At the very beginning of 2014, right smack in the middle of another unaccustomed bout with the dreaded change machine, we were introduced to a stranger. His name, James Franklin of course. It wasn’t too long after we felt that double dose of rejection from the likes of former Nittany Lion, Al Golden, who seemed destined to make his way home only to turn down the vacant Penn State job and Bill O’Brien when he fled to higher ground and NFL paychecks at the stroke of midnight as the New Year’s ball dropped. Golden has since been dismissed and Bill-O or BOB, as he came to be known during his short tenure, still struggles to find a starting QB in Houston. Hey Bill, if you’re listening, Mr. Moxie Matt McGloin would serve you well. Just saying. As for us? Well, safe to say we landed on our feet, and all thanks goes to that stranger we were forced to meet on a cold, drizzly winter day back in January 2014.
I remember fondly, more so comically, some of us tracking the radar blip of a plane on Facebook and Twitter as it made its way through the friendly skies from Tennessee. The first time, at night, was a false alarm as the plane landed in State College only to see the smug smile of then-Athletic Director, Dave Joyner, and a couple other suits step off. The next afternoon we hit pay dirt though, as James Franklin walked onto the tarmac and into our lives, the new head coach of Penn State football. He made a huge impression that day and did one heck of a job easing our minds, still gun-shy towards change and still not sure who it was we just hired. Before long, “Dominate the State” t-shirts popped up in Lions Pride and along College Ave. and a fan base still reeling had a little instant pep back in its step. All thanks to that stranger we now know fondly as FrankLion. He brought confidence when we had little, and swagger when the cupboard was dry. He brought passion and perhaps most importantly, he brought with him a vision. A vision that Penn State was a sleeping giant with a past rich in history, ready to reawaken and create history of its own.
And this is where my story changes, folks. You see, I was in the midst of an article entitled “FranklinVision” based on his keen knack of finding diamonds in the rough (Saquon Barkley, Joe Moorhead, Trace McSorley, etc.) when the man threw a curveball that would have Nolan Ryan staring in awe. I went to bed Wednesday night half-way into my article with a strong sense of what would encompass the other half, only to wake up to an early morning announcement from Penn State Football that the September 30th matchup versus Indiana would be themed “Generations of Greatness.” A short clip of football plays throughout the years was billed a “throwback for the ages” and immediately invoked the annual rumors of uniform change conversation (heated at times, I may add) that accompanies every offseason. Sure enough, not long after noon James Franklin went on Facebook Live with a helmet placed in front of him that had the number “17” on its side with a gray facemask. He had finally done it.
Three years’ worth of Facebook, Twitter, and message board debate came to fruition as a mannequin posed beside the table James Franklin was seated at sporting a Penn State throwback uniform complete with white piping on the sleeves, courtesy of the ‘80s era; a Nittany Lion shrine patch in honor of the class gift of 1940; a blue stripe down the side of the pants the teams of the ‘70s wore; blue and white striped socks from the ‘50s; and get this, WHITE cleats in honor of the 1979 Sugar Bowl. As he sat at that table, looked us square in the eye, and explained a proud tradition, honoring the past, and continuing greatness in the future, it was as clear as day that James Franklin was no longer a stranger. After nearly four years, and plenty of blood, sweat and tears, James Franklin was finally comfortable enough to do what many thought was unthinkable, even if it is for just one game. And you know what, the man did it to near perfection. By the end of his press conference he had us all at ease; strikingly similar to the way he left us feeling after his introduction as our new head coach that drizzly day in early January 2014.
Earlier this week and well before he managed to pull off the unthinkable, a picture caught my eye and tugged at my heart just a little. It was a picture we have seen a thousand times since that stranger walked into our lives. It was a picture of a dad, his kids and James Franklin standing beside them with that familiar smile. The story was told from the dad that he was walking on campus with his kids and Franklin goes speeding past in his tricked-out Penn State golf cart. One of the kids yells WE ARE as he goes flying by and the golf cart comes to a screeching halt. Franklin jumps out and is more than happy to take a picture with the family. Of course, he made their day and most likely made them fans for life in the process. A little less than four years ago, that man was a stranger to us all, eager to make our acquaintance. Today, James Franklin is anything but a stranger, he’s one of us!