Of all the things crossing my mind about Penn State football and James Franklin late Saturday night following a bad loss at Nebraska, the least likely possibility might have been that now is the time for Franklin to leave for the USC job.
But then, kinda sorta out of nowhere, veteran and highly respected Associated Press college football writer Ralph D. Russo published this peculiar story:
Can’t see it.
Certainly, Franklin’s name has been mentioned as a possibility at USC in recent years. And personally, I’ve felt for a while that if he ever were to leave Penn State, then USC probably would make the most sense.
Good recruiter. Can sell the Trojan program out there. Diverse culture for him and his family.
Here’s what Russo wrote about now possibly being the time for it to happen:
For several years speculation has persisted that if Southern California ever did move on from Clay Helton, Penn State’s James Franklin would be a logical candidate to coach the Trojans.
Franklin’s charisma, big-picture thinking and track record of success checks all the boxes for USC, even if maybe he has maxed out at Penn State.
The coronavirus pandemic figures to make lots of schools that ordinarily would have made a coaching change this season to stand pat, but patience at USC is in short supply. The Trojans are off to a 2-0 start, but their play continues to be uninspiring and sloppy.
Meanwhile, Penn State is probably the most disappointing team in the country, 0-4 after starting the season ranked No. 7.
The timing could be right for Franklin and USC to make the rumors a reality. The Nittany Lions’ collapse has been stunning and bizarre.
USC is off to a 2-0 start under embattled coach Clay Helton but has played poorly in those wins. Talk of firing Helton has come up each of the past two years, and there’s not much patience left with the coach out there.
As Russo writes:
For the second straight week, USC needed a late-scoring drive to win. Last week it took a small miracle for the Trojans to beat Arizona State. This week they pulled one out against an Arizona team picked to finish last in the Pac-12.
It’s difficult to predict how USC leadership will assess this season. The Trojans are by far the most talented team in the Pac-12 South and could get to the conference title game without beating a ranked team.
Moving on from Helton will cost a small fortune. But if this is the best Helton can produce, it won’t be good enough. And if a frustrating season in Happy Valley leads Franklin to seriously consider a new challenge, that could motivate USC even more to make the move.
Some of this might make sense under normal circumstances. But 2020 is far, far removed from any level of normalcy that we’ve ever experienced.
Penn State is 0-4, and Franklin is drawing a lot of heat from the fan base. Many fans would be happy if he left after this bad season, if scores of angry social media posts are any indication.
Why would another school want him right now after this hugely disappointing season, and how could any school justify hiring him to its fans at this point? You’re supposed to buy high and sell low, not buy low and cross your fingers hoping no one will care.
It’s not a stretch to believe that this PSU season could be just one giant aberration brought on by a perfect (bleep)storm of problems, and that Franklin and the Nittany Lions will find a way to regroup for a good season in 2021.
Franklin knows all that, which is why it’s hard to see him leaving PSU after this season.
Then again, recruiting is not going well for the Lions, and all of a sudden there are major questions at quarterback to go along with the player departures/injuries/no atmosphere at games.
It is feasible to think that some of the personnel issues will continue next year and that Penn State could be in for another subpar season — although not as bad as this one, for sure.
If Franklin were to see that kind of writing on the wall, I guess anything’s possible.
But again, in this crazy year, most people considering life-changing decisions would be better off hanging tight and letting things play out in the world before up and deciding to uproot themselves and their family.
There is one intriguing component from Russo’s story, and it involves the concept of a coach staying too long after having success. His comparison was Stanford coach David Shaw.
If Franklin wants to see an example of a coach who probably stayed in a job too long, he can take a look at what’s going on at Stanford with David Shaw.
Shaw followed Jim Harbaugh with the Cardinal and had five double-digit win seasons and three Pac-12 titles in his first six seasons.
The Cardinal have been back sliding ever since. First a little at a time. Then they plummeted to 4-8 last year and now are 0-2 after losing to Colorado on Saturday.
Shaw could have had a number of NFL jobs when Stanford was rolling, but loyalty to his alma mater and a desire to not uproot his family kept him at Stanford.
Franklin is in his seventh season at Penn State, and as he has taken to mentioning more frequently of late that the past four years have been tremendously successful — the best four-year run since the program joined the Big Ten.
It’s odd that seven years at one school can in any way be considered “staying too long,” but that’s how things are in college football these days.
Franklin faces some big obstacles in fixing this mess at Penn State, and while he’s had the resources he’s needed up to this point, the school has been hit hard financially by the coronavirus pandemic. PSU faces a $70 million revenue shortfall, it announced, and that could mean pulling back on some football resources in the coming years.
If that were to happen, it could make fixing the problems of this 0-4 start a little more challenging for Franklin. And thereby give him a little more reason to think it’s time to go.
Still, universities everywhere are going to be facing the same sort of financial crush, so why leave a problem at one place just to encounter the same situation somewhere else?
The USC job might always be enticing to James Franklin, and perhaps at some point he could end up there.
But to think that it will happen after this season seems pretty far fetched.