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April 28, 2014

Column: Franklin's big introduction

From his first moments taking the podium in Beaver Stadium's media room for his introductory press conference on January 11, in both words and deeds, James Franklin has been on fire.

A master of communication, the Nittany Lions' new football coach was at once heartfelt in his dedication to family and football, engaging with the university community and media, and passionate about the standard he wanted to further during his tenure at Penn State.

Wholly gregarious, as four-month honeymoons go, imagining one more successful in nearly every facet would be a challenge.

Starting Thursday night at the Pegula Ice Arena, that introduction will be taken to an entirely different level, though.

Set to begin the third annual Penn State Coaches Caravan, a 17-stop tour of speaking engagements in cities as big as New York, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and small as Williamsport, Uniontown and East Stroudsburg, Franklin will take center stage in front of passionate Penn State fans. Already sold out at five stops - some of which are big crowds - while only a few tickets remain at others, excitement has continually built for the catharsis of a truly new era of Penn State football.

Part evangelizing revival service, part political fundraiser, in a post-Sandusky landscape of carefully crafted public relations, the Caravan represents an opportunity for the entire university to display its best and brightest - of which Franklin is undoubtedly a star.

In the coming days and weeks, he'll have every opportunity to show why alongside some of his assistant coaches and other notable Penn State Athletics' coaches.

Though success as a coach in big time college football or basketball requires some level of political acumen, the ambition of a region-spanning fundraising tour isn't necessarily for everyone.

For all of former head coach Bill O'Brien's best intentions, the Caravan itself was a mismatch of his strengths and the tour's goals - even though both iterations were resounding successes. Needing to engage with big donors at pre-event receptions, O'Brien at times looked like a teenager uncomfortably paraded in front of long-lost aunts and uncles at a Bar Mitzvah.

By the time of the actual event's open question and answer sessions, fans with relatively innocuous queries could occasionally find themselves victims of O'Brien's dry wit and notorious impatience. Like a new puppy's biting, O'Brien's chastising persona didn't always translate to big crowds, occasionally leaving small but still painful flesh wounds.

Franklin, on the other hand, was seemingly born for this.

His message already honed and worthy of fans' excitement, Franklin has the immediate recruiting success and fan turnout of the Blue-White Game to back it up. At an event in which fans are already jazzed up - or in the case of some of the evening sessions, potentially liquored up - the format lends itself to the type of pep rally enthusiasm and catch-phrasing Franklin has already repeatedly demonstrated.

Maybe more important, armed with charm, Franklin has shown an ability to deflect without denouncing when ill-planned or poorly-phrased questions come his way.

And they will, repeatedly, from both the media and fans.

During the span of 17 stops in 22 days, some of the same questions are guaranteed to arise regarding topics as trivial as favorite ice cream flavors or as complicated as Joe Paterno's legacy, the statue or uniform adjustments.

What will be intriguing to see, of course, is how Franklin adapts and handles them as the caravan rolls along.

Seemingly attuned to addressing the big subjects before the questions are even asked, there will no doubt be plenty of quotable moments in the coming weeks. But, from man who speaks articulately and with plenty of forethought, the likelihood of Franklin saying anything remotely controversial to the Penn State faithful seems small.

If in fact he is able to whip the fans into a frenzy while avoiding the pitfalls that come with unscripted access, the trip will again be another big success for the football program, the athletic department, the university, and Franklin personally.

At a time when recruiting for the Class of 2014 is wrapped, spring football is in the books and all that's left for fans to do is wait for the Croke Park Classic, on the uniquely personal level the Coaches Caravan affords, Franklin can shine his brightest yet.

Penn State NEWS


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