Fearless: A Q&A on James Franklin With Steven Godfrey

Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

In 2011, SB Nation's Steven Godfrey spent a week inside the Vanderbilt football program, gaining an insider's view of James Franklin and his then-football program.

The result was an eye-opening, in-depth look at Penn State's new coach and how he runs a locker room. With that perspective in mind, BSD reached out to Steven for his impressions on the hire, and how Franklin will fit in in State College in 2014. Many thanks to him for taking the time to answer our questions on BSD! --CG

Black Shoe Diaries: How do you think Franklin’s success at Vanderbilt will translate to the Big Ten and Penn State?

Steven Godfrey: If there's any on-field parallels between the two schools, it's that Penn State is combating depth issues due to sanctions and when Franklin arrived at Vanderbilt, the team might as well have been fighting a scholarship penalty thanks to years of horrific roster management and recruiting.

He's proven that he can upgrade the quality of a thin roster immediately, specifically through flexible schematic philosophies on both offense and defense and good old motivation. I don't think PSU's roster lacks for energy or spirit, but Franklin will motivate them as if they're a month removed from the Paterno sanctions. As for particular styles or schemes, this staff has been very, very tactful in its applications - they aren't going to force-fit a roster to their style, ever.

As for the translation to Big Ten play, it's my experience that such a concept is overblown. Franklin won consistently in a major conference with thinner, less talented rosters than almost every opponent he beat. He'll be successful in the Big Ten because he'd be successful in any BCS conference after having done that.

BSD: How do you think his recruiting will stack up to the big programs in the Big Ten, most specifically Urban Meyer and OSU?

SG: Vanderbilt's recruiting under Franklin evolved from a "scrap heap" model to something akin to Stanford or Northwestern, where the emphasis was a national dragnet of academically sound 2-4 star talent that could be developed over time. However, they were also able to compete with the SEC's state schools in certain cases, most notably pulling RB Brian Kimbrow out of Memphis, where he was Tennessee Mr. Football two years ago.

I don't think it's fair to compare Franklin and PSU to Meyer and OSU until the Nittany Lions are at least a season clear of postseason and scholarship sanctions. Even with the punishments tOSU suffered in tattoo-gate, there's no comparing the two brands right now. However, over time I expect Franklin to compete nationally in recruiting, not just in the footprint of the Rust Belt or the Big Ten. He's strongest in the mid-Atlantic (where most of his staff comes from), but recruiting L.A. as an assistant and has developed ties in Atlanta by virtue of coaching in the SEC.

BSD: Why do you think the PSU job was so attractive to Franklin?

SG: I'm not sure exactly how attractive PSU was relative to other openings Franklin was connected to, namely USC and Texas. Had Franklin or any other coach had their druthers, I'd imagine those two jobs would top Penn State. But Franklin is a native son of Pennsylvania and he understands the potential power a healthy, successful PSU could have in major media markets across the northeast.

I also think his experience breathing life into Vanderbilt - thought to be a total lost cause just four years ago - has him convinced he can overcome the kind of problems that drove O'Brien out of Happy Valley. Penn State needs a coach with that kind of disposition, because the amount of internal turmoil that still exists in the wake of Paterno's implosion is still talked about in coaching circles. Franklin is in many ways fearless, or just plain naive. Whatever you call it, that kind of confidence is a must for Penn State right now.

BSD: How long do you think it would take for a Penn State program under Franklin to compete for a Big Ten title? A National Title?

SG: This is an especially tricky question given PSU's circumstances. In a parallel dimension, a sanction-free team under Franklin could reasonably expect something in the range of a New Year's Day bowl game in 2014. If the current postseason ban and scholarship limits hold (75 and 80 in the next two seasons, respectively), I think it's practical to expect a 8-9 win program in 2016.

Franklin's going to recruit successfully starting immediately, but it will be interesting to see how he sells the 2015 class over the next year, as they'll be able to play for the postseason for the majority of their Penn State careers.

One item I'm curious about is how Franklin and Penn State will approach non-conference scheduling. At Vanderbilt, the emphasis was understandably on making a bowl game and hitting six wins above all else. That meant flushing bad existing contracts (Vandy was supposed to open at Ohio State this past season in a one-off deal) and locking in palatable FBS doormats (UMass) with winnable BCS opponents (an extended deal with Wake Forest).

It looks like PSU's '14-'16 schedules are locked in with winnable games. I'm interested to see if they pursue marquee opponents after that, because as I've been told by different members of the Playoff committee, that's the kind of scheduling that will be favored for the field of four.

BSD: What assistants do you think would be most valuable for Franklin to bring to PSU?

SG: Both DC Bob Shoop and OL coach Herb Hand are considered viable candidates to replace Franklin at Vanderbilt, but both would be great additions for Penn State. If you don't follow Hand on Twitter, do it now; he's hilarious and always willing to talk shop with fans. If I had to guess, I'd say that QBs coach Ricky Rahne, OC Jon Donvan and DL coach Sean Spencer could all end up in Happy Valley.

BSD: Penn State fans are concerned that Franklin might bolt for the NFL in a few years, a la Bill O’Brien. In your opinion, is this a valid concern?

SG: Franklin doesn't have quite the same NFL pedigree as O'Brien, but he does have experience in the league (WR coach in Green Bay) and is good friends with former Tampa coach Raheem Morris. However, the differences between O'Brien and Franklin are almost all drawn down the line between the archetypes between pro and college coaches - O'Brien is dispassionate and focused more on the schematics of the game, whereas Franklin is a hurricane of emotion that relishes winning the living room battles as much as the games.

I have no doubt Franklin's name will pop up for NFL jobs if he's remotely successful at PSU (he'll be especially valued because of the Rooney Rule), but the opinion of almost every media member around Vandy is that his personality fits the college game far better than the NFL.

BSD: The elephant in the room: do you think the rape accusations against the former Vanderbilt players was a consideration at all in this search? Should it have been?

SG: I'm in the process of working on a piece regarding a... facet of this scandal. I also live in Nashville and have been privy to the daily coverage. It's my opinion right now that the allegations made against Franklin in the Buzzfeed piece are questionable at best. I've spoken with multiple sources around the program that have routinely absolved the coaching staff of any whiff of conspiracy, as did the Davidson County D.A. (a notorious "hammer" of a prosecutor and a Tennessee fan to boot).

Keep in mind, the alleged "ringleader" of the four players accused of sexual assault was on campus and enrolled as a Vanderbilt student for less than a month before the assault occurred. This wasn't a crime that could be reasonably attributed to any kind of "culture" fostered by Franklin or his staff. Vanderbilt has been especially obstinate with the media throughout the course of this investigation and gagged all of its employees from any kind of public statements.

I'm still of the opinion that until the case is finished it's impossible to develop any kind of concrete opinion for or against Vanderbilt athletics in regard to this crime.

Thanks again to Steven for taking the time to answer our questions. For more of his work, check out the mothership or follow him on twitter @38Godfrey.

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