Does James Franklin Make Sense for Penn State and Vice Versa?
James Franklin was officially announced as the next head coach at Penn State Saturday. He became a coveted coaching prospect after lifting Vanderbilt from 2-10 before he arrived to 6-7 in 2011 followed by a pair of 9-4 seasons. All of that was good enough for fourth place in SEC East all three years. He arrives in State College to a team that finished 7-5 (3rd place in its division) and is still under sanctions. Can Franklin have enough success at PSU to satisfy fans? Is he positioned to meet the expectations?
The Expectations in Happy Valley
For now, an 8-win season is probably acceptable for Penn State. While the sanctions have hurt the roster some, he still has a five-star quarterback with a year under his belt. Even with the penalties, he can probably outrecruit Pittsburgh for Pennsylvania kids and might similarly win faceoffs in New York and New Jersey with Syracuse and Rutgers. But it won't be long before he's expected to win 10 or 11 games a season and compete for conference titles like Joe Paterno often did. That means getting through Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State on an annual basis with Wisconsin and/or Nebraska often thrown into the mix as well. That doesn't sound much easier than what he faced in Nashville. The difference is Vandy fans hadn't seen their team win 8 games since Ronald Reagan's first term and hadn't seen 9 victories in over a century. Winning only 8 or 9 games just a few years removed from a coaching legend isn't nearly as satisfying. Ask Bo Pelini.
Taking it to the Next Level
At major programs, the fans want to see 11 or more wins. That seems to be the mark that would allow him to gain some measure of security at Penn State in the longer term. But the difference between winning 9 and winning 11 might be almost as great as the gap between 2 and 6 or 6 and 9 (despite the math). Turning a loser into a winner isn't the same as turning a winner into a contender. In coaching, it's like the difference between Don Nelson and Phil Jackson (to use a basketball example). Nelson won three NBA coach of the year awards by winning two thirds of his games in places with modest expectations like Milwaukee and Golden State. Jackson by contrast made his mark by taking teams winning two thirds of their games and making them champions. Penn State is looking for another Phil Jackson. It remains to be seen whether or not they simply found another Don Nelson. Jackson was never fired. Nelson wasn't so lucky.
You'd expect Franklin to come in and win more games than he loses. If he can't exceed the 8 or 9-win mark though, it's questionable how long he'll be welcome at Penn State.