* This story appeared in the March 2014 Signing Day edition of Blue White Illustrated, printed and mailed to our subscribers this week and on newsstands now.
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By Matt Herb
The secret to James Franklin's success as a recruiter?
Practice. The guy never stops recruiting, nor does he confine his pitches to elite football prospects. Coaches, parents, alumni, fans, faculty, administrators, media - anyone who could be considered a stakeholder in one of his undertakings is liable to find him or herself the recipient of a James Franklin recruiting pitch. The night he was introduced as Penn State's head football coach, he dashed off from a photo op in Beaver Stadium to shake the hands of a pair of security guards standing watch over the tunnel leading out onto the field. It was a gracious moment, part of a charm offensive that has continued unabated in the weeks since his appointment became official, one to which the Penn State community - and potential recruits in particular - have enthusiastically responded.
"He's got incredible drive and determination," said Brent Pry, who coached linebackers under Franklin at Vanderbilt and is reprising that role at Penn State. "He's very thorough, very detailed. He's going to be very aggressive in the recruitment of kids. He builds relationships, and relationships are vital to what we do. They're the backbone of this program."
Pry goes way back with Franklin. He was a graduate assistant at East Stroudsburg when Franklin was the team's starting quarterback in the 1990s and saw early on some of the qualities that would eventually help Franklin develop into one of college football's most sought-after coaching prospects. Said Pry, "He ran the offense at East Stroudsburg the same way he ran the program at Vanderbilt: with unrelenting effort. He's mindful of everybody involved. He's a guy who's going to be mindful of the student trainers, the student managers, the fans who come out and support the program. He's really in touch with all aspects of the program."
The one aspect of Penn State's program that many people have focused on since Franklin's hiring is recruiting. That's understandable. The Nittany Lions need a dogged recruiter if they're to emerge from the NCAA sanctions with the kind of team that Penn State is accustomed to having, the kind that can compete for championships. In Franklin, they appear to have their man.
It was during his years as an assistant coach at Maryland that Franklin began to develop a reputation as the kind of recruiter who could build relationships that led to verbal commitments. Four times during his eight seasons with the Terrapins, he was named a top-25 recruiter by Rivals.com. In December 2010, he left College Park for Vanderbilt - his first head coaching job - and immediately began doing for the Commodores what he had done for the Terps.
Franklin's late arrival meant that he had less than two months to shore up Vanderbilt's 2011 recruiting class. The team ultimately signed 21 players, including 15 three-star athletes as rated by Rivals, and six two-star athletes.
Over the next two years, the Commodores' recruiting just kept getting better and better. Of the 22 signees in the Class of 2012, three received four stars and all the rest received three. Last year's class featured five four-star athletes, and all but one of the remaining 21 players received three stars.
All told, of the 69 players in Vanderbilt's recruiting classes of 2011, '12 and '13, seven were two-star athletes as rated by Rivals, 54 were three-star athletes, and eight were four-star athletes. Those results were comparable to Penn State's during that same three-year span. The Nittany Lions signed 51 players, 14 of whom received two stars, 27 of whom received three stars, nine of whom received four stars and one of whom - quarterback Christian Hackenberg - received five stars.
Of course, there are more substantial ways of evaluating prospects than simply tallying up their star ratings. Franklin likes to look at their faces, hands and feet. If they're bigger or broader than average, it indicates growth potential. He also likes to see prospects play basketball. That shows athleticism. When he visits their schools, he talks not just to the coaches but to guidance counselors, teachers, random students he finds in the hallway and custodians. "We want to find out as much information as we possibly can," he said. "You go do the home visit, you see how they interact with their mom or dad or one of their parents at home or their little brother or sister - it's all those things. And what we're trying to do is take all that information and try to figure out who this kid is long -term. I think we've got a good process for doing that."
At Vanderbilt, much of Franklin's seemingly boundless energy went into reshaping recruits' perceptions of a program that, prior to his arrival, had enjoyed only five winning seasons since 1960. The Commodores didn't have an indoor practice facility, and the facilities they did have were not up to the standards of their Southeastern Conference opponents. Vanderbilt Stadium may have been the first stadium in the South to be used exclusively for college football when it was finished in 1922, but it had fallen desperately behind the times in the decades that followed, and with a seating capacity of slightly over 40,000, it remains the smallest stadium in the SEC.
Defensive line coach Sean Spencer, who worked for Franklin at Vanderbilt before joining him at Penn State, admitted that the staff was at a big disadvantage as it strived to attract the kind of players who could compete in the nation's toughest conference. The staff did overcome those obstacles, posting the first back-to-back nine-win seasons in Vanderbilt history, but there remains a lingering sense of incredulity as those coaches look around at the resources they now have at their disposal in University Park. Said Spencer, "It's going to be very exciting to see what happens when the playing field gets a little more level."
Spend any time with Franklin's coaching staff and it's not hard to see why recruits have responded to them. They're mostly in their 30s and 40s - old enough to serve as authority figures but young enough to know what Facebook and Twitter are. They've worked together long enough to have developed an easy rapport. They're brash. They're funny. They crack jokes at each other's expense. They tell self-deprecating stories about how a bunch of guys with roots in Pennsylvania Division II football managed to get themselves to the SEC and now the Big Ten. They use the word "fun" a lot, promising schemes that players will want to play and fans will want to watch. And they clearly take a lot of cues from their boss, who does not shrink from the spotlight.
"I think that we're a different kind of staff," Spencer said. "I think this staff has a little bit of swag. You've got some energetic guys and then you've got some guys who aren't as energetic. We balance each other out. You can't be high-intensity all the time. I think we've got a great combination of those type of guys on our staff.
"Recruiting is about relationships, developing relationships," he added. "Some kids don't want you to be in their face, and you've got to understand that. It's really like dating. You know what I'm saying? You conform to who you're dealing with."
At Vanderbilt, Spencer and his fellow coaches seemed to instinctively how to make their approach. They knew when to pursue and when to back off. They out-recruited Urban Meyer in 2012 to land running back Brian Kimbrow and convinced offensive lineman Andrew Jelks to pass up Tennessee, the team to which both his parents had season tickets.
At Penn State, as at Vanderbilt, Franklin has made it clear that recruiting will be a shared responsibility. That wasn't always the case in the waning years of the Paterno era, and the imbalance in recruiting responsibilities reportedly gave rise to tension on the staff between the coaches who were fully engaged in the team's efforts to attract new talent and those who were less active.
Franklin's staff features two recruiting coordinators rather than one. Receivers coach Josh Gattis will spearhead the recruitment of offensive players, as he did at Vanderbilt, while cornerbacks coach Terry Smith will take the lead with defensive players. But the responsibilities will be shared even more broadly than that, as Franklin wants everyone to have a hand in the team's recruiting.
"We're not going to list who recruited who, because we recruit as a staff," he said. "The recruits should not know if the area coach, if the position coach, if the coordinator is his lead recruiter. He should feel like all of them are recruiting the same."
One other big change is that the new coaches have embraced social media more enthusiastically than their predecessors. Paterno had a disdain for technology that was most likely generational, and even Bill O'Brien seemed to regard the phenomenon as more of a hindrance than a help, once famously referring to the two tentpoles of the social media realm as "Spacebook and Tweeter."
Franklin is active on Twitter. He's got over 1,000 tweets - most of them from his days at Vanderbilt - including a recent tweet in which he enumerated Penn State's "4 Core Values" using a lot of capital letters. Among them: "COMPETE In Everything YOU Do."
Franklin's willingness to embrace social media is, by his own admission, more pragmatic than personal. He doesn't particularly enjoy it, and he's cautious enough about his posts to make sure that someone proofreads them before he hits the return key. But Twitter, he said, "gives me an opportunity to reach an audience that I don't have an opportunity to reach in other ways. I can get my message out there. We can start talking about things that are important in our program, our core values. It's a way to connect."
One of those values is industriousness. Or, as Franklin explained it on Twitter: "Great WORK ETHIC." On the night he was introduced as Penn State's new head coach, he told reporters he was eager for the news conference to end so that he could get to work. It seemed like just an applause line, one of those things you say to win over the fans. But it turned out he wasn't exaggerating. After the presser wrapped up, he began making calls to several players he had been recruiting while at Vanderbilt, just to let them know that if they were interested in following him to Penn State, there might be an opportunity to join the Nittany Lions. In the end, five of them did just that.
"He's high-energy," Smith said. "He's got a youthful spirit to himself. He relates to the players today and he attacks recruiting. That's a priority."
Franklin was asked recently if he simply enjoys recruiting more than some other coaches do. There are as many views on recruiting as there are recruiters, and coaches approach it with varying degrees of enthusiasm. For some, it's a passion; for others, it's drudgery. Franklin certainly appears to fall into the former camp, but for him, as for every coach, it's a means to an end.
"I love winning," he said. "Winning is fun. I like to be considered a good football coach, and it's amazing how those two things are affected when you have really good players. The plays work better with really good players. So we're going to do whatever we have to do to have as much success as we possibly can."
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THE CLASS OF 2014
With James Franklin leading the way, Penn State welcomes a determined group of recruits to the fold.
Check out our special recruiting section, including a closer look at the newest prospects added to Penn State's roster, a breakdown of recruiting in the Big Ten, and complete prospect profiles from Penn State's Class of 2014.
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