The GMC Denali parked outside the State College restaurant looked like it might be Secret Service standard issue. It was big and new, with the black finish buffed so bright it was throwing off reflections of everything nearby.
Then the driver's side door opened, and any suspicion that this was some official vehicle disappeared. Because out popped a 43-year-old dynamo who looked like he was headed to a Jimmy Buffet concert.
Polo shirt. Cargo shorts. Flip-flops.
It was late in the afternoon on a sunny spring day in Happy Valley, and Penn State football coach James Franklin looked, well, comfortable. More to the point, nearly a year and a half after taking the job, he looked at home.
He was headed into the restaurant to do a webcast with former Nittany Lion Keith Conlin, during which he referred to State College as our community, and talked about how a successful football program would help the hotels, the restaurants we're all in this together.
o During his short time at Penn State, Franklin has already proved to be an adept recruiter. And, despite running a program still feeling the significant sting of NCAA sanctions, he guided the Nittany Lions to a winning record and bowl last fall.
Fans have embraced him, too.
There is, however, one lingering question on their minds. Oh, he does not get it directly. But they whisper it among themselves, or try to pry the information out of PSU insiders.
How long is he going to stay? everyone wants to know.
A year and a half into his tenure as Nittany Lion head coach, Joe Paterno was still about 44 years away from being forced out. But a year and a half into his tenure at the helm, Bill O'Brien was seven months away from leaving for the NFL's Houston Texans.
So we raised the question about which so many are curious during a recent one-on-one interview with Franklin.
You know what's funny is, I don't even necessarily think that's a question for me, he said. I think when you follow Joe, the assumption at Penn State is that the next guy is going to stay here forever, as well. So when that guy leaves (quickly), people are kind of shocked by that. So I think it's more of a question that people were shocked that a head football coach at Penn State is supposed to stay 80 years. That's how we expect it to be done. That's what we know. That's what we're comfortable with.
But it goes beyond that, and Franklin is savvy enough to know what fans know -- he's never stayed in one place very long. His resume includes 11 different jobs at 10 different programs. His longest stay was his first go-round at Maryland, where he coached receivers and served as recruiting coordinator from 2000-04. He has already been at Penn State longer than he stayed at six other jobs.
And in his first head-coaching gig, he stayed at Vanderbilt for three successful seasons before bolting to Penn State in January of 2014.
Franklin says now it was all a means to an end, with that end being his current position.
I'm excited because I'm finally at a place that we can stay and we can build it the right way, he said. I've never (had) that. I've always showed up at a place and it was kind of a mess and then we had to clean up the mess, and right when we got it cleaned up, ended up having to leave to go to the next job for a number of reasons -- more than anything an opportunity.
“I'm excited because I'm finally at a place that we can stay and we can build it the right way. I've never (had) that. I've always showed up at a place and it was kind of a mess and then we had to clean up the mess, and right when we got it cleaned up, ended up having to leave to go to the next job for a number of reasons — more than anything an opportunity.”
I'm at a place now where I can provide the kids everything that I've always wanted to provide, he added. Which is a world-class education, (the) opportunity to get a real education that is going to allow them to be successful in life. But also legitimately be able to offer them an opportunity to play football at the very highest level. Play for Big Ten championships -- compete for national championships one day -- and then also have an opportunity to maybe go play at the next level. So I can offer the kids and their families all of that now.
He also believes Penn State gives him the muscle to hire the best assistant coaches and not lose them to horizontal opportunities. A case in point is defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, who was courted by other programs for the same post in the off-season but opted to stay at PSU and was rewarded with a raise. The idea is for the staffers to put themselves in position to make vertical moves.
Coaches want to be able to do those things, as well, Franklin said. They want to be able to be at a place where they can reach all of their dreams.
o But what about a possible move to the NFL? Unlike O'Brien, who made no secret of his desire to coach at the pro level, Franklin's goals have been different.
I always wanted to coach college ball, he said.
Franklin's NFL experiences include participation in the league's Minority Coaching Fellowships Program (at Miami, Philadelphia and Minnesota), as well as a year spent coaching receivers with the Green Bay Packers (2005).
He loved the people he worked with in Green Bay, especially receiver Donald Driver. He got to work with Brett Favre and was there when the team drafted Aaron Rodgers.
Other parts were not so great. He spent his first few months in Green Bay living in a hotel room at a Native American casino. Then he and wife Fumi bought a house, and not long after head coach Mike Sherman was fired.
Franklin thought about seeking out another NFL job -- for a few seconds. Kansas State had offered him a position as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
Literally, the press conference for Coach Sherman was at 9:00 (a.m.), him being let go, and I was on a plane flying to Kansas State by 11 and never went back, Franklin said. Packed up two bags, got on the plane and went. And Fumi packed up the house and put the house up for sale and that was it. Never went back again.
He never looked back, either, as it was full speed ahead at the college level after that.
I knew early on I was getting into coaching because I liked the developmental stage with the kids, he said. I liked going to the home and meeting the parents. I liked going to (meet) the high school coaches. I liked watching this kid come in as a skinny immature freshman and watch him grow and develop.
That kid was once Franklin, who played his college ball at East Stroudsburg in the early 1990s and later was a graduate assistant coach at Washington State (1998).
I know what (college) did for me, he said. I was a really immature kid that didn't appreciate the value of an education until I went to college, to be honest with you. And I really grew up and matured during my time in college and ended up getting a degree and doing pretty well and then the same thing with my master's degree. So I know what the game did for me and my family, and the opportunities it created for me, and I wanted to be able to provide that opportunity to other people.
o To say Franklin is optimistic would be an understatement. But he is also realistic.
So when he talks about Penn State having everything necessary to compete for Big Ten and national championships, he also admits that all of the pieces are still falling into place.
Including interims, the program has had five head coaches since the end of the 2011 season. And while the NCAA sanctions stemming from the Sandusky scandal have expired or been lifted, their ramifications are still being felt.
The Nittany Lions still do not have 85 players on scholarship (even with walk-ons who have been rewarded), and the roster features nine initial scholarship players with senior eligibility and a whopping 39 with freshman eligibility. In other words, of the 80 initial scholarship players, nearly half have never played a snap of college ball.
Franklin has also spent a lot of time -- and raised a lot of money -- to bring Penn State's facilities up to snuff when compared to other power programs.
He clearly has a long-term vision for the program.
Provided everyone in his new hometown is on board, he sees no reason to leave.
As long as we can get the entire Penn State community -- the Penn State administration, the Penn State coaches, the players and everybody else -- pulling the rope in the same direction, there's no reason, he said. Where else would you go?
Then he asked it again.
Where else would you go? But we've gotta get that. We're probably closer to that than we've been in the last four years, but we've still got some work to do.