Franklin finds strength in unique background
His dad was James Oliver Franklin. His mother, Jocelyn.
James Geoffrey Franklin, now the head coach of the Penn State football program, tells the story of his existence simply. His dad was in the Air Force, stationed in Manchester, England, and met his mom. "They eloped to Ireland and then he brought her back to this really romantic city, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania," Franklin said, "and they started popping out beige babies. That's me and my sister (Debbie)."
The person who developed from the described confluence of complex cultures and history acknowledges his story is far from simple, though.
His mother's family was just two brothers, both of whom died young. His dad's immediate family is similarly small, having a single brother who died of cancer before James was born.
None of which means Franklin grew up without a family to draw an identity from. Finding strength in his unique history, Franklin acknowledges that not everyone always knows what to make of him initially.
"What's funny is, I would say most black people look at me as black and identify me as black, and I think other people aren't really sure," he said. "I'm kind of this culturally ambiguous guy, until you kind of figure it out.
"I don't wear it on my sleeve. It's just kind of who I am."
Though his father held an infrequent role in Franklin's childhood, his father's extended family remained close. In fact, Jocelyn, James and Debbie would attend reunions each summer at the family property in Rocky Mount, N.C.
Able to recite the details, draw upon old family photos and recount all of the varying factors that have helped shape him into a 43-year-old leader of one of the nation's most prominent football programs, Franklin fully embraces his back story.
It offers a realistic look into one of the reasons Franklin believes he has found so much success as a leader and organizer of an equally complex and vast group of people. African American, white, English, Northeast urban and Southern rural, each having legitimate import in Franklin's self-perception, he believes himself to be a little bit of everything and has benefited as a result. Said Franklin, "I think it's given me a really unique perspective because I can relate and be comfortable in so many different settings because of the way I was raised."
Many of the recruits who have made a verbal pledge to play for Franklin have said the same things.
Seemingly unconcerned with race as a differentiator, Franklin's self presentation that has had the most impact on the kids entrusting their future playing careers with him. "He has his own personality," said Shane Simmons. "He grew up in Pennsylvania, in a rough part, I think. So he keeps it real with us. He's young and he relates to us anyway, with music or food or just any topic at all. He's probably one of the easiest coaches to talk to, in my opinion."
Take, for example, one of Franklin's earliest experiences as an assistant coach in recruiting. A wideouts coach at Idaho State, just a handful of years into his coaching career, Franklin included Los Angeles as one of his primary recruiting responsibilities.
"Just like I do now, I had the guys over for dinner," he said. Welcoming a group of kids specifically out of Compton, Franklin recalled his mother also being in for a visit and taking charge of the cooking duties. What might have seemed like a collision of two worlds was anything but, Franklin said.
"What's funny is, when (my parents) first came to this country and they lived in Pittsburgh, they lived with my grand mom. So my mom's first introduction to this country was nothing but black people, in the Hill District, on Bedford Avenue, learning how to cook soul food and everything else. And my mom is as white as your shirt. She was really fair. She went grey really early, but she had red hair, fair skinned, that whole deal."
Sitting down to dinner with his recruiting guests, Jocelyn prepared collard greens, black eyed peas, macaroni and cheese, ham, and sweet potato pie and brought each to the table.
"I remember the kids looking down at the plate and looking up at my mom, and looking down at the plate, and looking up at my mom, and could not figure this out," he said. "So it was this really weird dynamic. A really, really weird dynamic."
Though he'd been raised almost exclusively by his fair-skinned, English, single-parent mother, all of Franklin's holidays and family time were spent around his father's Southern, African American, extended family. As a result, he's never considered himself to be just one thing.
"I've always kind of looked at that as a strength," he said, "because I feel like I can relate to so many different people."
According to another of Franklin's coveted recruits, it also helps create an atmosphere of a level playing field.
Even beyond recruiting, one of Franklin's most visible and successful achievements in coaching, his individual diversity has provided a singularity that has eased an otherness that might exist on a wildly diverse squad of backgrounds. Owning a complex history personally, even the perception of bias can be eliminated.
"I like the way that he conveys his message," said quarterback Jake Zembiec. "A lot of the times he talks about, when you get here, playing time is whoever is the best. It doesn't matter if you're black, white or tan."
Hoping to be relatable to everyone he interacts with - let alone instructs or works alongside - Franklin's keen sense of identity and perception continue to pay dividends.
Noting the quickly evolving nature of race, Franklin considers himself to be an early example of the varying blends of people who will be even more plentiful in a few generations.
"Growing up, being bi-racial and all that kind of stuff, it was unique," Franklin said. "It's not unique anymore, which I think in a lot of ways I think is a really powerful thing for our country. I think in a lot of ways is probably going to change our country for the better, in terms of eradicating racism in our country."