the contract. The deal also included a $2 million buyout for the 2017 season and a $1 million buyout for every subsequent year. There were also incentives including $800,000 for a national title, $400,000 for a College Football Playoff appearance, and $350,000 for winning the Big Ten Championship Game. His incentives are capped at $1 million per year.
It’s hard to conceive of a scenario in which Penn State would can James Franklin after another 10-win plus season, but it certainly could happen. Texas A&M just fired Jimbo Fisher after a game his team won 51-10. They were willing to pay a $76 million buyout to a coach who had a 45-25 record at the time of his dismissal, and whose team still had a chance at being 8-4 for the year.
That’s the screwy universe that constitutes bigtime college sports in the 21st century. The handful of Black coaches who make it into that exclusive club aren’t treated any differently than their white counterparts when it comes to oversized expectations. For James Franklin, victories alone are not enough for many at Penn State. It’s win it all or bust, and for many he’s passed the point of no return, no matter the overall lofty winning percentage or multiple Top 25 finishes.