One of the most interesting things James Franklin has ever said is that he remembers how the crowd sounded.
Not the cheers or the noise overwhelming an opponent. But the boos, the jeers and the occasional “Fire Franklin” chant.
Life was different in 2014 and 2015. For everyone.
Fast forward to the final chapters of 2019 and the story is different. Penn State is -short of a borderline historic upset by Rutgers- 60 minutes of football from another 10-win season. A favorable bowl showing and Penn State could hit the 11-win mark for the third time in four years. You can be critical of the losses, you can discuss the merits of an up and down offense, but it’s hard to argue with the results.
And yet there is still that small but not at all quiet portion of Penn State’s fan base that has bubbled up over the course of the Nittany Lions’ season, one which Franklin has felt compelled to address, albeit between the lines.
It’s an interesting sub-narrative as the Nittany Lions roll into December and Franklin's name comes up, legitimately or not, for openings across the country. How much does it bother him? Six years ago Penn State sat on the brink of irrelevance, now it occupies a short list of programs annually in the national conversation.
And still, on the brink of another successful season by any reasonable measure, Franklin feels compelled to fight back just a little bit. Even if it simply makes him feel better to get it off his chest.
“I'm getting to a point where I'm getting older, where I'm not one of these guys that can tell you that I don't care what other people think; I do,” Franklin said on Tuesday. “I care deeply about what other people think. But I am probably getting to a point where I'm pretty confident. If you look at what we've done since we've been here, there's a lot to be proud of, and everybody should feel that way. The trainers, the doctors, the players, the coaches, the media that covers Penn State football, the fans, the people in the community, the season ticket holders, the students, they should always feel really proud because everybody had a part in it.”
In reality the Twitter mobs and any given angry fan occupies a very small portion of the people who actually care about Penn State football, but their voices are loud and on the back end of two late season losses, they grow louder, even if only the result of tenacious screaming. In turn they have, as this column and others like it are evidence of, hijacked a solid portion of the season’s overall narrative.
It does make one wonder how much these sorts of things truly bother Franklin. There are inherent differences between the personality of Central PA and that of Los Angeles and USC. It is easy to picture Franklin working a vibrant LA recruiting scene, easy to picture him being another flashy face in that city, his charisma and wealth allowing him to bump shoulders with anyone he really wanted to.
All of it in a conference that does not boast an Ohio State or Michigan and even fewer mid-tier obstacles. If Franklin's quest to be the first black head coach to win the College Football Playoffs is a genuine priority, those hopes might be more attainable across the country.
And in LA he would be loved, bringing back a historic program from the brink once again and doing it with far fewer hurdles than the ones he faced in State College. The same could be said for Florida State or plenty of urban high profile programs.
Does he see it all the same way? Only time will tell, and coaches are inherently sensitive about their craft, but for a man who is engineering one of the most successful runs in Penn State football history, his occasional annoyance with the unhappy is hard to ignore, then again, it's hard to blame him for it.
“You don't fill up a 107,000-seat stadium without passion,” Franklin added. “The funny thing is -- well, we've got to win this game because this game is a big game. They're all big. Was Michigan big when we played them? Was that a big one? I think so. But then we win it, and they're just like me, they're on to the next task. Well, you'd better win this one.”
“But you would hope there's times where -- where did most people have us coming into the season and where are we? You look at our consistency, which I think -- what would you rather have? Would you rather have one year where you spike up and then two average years? And if you look, I think the most telling statistic is consistency. And for us, if you look at us over the last four years, pretty good. I think when you can say out of 132 Division I programs, there's only five programs in the country that have had the level of consistency that we've had -- or six, whatever it may be -- it's pretty good.”
“And I'm just a big believer, if you keep doing that and you keep chipping away, and you keep identifying areas where you still lack and have weaknesses and you improve those areas, that that consistency and that attention to detail and that kind of mastery of approach -- where you're never satisfied and you're always trying to get better in every single thing -- that you're going to start to either raise the level of consistency to a whole 'nother level, or at the very least, you're going to be consistent and then be able to have a year where things just fall right for you.”
If you were to poll most fans, coaches and players they would likely agree. It can be hard to remember that the loudest people in the room aren’t always the majority. It can be even harder to disconnect from the fanaticism of an online world and remember that most people aren’t so incredibly invested in Penn State football to the point of great passions about Franklin in the first place.
But Franklin remembers the boos, and while he may never admit it, the cheers have never been quite as loud. And for as far as he has dragged Penn State, you wouldn’t blame him if that lack of appreciation was ever so slightly annoying.
“And I think probably the last thing I would say that's important -- I don't want my answers to ever come off like I'm satisfied, because I can guarantee you, I am not,” Franklin said. “I am not. And neither are our players, and neither is the staff. But I do think there comes a point where you look at the big picture and you say, wow, there's a lot to be proud of....I think big picture and holistically, I'm proud of what we've accomplished, but I'm not satisfied. And I think 96, 97 percent of our fan base feels the same way.”
And maybe 96 or 97 percent is enough.