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Smeltzer: And Here’s to you, Mr. James Franklin

Penn State Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin Penn State Nittany Lions Band November 12, 2022 David Hague/NSN

It didn’t break any records.

There wasn’t a big ceremony on the field after.

It didn’t happen before a packed Beaver Stadium against a big-time opponent. Instead, it happened at Rutgers, which isn’t big time. Like, at all.

No, people won’t remember James Franklin’s 100th win as a college football head coach the way, say, they remember Joe Paterno’s 409th win. Or his 400th. Or his 324th. Or his 300th. Or his… well, I hope you get it by now.

Many Penn State fans probably had no idea that Franklin was on the verge of reaching 100 heading into Saturday’s game at Rutgers.

Many also probably didn’t care after finding out, which is understandable. One hundred seventy-nine coaches got to the century mark before Franklin, and plenty will do so after.

But what they do care about— should, anyway— is that Franklin has a hell of a football team.

He deserves credit for that, and to me, the morning after his 100th win is a good time to give it to him.

Penn State fans and writers have said and written many things about Franklin during his time as head coach. Some of it is positive—some negative. Nittany Sports Now has been no exception.

Franklin is close to wrapping up his ninth season at Penn State. He got raved about and ripped apart through the first eight, and Year 9 hasn’t been an exception thus far. Penn State has won far more than it lost this season, so there hasn’t been as much room to criticize Franklin as there was in 2020 and 2021 when Penn State went 11-11 combined. Nonetheless, the things that people trash Franklin for have lingered this season.

“He can’t beat Michigan.”

Fair point. Franklin’s program has fallen behind Jim Harbaugh’s since the start of 2021, and Penn State got embarrassed, 41-17, in Ann Arbor last month.

“He can’t beat Ohio State.”

Aside from 2016, that’s true. Penn State fought hard but fell to the Buckeyes, 44-31, at Beaver Stadium this year, and Franklin is 1-8 against them overall.

“Penn State hasn’t beaten anybody good.”

Maybe so. Of Penn State’s nine wins, none are over ranked teams.

Franklin and Penn State still have work to do to be one of college football’s “elite” (that word drives Penn State fans crazy.) But anybody watching this team every week should see how much better the operation is than it was last year and the year before. Many will get credit for this year’s turnaround. Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen for revitalizing Penn State’s running game as true freshmen. Phil Trautwein for the improved offensive line play that’s helped Singleton and Allen become impact players. Manny Diaz for being the home-run defensive coordinator Penn State expected when they hired him to replace Brent Pry last December.

All of them deserve praise, no doubt about it. But you better believe Franklin deserves it, too. Franklin and his staff got Singleton, the top prep RB in the country, to come to Penn State and Allen, a four-star from the famous IMG Academy, to sign on. Franklin hired Trautwein, a rising star in the coaching profession, away from Boston College. Franklin got Diaz, an established big-time defensive mind, to come to Penn State, not even a week after Miami dumped him as its head coach.

Saying that the head coach is responsible for the success and failures of a program might sound about as bold as saying, “It’s going to snow in Buffalo this winter.” But many won’t give Franklin credit even when he deserves it. The people who were the first to rip Franklin after the Ohio State loss Oct. 29 won’t praise him for Penn State winning its last three games a combined 130-24. That’s just how it is, and it’s not something that will change.

Even those who view Franklin objectively probably overlook him by accident. During the Rutgers game, Singleton ran a 100-yard kickoff for a touchdown, Allen did what Allen does (11 carries, 117 yards, one touchdown) and Abdul Carter played like a man possessed at linebacker. It would have been easy to think about things other than, “hey, that Franklin can coach.”

People will write plenty about Singleton, Allen, Carter and other stud players. Good. That’s how it should be. I’m curious if this will be the only ode written to James Geoffrey Franklin this week, but I’m happy to write it if it is.

Franklin’s done a fine job this season and a fine job overall at Penn State. No, he’s not the best coach in the Big Ten, much less the country. But if Penn State wins its regular-season finale against 5-6 Michigan State next week– which it should– then Franklin’s teams will have won 10 or more games in four of the past seven seasons. Penn State’s also won a Big Ten title and two New Year’s Six Bowls in that span. Yes, the first two years of this decade were awful and Franklin deserved flack. It’s hard to blame fans who forgot about Franklin’s successes from 2016-19 because he failed in 2020-21.

But so far, ’22 has been fantastic. Penn State isn’t national title material yet, and guess what? It wasn’t supposed to be this year. For this year to be considered a successful one, Penn State had to pick up the pieces from the previous two campaigns are establish itself as a formidable program. It would surely accomplish that by finishing 10-2.

The title of this article was a tribute to Simon and Garfunkel’s iconic hit “Mrs. Robinson,” so I’ll revisit that song.
Feel free to sing along to the tune
And here’s to you, Mr. James Franklin. Not every Penn State fan loves you more than you will know (whoa, whoa, whoa), and some won’t until you win a national championship.
But you’ve done your job well. You have a good team, and the players you and your staff signed from the Class of 2022 can be the nucleus for a great one.

I’m going to finish this by paraphrasing a different group, Timbuk 3: things are going great, and they’re only getting better for Franklin and Penn State.

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