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Exploring The Similarities Between James Franklin And Dabo Swinney

From their beginnings as elite recruiters to how they overcame struggles during the early parts of their tenures, Dabo Swinney and James Franklin are more alike than they are different. That bodes well for Penn State’s future.

USA Today

“Relentless recruiter. CEO-type. Not an X’s-and-O’s guru. Relies on his coordinators.”

If you are a Penn State fan, that might sound like a description of James Franklin. Just go into the comment section of a definitely-not-rivals fan base, and chances are it won’t take you long to find some anonymous internet soul saying those exact things about Franklin.

Relentless recruiter? Absolutely. CEO-type? Sure. Not an X’s-and-O’s guru? Not exactly false, either. While Franklin’s detractors might want you to believe he’s a football novice, that isn’t the case. But it’s also safe to say that Franklin shouldn’t be characterized as an offensive (or defensive, for that matter) visionary. He served five seasons as an offensive coordinator prior to landing the head gig at Vanderbilt; two at Kansas State and three at Maryland. While he had some pretty good offenses — his last season at both stops served up top 30 offenses — Franklin also had some real duds, most notably, only averaging 21.5 points per game during his first two seasons with the Terrapins.

All of this is to say — yeah, Franklin isn’t Chip Kelly 2.0. But guess what? You don’t need to have been a rockstar coordinator to win a national championship in college football. Don’t think so, just look at Dabo Swinney and Clemson.

NCAA Football: CFP National Champions-Clemson Celebration Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Swinney took over the Clemson program in an interim role in 2008, having never held a coordinator position. He wasn’t a quarterback guru either, having only ever served as a tight ends and wide receivers coach. But where Swinney shined was as on the recruiting trail. He was a dynamic recruiter who proved his ability to bring in the talent, and in turn, showed the potential to build a program.

Like Franklin, Swinney’s first few seasons at Clemson were tumultuous. Swinney actually believed he was going to be fired following the 2010 season, but then-Clemson A.D. Terry Don Phillips showed trust in the young head coach. Phillips said to Swinney at the time: “Just continue to do things as you’ve been doing them, and I believe in my heart all this will work out.”

With the newfound re-assurance, Swinney made a big change to his anemic offense, bringing in former Texas high school football coach Chad Morris to revamp his offense. It was an instant success as Clemson’s offense jumped from 10th to second in the conference, and played a big part in the Tigers winning the ACC that year. But the Clemson defense was still an issue, giving up 70 points to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl. So Swinney again made a big move, bringing in Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables to run his defense.

As they say, the rest is history. Swinney is 72-11 since then, with three ACC titles and one national title to show for it. Despite the early pressure, Swinney was able to right the ship — not by being stubborn, but by identifying the weaknesses in his program. He didn’t try to be something he wasn’t. Instead, he brought in really smart people to run both sides of the ball.

Sounds like someone else we know, doesn’t it? Whether it’s the shaky start, being on the hot seat, or the hiring of a really smart offensive coordinator to change the program’s offensive philosophy, Dabo’s first few years mirrors Franklin’s. But while the shift in X’s-and-O’s was important for both head coaches, the groundwork for success at Clemson and now Penn State was laid on the recruiting trail.


Note: To give some context, an ideal Blue Chip Ratio for a National Title contending team would be about 50% while an Elite Ratio should be about 20%.

As you can see, Swinney’s first two classes were nothing to write home about, with just a 30.7% BCR (Blue Chip Ratio) during that time. The following four classes were better — all top 20 classes, and an average 42.5% BCR and 12.7% Elite Ratio. But it wasn’t until Dabo’s seventh recruiting class, the 2015 class, that he truly started landing “elite” classes.


You can see from 2015 on through 2018 that every class had an Elite Ratio of at least 20%. And really, these last two classes (2017 and 2018) are where Swinney has really taken it to another level, bringing in 70% BCR classes.

What does this mean? Well, that Swinney’s build was a slow one. He’s always been one of the best recruiters in the country, but for his first six years, he didn’t recruit at the elite level he’s at now. It takes time to bring in a Top 5 class when you are rebuilding, which makes what Franklin has accomplished during his first six recruiting classes even more impressive.


Note: Obviously, the 2019 class is only halfway done, but projecting what we know right now, the BCR should still be around 70% while the Elite Ratio should be about 25%, so it’s not too far off.

Just glancing between both charts, and you can see the similar trends from year-to-year, especially in the beginning.

  • Average of the first two classes: Franklin (36% BCR/0% Elite Ratio) vs. Swinney (30.7% BCR/5.1% Elite Ratio)
  • The following four classes: Franklin (55.5% BCR/18.9% Elite Ratio) vs. Swinney (42.5% BCR/12.7% Elite Ratio)

As the numbers point out, Franklin is actually ahead of schedule compared to where Swinney was at. Clemson didn’t bring in an elite group (50% BCR and 20% Elite Ratio) until Dabo’s seventh recruiting class. Franklin did that in 2018, just his fifth recruiting class, and is on pace to add another one in 2019.

To take things a step further, the only Clemson classes that are better than Penn State’s 2018 class are their 2017 and 2018 classes, both of which came on the heels of having already won a national title. That’s where Franklin is recruiting at since October 2016 — truly a championship contending level.

Now, whether a national title comes to Happy Valley remains to be seen. Nothing is guaranteed in sports, especially when Nick Saban and Alabama still reside as the kings. But one thing is for sure: James Franklin and the Nittany Lions are on the right path — a path that Swinney and Clemson recently took on their journey to become one of the nation’s premier programs. A bit of luck, like in any sport, will be needed, but with Franklin leading the charge, Penn State’s rise is just beginning.