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May 27, 2014

Column: Power of perception

James Franklin can't please everyone.

There are simply too many people, is too much media attention and too many opinions exist in the colossal universe of Penn State football to create an atmosphere in which everyone, everywhere, likes everything he says or does. The sheer magnitude of his program, five months on the job at one of the most prestigious and scrutinized college football institutions in the country, simply won't allow it.

Invariably, he knows and understands this as reality.

That doesn't mean he likes it.

Hyper-aware of seemingly everything said, written or thought about him, his coaching staff, players and entire program, Franklin is a self-described micro-manager and perfectionist who cares deeply about perceptions. It's just part of the job, he says, and the manner in which he has conducted himself throughout his budding tenure at University Park exhibits as much.

Whether posing for pictures and meeting thousands of fans via Penn State's third annual 'Coaches Caravan' the past three weeks or by granting hundreds of media availabilities or even by wandering through the RV lots the Friday evening before the Blue-White game this spring, the 42-year old husband and father of two is steadfastly determined to make a positive impression in every facet of his role as head coach.

"I would hope that they see a guy that is passionate and emotional and caring for people in general and for Penn State, for my family and for the community," Franklin says. "I hope they see a guy who's hard working and conscientious. That's how I would like to be perceived."

For as meticulous as he would like to be in cultivating perceptions and relationships on an intimately mass scale, Franklin's attitude is not to be confused with spinelessness or a meandering moral compass, though. The reality is just the opposite.

Owning a modus operandi that involves constant evolution and improvement, Franklin's opinions aren't easily swayed, though he craves the dialogue that can often lead to a best possible outcome. In the process of that dialogue, however, the former psychology major is going to use his extensively practiced communicating skills to at least attempt to change minds that don't align.

"You have to be able to articulate your vision and your plan for whatever you're going to do," he says. "That's getting people to buy in to your overall philosophy, that's in recruiting, that's dealing with the media, that's dealing with fans and boosters and alumni."

In Beaver Stadium itself, that's 107,000 "intimate, personal relationships" Franklin legitimately wants to foster. In recruiting, that's roughly 200 elite prospects and their families on a year-by-year basis. On one of the more robust beats in the entire college football media landscape, the scope grows even more. Throw in Penn State's massive estimate of 616,000 living alumni in the United States and worldwide, and the intended dissemination of Franklin's message becomes an incredibly complicated affair.

Can he communicate his vision and plan effectively?

Franklin asks himself this question repeatedly. It's why he goes so far as to watch his own press conferences after the fact, spending the time to critique himself, learn from mistakes and make the necessary improvements to create a better result the next time around.

"A lot of coaches say they don't do that," he says. "I read every article, I watch every video, and I think a lot of coaches do that. They don't admit it, but I do, and I have no problem admitting it. I try to be as transparent and as up front and as honest as I possibly can be. I think that's helped us as well because I think we come off genuine and I think we come off relatable in a lot of ways."

Beyond his personal interest in psychology, to a certain extent, Franklin's fixation with message management is a learned trait.

Gregarious by nature, infrequent gaffes - and the occasional foot-in-mouth moment - have conditioned Franklin to be somewhat wary of making off the cuff remarks or letting down a guard built through his years of coaching. The result is an internal struggle between Franklin's ability to be truly himself, relaxed and at ease, against the carefully managed, well-liked public persona he's worked so hard to develop.

"You let your guard down for a minute and you're trying to be funny and it's not taken that way," he says. "I think once people get to know me, the last thing I ever want to do is offend anybody.

"But, it's a shame. Things like that happen and you learn from it. You really do. You say you can't do that. You can't let your guard down, you gotta be really, really conscious, and you gotta make sure what you say is interpreted the right way."

Hoping to strike a balance between offering up the best version of himself to the public while avoiding the dangers that accompany the exposure of a college football property on the level of Penn State, Franklin has a vision for the relationships still being born in his new role with the Nittany Lions.

"I try to be transparent. The hard thing with this job is I want people to really be able to get to know me, and my personality is to get up and not be the standard coach who is dry and boring and give you these real boring answers," he says. "It's difficult. I understand after being in the business a little while why people over time put a wall up and become so rigid, and I hope I don't have to do that. There's very few guys that have been able to go through the whole profession and been able to do that… but, I'd love to be one of those guys where I'm able to kind of stay true to who I am and allow people to kind of get to know you."

Impossible though it may seem at times, it's a goal Franklin seems determined to make a reality.

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