How Did Penn State Land Franklin?

The story behind the Nittany Lions' courtship of the hottest prospect on the college football coaching scene.

When Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner said the school's search for a new head football coach was going to take days rather than weeks, many wondered if acting so quickly might have a negative impact on the process.

A week (it only seemed like several months) later, we knew that was anything but the case. In fact, it is difficult to imagine Penn State landing a better candidate than former Vanderbilt coach James Franklin, who we understand was its No. 1 target all along.

In the coming days and weeks, we'll spend plenty of time introducing you to Franklin. But I'd also like to take this occasion to revisit the fast and furious coaching search, and let you know how I believe things went down.

In other words, after spending dozens of hours on the phone, texting, sending emails and trading personal messaging, I think now have a fairly good handle on the process. Do I expect any of the participants to verify any of this? Absolutely not. If I've learned anything after going through Penn State's second head coaching hire in two years, it is that EVERYBODY twists and bends and massages the truth to do what is in the best interests of themselves, their clients and/or their employer.

Here is how I saw things playing out:

Golden Moment

Penn State was in communication with Miami head coach Al Golden quickly. He was its second (or 1A) pick, from what I've been told. The search team expressed significant interest in the former Nittany Lion player and assistant coach, and it proved to be mutual.

The outline of a deal was discussed and everyone seemed to be on the same page heading into a meeting in Miami Saturday, Jan. 4. Leaks from the Golden camp made their way to different media outlets, and one outlet went so far as to say Golden had been hired.

But Golden never received the offer. At some point over the weekend, he was told by Penn State that due to concerns over criticisms in the Freeh Report, it felt it could not hire the first person it interviewed, especially when the first person in question was a former member of the PSU football program (on two occasions).

Did PSU really have the concerns it expressed? Or was it shrewdly delaying any action with Golden, since Franklin's team was playing in a bowl that same Saturday and he would not be available to have any sort of serious discussion until Sunday (Jan. 5) at the earliest. Or was it some combination of the two?

I do not know. But if it was a negotiating tactic, it was a good one, because it gave Penn State the time to strike up conversations with Franklin while knowing that if nothing materialized there, it could in all likelihood go back to the 1A pick Golden and land him.

Golden was asked to sit tight. Yet with media and team obligations coming up Monday (Jan. 6), he had to say something. So that Sunday, he released a statement saying, “I am not a candidate for another position.”

But what exactly qualifies as “a candidate for another position?” That could be construed in many different ways, and explained away rather easily if the PSU offer ever came. He never said he “was not” or “will not be” a candidate.

Other Candidates

Penn State also talked to Tennessee Titans coach Mike Munchak, San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman, and PSU defensive line coach and interim head coach Larry Johnson. If there were others, we did not hear about them.

Munchak denied that a formal interview took place. But clearly there was some serious discussion that Sunday. According to ESPN, Roman interviewed Monday in Chicago, after his team won an NFL road playoff game at Green Bay the previous day.

Johnson had an extended interview in Happy Valley Tuesday.

But as all of this was going on, we believe Franklin was the primary target.

“Landing” Franklin

Beginning last Sunday, Penn State spoke with Franklin several times, including sessions on Skype. He expressed a serious interest and was said to call it his “dream job.” (Expect that term to come up in his introductory press conference.) The key was whether PSU could put together a contract that would make it worth his while to leave Vanderbilt, which was doing everything it could to try to keep him.

By Wednesday, the outline of an agreeable deal to both sides came together. It was incentive-laden, so the Penn State Board of Trustees would not balk due to sticker shock.

Joyner and school president Rodney Erickson arranged to meet Franklin on neutral turf in Florida. Joyner and Erickson flew down expecting things to go smoothly. But if not, they were prepared to contact Golden immediately.

As it turned out, things did go smoothly. Both sides agreed on terms. Joyner and Erickson flew back to State College Wednesday night, because they had to get final approval from the Board of Trustees on the contract. This was to be nothing more than a formality, though, as the BOT's compensation committee had already eyeballed the contract and given it a thumbs up.

Contrary to what Penn State tried to float through back channels late Wednesday night and early Thursday morning, by the time Joyner and Erickson got back to Happy Valley, Franklin had an offer and had basically accepted it. In the meantime, it was leaked that Franklin wanted to “sleep on” the offer.

Both sides were simply buying time. Because to officially approve the contract, the BOT compensation committee would have to have a public conference call. And that call would have to be properly announced in the local newspaper a day in advance.

When Joyner and Erickson returned to State College Wednesday night, the deadline for placing the ad in Thursday's paper had passed. So it was placed during the day Thursday, and ran in Friday's edition, allowing the proper notice before Saturday morning's conference call.

In the end, Joyner got his man. He broke the news to the other candidates Thursday and Friday.


As for Franklin, he had to spend a day or so telling folks in Nashville he was not the coach of another team — and technically, he wasn't.

But if the Pennsylvania native was sleeping on anything during what must have been two very long nights, it was more likely that dream of coaching on the Beaver Stadium sideline.

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