When everything would break down, said Denny Douds, the man who coached Franklin at Division II East Stroudsburg from 1991-94, James was able to improvise and create something in a positive light.
Nothing has changed, all these years later. The 41-year-old Franklin managed in his three years at Vanderbilt to transform a respected academic institution into a respectable football school. And Douds, now 40 years into his career and the nation's longest-tenured active head coach on any level, saw too many third-and-eight miracles back in the day to be surprised by that.
He still has that ability -- back then with his athletic talent but now with his personality and the talents he has, the 72-year-old said.
That should serve him just as well in Happy Valley, for the Nittany Lions still need someone who can improvise, who can make the best of a bad situation (as Franklin's predecessor, Bill O'Brien, so brilliantly did).
The NCAA sanctions handed down in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal have been eased to a degree, but PSU still has a talent shortfall. And Franklin seems to know how to make the most of a limited roster. Besides going 24-15 at Vandy (9-7 in the rugged Southeastern Conference), he guided the Commodores to three straight bowls for the first time in their history, winning the last two, including the BBVA Compass Bowl over Houston on Jan. 5. They have also gone 9-4 each of the last two years -- before that they had not won nine since 1915 -- and beaten in-state rival Tennessee in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1925-26.
Also making him an ideal fit are his offensive background (as the Lions would no doubt like to continue grooming Christian Hackenberg), as well as his recruiting acumen and understanding of a university's academic mission.
But more than anything, Douds said, it is Franklin's ability to make everyone rise above what the individual and the group think that they can get to that sets him apart. And that would be critical at Penn State.
You have some limitations there, Douds said. How are you going to overcome those? You've got to have that goal, that passion, the enthusiasm to get people excited, to be able to say, 'Hey, come on, we're going to get through this, and once we get through this there's a great opportunity.'
Franklin, a native of Langhorne, Pa., started for two years at Neshaminy High (1989-90), and according to the man who coached him at the school, John Chaump, there were hints even then that he possessed unique people skills. When Franklin worked summer football camps, Chaump said, Kids just gravitated toward him.
Franklin started two years at East Stroud, too, and remains high on many of the school's statistical lists. After beginning his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Kutztown in 1995, he returned to his alma mater as the secondary coach for a single season the following year, even living with Douds and his family the summer beforehand.
The two men would often repair to the deck of Douds' home in the evening, and connect over Klondike Bars. Even then, Douds said, it was easy to see that Franklin had an idea he was going places.
Fall came and Franklin moved in with his undergrad roommate, Mike Santella, a guy who had been a student assistant when Franklin played and to this day remains the Warriors' offensive line coach. (He and Franklin have also stayed close over the years. Santella was in his wedding, and the two of them talk regularly over the phone.)
When you meet James, it takes you about five minutes to figure out he's a special guy, Santella said. He has a unique ability when he walks into a room to make that person or people feel like they're the most important people in the world.
It is one more quality that has served him well during a career that includes 11 stops -- nine in college, one in the NFL (he was the Green Bay Packers' receivers coach in 2005) and even one in the Danish Football Federation.
Santella called his friend a rising star, and Franklin's reputation remained intact after it was alleged in an internet report that he was part of a cover-up after four of his players were charged with rape last June. He dismissed them from the team, and they were suspended by the school. While the case remains open, the district attorney has absolved Franklin of any wrongdoing.
As Santella said, I think James would be the best fit anywhere.
But especially Penn State. Especially now.