It was during a Black Coaches Association meeting in Orlando in the late 1990s that everything changed for James Franklin - and, by extension, for Sean Spencer. Franklin was coaching at East Stroudsburg at the time, Spencer at Massachusetts. They were chatting with then-Stanford coach Tyrone Willingham, both of them a bit star struck and gushing about how they wanted to follow in Willingham's footsteps.
Just then, Franklin's phone rang. On the line was a coach from James Madison offering him an opportunity to join the Dukes' staff as a restricted-earnings assistant. Franklin, eager to move up to Division I-AA, was ecstatic.
"He's falling all over the place, grabbing everybody and hugging them," Spencer recalled. "I'm thinking, wow, that's really exciting, really cool. And from that day on, we've always been close and stayed in contact."
Their relationship has turned out to be mutually beneficial. When Vanderbilt hired him as its head coach in late 2010, Franklin lured Spencer away from Bowling Green to take charge of the defensive line. The Commodores went on to post 86 sacks during the next three seasons and finished in the top 25 nationally in total defense all three years.
In January, Franklin brought Spencer to Penn State following the departure of longtime Nittany Lions defensive line coach Larry Johnson. While players and fans were disappointed to see the highly popular assistant move on - especially when his next stop turned out to be Ohio State - Spencer has an outsized personality and an appreciation for the history he's being asked to uphold, qualities that should go a long way toward helping him fill the void.
"I have tremendous respect for what this program has done," he said. "It's powerful, man. At times you get emotional. You look around and you're like, 'I'm at Penn State.' You know what I'm saying? I'm coaching at Penn State, and that's pretty cool."
It's easy to see why Franklin and Spencer hit it off. They're both high-energy guys with roots in the Pennsylvania State Athletics Conference and a desire to compete at an elite level. Born in Hartford, Conn., Spencer played safety at Clarion in the early 1990s before getting his first coaching job as the assistant in charge of running backs at Shippensburg. Like Franklin, his path to Penn State consisted of a series of gradual steps. Before reaching the Football Bowl Subdivision, there were stops at Trinity, Holy Cross, Villanova and Hofstra.
At Vanderbilt, Spencer was known as "Coach Chaos." The nickname was bestowed on the practice field one day by strength coach Dwight Galt, and it stuck. It's now on his business card, and his young daughter Alysia refers to herself as "Baby Chaos."
While with the Commodores, he developed defensive end Tim Fugger into a seventh-round draft pick. Before leaving for Nashville, he played a key role in the early development of Bowling Green defensive tackle Chris Jones, who went on to sign with the New England Patriots last year and led all NFL rookies with five sacks.
Spencer is hoping for even more success at Penn State. "I can't wait for the opportunity to coach those guys and make them better," he said. "Our concentration and our focal point will be on being the best defensive line we can be in this conference, in this nation. That's what we're going to focus on, and the rest will take care of itself. I had the good fortune to coach Chris Jones for two years at Bowling Green, and he starts for the New England Patriots right now. Tim Fugger is playing for the New York Jets, so we've sent some guys on, but it was because of their ability. We just had to refine it.
"Obviously, at a place like Penn State, you're going to get some kids with tremendous ability. You walk through those walls and there are some [future] draft picks here. Coach Johnson did an unbelievable job of developing guys. I plan on doing the same thing."