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July 28, 2014

Column: Franklin differentiates in debut

CHICAGO - This was not a coming out party.

Penn State head coach James Franklin isn't so new that, upon taking the Hilton ballroom podium for his first Big Ten Football Media Days, he'd shock the hundreds of media types and sports information personnel gathered. Seven months on the job with the Nittany Lions - not to mention his three-year resuscitation of the Vanderbilt football program - has done more than enough to announce Franklin's arrival on the big time college football landscape.

Still, there was something emphatic about the confluence of Franklin's big persona with the crush of national interest on this stage Monday afternoon.

For all of the firepower coaching names within the Big Ten, including the likes of Urban Meyer, Kirk Ferentz, Bo Pelini, Mark Dantonio, Brady Hoke or Pat Fitzgerald, Franklin stood in stark contrast to his colleagues. He was different.

Stepping to the podium to make his opening statement, only 17 seconds and 54 words passed before Franklin served up - completely unprompted - the kind of corny joke that he can't help but unleash. Unlike the forced feel of the Faux Pelini cat around the typically straight-laced Nebraska coach, or one of Meyer's offhand comments always accompanied with a small smirk, Franklin simply let his inner goof fly.

"The only critique I would have is… the elevators. There's one with a Penn State logo on it and there's a logo for each school. Well, the Penn State logo elevator was not in line with my room, and I refuse to ride any other elevator up there, so I had to end up walking up the floors.

"If there's any way we can coordinate and make sure the elevator's coordinated with the floor I'm on in the future, that would be the only critique I would have."

He was kidding, of course. (Franklin, indeed, rode the Hilton's elevator to his floor.)

But, the message was clear. Franklin doesn't need the prompting, pulling or urging college football coaches typically require to let loose a little in this environment.

Sharply dressed in a slim-fitting grey suit, white shirt and navy tie, the same look, energy and enthusiasm that has accompanied his every public and private appearance was on full display Monday afternoon and was nearly impossible to overlook in its opposition to his coaching brethren. Very much saying and behaving in the same manner Penn State fans have become intimately familiar with, Franklin had an answer for everything and a smile to back it up.

Believing Penn State to be a different type of institution with a different type of football program, Franklin's own exceptionalism extends to his philosophy for the university and its community as a whole.

Asked about his reception within the community, the alumni base and former players, Franklin frequently expressed his gratitude for the "unbelievable support" he's received since taking the job and, maybe more important, the groundswell of excitement that has arisen in the past seven months.

"It's different being at Penn State. This means a lot to people," he said. "I think the sense of pride that people have of being a part of the Penn State family is different. And I know we've got a bunch of coaches here with a bunch of different teams, and they feel the same way, but I'm biased. I do think it's different."

Noting the experience of hearing a random "We are!" chant while walking through an airport or the well-wishers that appear in the lobby to congratulate him, like his enthusiastic debut on the Big Ten stage Monday afternoon, Franklin said he couldn't wait for the onset of the future he's been working so intently to build.

"It has very little to do with James Franklin. It's about these kids that we have here, it's about the history, it's about the traditions, and it's about where we're going from here on, the present and the future," he said. "We're excited about what we're going to do."

If Monday's debut is any indication of what's to come, he's going to turn plenty of heads in the process.




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