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July 30, 2014

Column: He wasn't kidding

I thought he was kidding.

James Franklin, Penn State's head football coach for all of four months, made a ridiculous claim during May's Coaches Caravan around the Mid-Atlantic. Having proven himself a remarkable showman with an ability to entertain at every turn, Franklin's over-the-top sentiments sometimes were just a symptom of getting carried away, my thinking went.

"I know this sounds funny but we have 107,000 fans at the game, I really want to have an intimate, personal relationship with every single one of them," he said. "I don't know if that's possible."

He said that was why he hit the RV lots on the Friday night before the Blue-White Game in April, walking around to thank fans for their support at a scrimmage that would ultimately draw more than 72,000 attendees.

Franklin said that was what he hoped to be able to do by going to a radio show every single week, providing him an opportunity to thank the fans that would make a trip to watch him sit around talking football for an hour.

He said that he wanted to be able to meet the students and take the time during pre-game warmups to turn around and thank them for their support.

During an age in which celebrity has become a uniquely twisted fabric of our core as a society, Franklin's ability to connect on that interpersonal level in an isolated town free of any others seemed a long-shot at best. So many demands and pressures on time would arise that, inevitably, the impossibility of wrangling everyone together while avoiding the pitfalls of overexposure would temper his outlook.

"I really want to have that," he said. "It's a small college town and although we're going to have 107,000 people, I want to feel like that's all my buddies and all my family and all my friends that are at the game, and I want the people that are in the stands and in the community to feel like they have a big part in the reason why we're successful."

Just three months after saying as much, Franklin's sentiment came full circle in downtown State College, Pa., on Wednesday afternoon.

To backtrack momentarily first, though, Franklin flew to Chicago Sunday night in advance of Monday and Tuesday's annual Big Ten Football Media Days and Kickoff Luncheon. Absolutely loaded up with press conferences, media one-on-ones, photo ops and the occasional question designed to irritate and annoy, the experience can be overwhelming and necessitate some deep cleansing for its participants. Wednesday, though the experience is called the "Car Wash," Franklin was offered the opposite as he sat through 13 different shows and interviews with ESPN after an early morning flight to Bristol, Ct.

Upon his return, Franklin unwound by landing a "surprise" verbal commitment from stud Rivals100 defensive end Shane Simmons from the Class of 2016. As though that weren't enough to earn a spa treatment, Franklin followed by personally delivering season tickets to a couple of Penn State's newest 107k, and topped off the day by traversing downtown State College on foot with a few dozen of his Nittany Lion players including Christian Hackenberg, Donovan Smith, Zach Zwinak and Sam Ficken - among many others - to pass out the team's new 2014 season posters.

Walking from Garner St. to Fraser on the other end of town with the Nittany Lion and cheerleaders in tow, Franklin and Co., handed rolled posters to anyone that would take one, including drivers in passing cars and fans making their way out of restaurants to lay witness to all the nearby commotion.

In fact, one mother and her daughter popped out of a College Ave. salad shop to get a picture with Franklin, only to have the Nittany Lions' head coach demand to speak to the husband/father via cell phone. As cars and townspeople passed innocuously, Franklin waited for more than 40 seconds before being told to "hang on a second" and was hung up on. Determined to make the connection, Franklin called back and finally connected with the disbelieving fan, thanking him for his support.



Media stunts are media stunts, and no doubt, this engagement could easily be construed as much… were it not for Franklin's very real and stated aforementioned goals. He wants to do this, and though there's no expiration date to the ongoing quest to connect personally, Franklin's pace both literally and figuratively has proven to be rapid.

Just walking down the street, his actual speed and changes in direction were more akin to Barry Sanders than any of his coaching counterparts.

The whirlwind prompted this tweet from Franklin by the afternoon's end.


In reflecting on Franklin's comments from that New York City Coaches Caravan stop, after today's undeniably fun event, they're seeming less and less far-fetched and outlandish than they once might have.

And, maybe more so than any other point in his tenure, the method to Franklin's madness is becoming clear.

"I want (the fans) to feel like on third down, when that offense can't hear and they jump offsides, that they're a part of that. That when we get a big recruit, that they were a part of that, because when we were walking around on campus, they said 'Welcome to Penn State' and gave them a big smile and a pat on the back," he said. "I want everybody to feel like they're a part of what we're building here.

"That's what's going to make it so unique and that's what's going to make it so special when we have the type of success that everybody wants us to have, is that everybody is going to feel a part of it. Everybody is going to feel a part of it."

For the hundreds of unsuspecting fans who were in downtown State College Wednesday afternoon, nothing could be more true.



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