How James Franklin will bring an ‘SEC mindset’ to Penn State
When Penn State officially announced Saturday it had hired James Franklin from Vanderbilt to be the 16th head coach in school history, a trend continued.
By now, you’ve probably heard the SEC’s string of seven straight BCS national championships ended last week when Florida State beat Auburn, but the college football fans paying close attention may have noticed something else: The conference’s footprint as a national power continues to broaden its reach.
More and more brand-name programs across the country are being taken over by coaches who became coveted in the SEC. FSU’s Jimbo Fisher, the man who hoisted the final BCS crystal ball, got his first FBS coaching job as an assistant at Auburn and made his name as a hot-shot offensive coordinator at LSU. Charlie Strong, recently named head coach at Texas, made his name as a defensive coordinator at Florida before taking over Louisville. Strong’s boss at UF, Urban Meyer, built the Gators into a power before moving to Ohio State, where he’s 24-2 in his first two seasons.
Franklin is the latest example of this SEC migration.
Much like Meyer before him, Franklin comes to the Big Ten with area roots — he grew up and played college ball in Pennsylvania — yet it’s his work in the Southeastern Conference that ultimately got him the job. Franklin spent the last three years having unprecedented success at Vanderbilt, winning nine games in both 2012 and 2013. The Commodores had a grand total of one nine-win season in the 95 years before Franklin arrived.
So yes, some variation of SEC football is on its way to Penn State as Franklin brings his blueprint for building a program.
“Oh, I fully expect him to bring an SEC mindset with him to the Big Ten,” current Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo said by phone Saturday, just hours after the hire was announced.
Prior to arriving at Big Ten Network, DiNardo was the head coach at Vanderbilt, LSU and Indiana. He also won a national championship as the offensive coordinator at Colorado in 1990.
The man knows football, and after nearly nine full years as a head coach in the league, the man knows the SEC as well. When he says Franklin will bring an “SEC mindset” from Nashville, he is describing an attitude to both coaching and recruiting that separates college football’s most dominant conference from all those trying to catch up.
As DiNardo explains it, at some schools in other conferences, a staff might have two or three great recruiters; some might have more. In the SEC, all nine coaches on a staff can recruit just as well as they can coach X’s and O’s.
DiNardo calls them the “Workforce of Nine,” and it’s what makes the SEC, well, the SEC. It’s also the variable that has left the rest of college football looking to copy that exact blueprint.
“There are some schools in [the Big Ten] where maybe there’s a coach who isn’t really a recruiter,” DiNardo said. “Maybe he’s out of touch, takes pride in not knowing how to use his e-mail. That’s not every school [in the Big Ten], but it is some. But that would never happen in the SEC.”
DiNardo pointed to Meyer, who moved from Gainesville to Columbus and, in the process, changed the way everyone else is forced to operate. While his approach has rubbed some the wrong way — we’re looking at you, Bret Bielema — it has yielded plenty of recruiting success in addition to 24 wins in his first 26 games.
For Meyer, it isn’t just how he recruits, but where he does it. Meyer’s first full recruiting class last February featured plenty of Ohio’s best high school players but also big-time talents from Sun Belt states like Texas (running back Dontre Wilson), Georgia (safety Vonn Bell) and Florida (defensive lineman Joey Bosa) as well. All were major contributors as true freshmen in 2013.
Meyer’s approach to going after the best players nationally, DiNardo believes, is what makes Ohio State a team to be feared for years to come.
“All nine of his assistants have their territories,” DiNardo said. “And all of those coaches are pushed to the brink. It’ll be the same for James (Franklin) and his staff.”
Granted, NCAA sanctions will limit Franklin in the next two years, but because of Franklin’s ties to the Southeast, DiNardo expects his approach to be similar to Meyer’s. And as Franklin slowly gains more scholarships – he’ll have a full 85 again in 2016 — his recruiting base should expand as well.
“Obviously you’ve got to lock up Pennsylvania first and foremost,” DiNardo said. “But after coaching in the SEC, it’ll be interesting to see if his ties in that part of the country translate to this job as well.”
Franklin has already made an impression on many of the biggest high school coaches in Pennsylvania. Prior to his time at Vanderbilt, Franklin worked at Maryland and recruited Pennsylvania as part of his territory. That included a stop at North Allegheny High School, right outside Pittsburgh, which is one of the state’s top programs.
“My experiences with him were positive,” North Allegheny coach Art Walker said. “I can’t say I know him well, but he recruited one of our guys when he was at Maryland and he was up front and came to us with a plan. I think he will be successful (at Penn State).”
And although Bethlehem Catholic coach Joe Henrich has never met Franklin himself, he has heard similar things. One of Henrich’s assistants hails from East Stroudsburg, the same town that Franklin starred as a college quarterback at the local D-II school. Henrich, too, is excited to see if the local coach can bring enthusiasm back to the program.
“I’ve always heard good things,” Henrich said. “He’s a high-energy guy and charismatic guy. I think he is pretty passionate about what he wants to do, and I think growing up in the area, it seems like getting this job means a lot to him.”
Only time will tell if Franklin’s SEC mindset will work in the Big Ten and if he ultimately ends up being the right fit in Happy Valley. But in the process of figuring that out, he has picked up one admirer along the way.
“I’ll be honest,” DiNardo said. “Working for the Big Ten Network, I didn’t get to see much of him at Vanderbilt. But to win nine games at Vanderbilt? In back-to-back years? That speaks for itself.”
And speaks to the excitement Penn State’s new coach will bring to Happy Valley.
Aaron Torres is a show writer for Fox Sports Live and a contributor to FoxSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres.