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Saturday, January 11, 2014
Updated: January 12, 12:02 PM ET
Franklin the man to unite Penn State

By Ivan Maisel
ESPN.com

Here's a story from James Franklin's three years at Vanderbilt:

The Commodores play their in-state rival, Tennessee, on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. When Franklin arrived in 2011, students didn't stay on campus for the game, rival or no rival. They went home.

One day, Franklin went into Rand Dining Center, where the campus gathers to eat lunch. He sat down with some students to preach the Commodore gospel. He asked one student if he was staying for the Tennessee game.

James Franklin
James Franklin sold Vanderbilt at every opportunity, and now returns home to his native Pennsylvania.

"No," the student said. "I'm going home. I already bought my ticket."

So Franklin punched him.

On the arm, and not meanly, but he made his point.

"Change your ticket!" he cried.

Penn State could use a little James Franklin.

"We are going to do everything we possibly can to bring this community back together," Franklin said at his introductory news conference Saturday.

Franklin arrived in Nashville as a little-known assistant coach from Maryland taking over a program little-known on its own campus. On the field, Franklin went 24-15 (.615), including consecutive nine-win seasons. Vandy beat Florida, Tennessee and Georgia this season. He worked the students as if each and every one were five-star recruits.

Off the field, Franklin went to fraternities and sororities and implored the members to come to games. He went to the campus tour guides and encouraged them to talk up football as they walked backward and answered questions.

The student groups on campus each had their own colors. For instance, the Move Crew, 1,500 upperclassmen whose mission is to move incoming freshmen into their dorms, wore red and black T-shirts. Franklin saw them and asked, "Are we moving them into the University of Georgia?"

The student groups now wear only black and gold.

The other stuff that coaches trying to change a culture do, the things that cost money, got done. The locker room got refurbished. Franklin got an indoor practice facility, new FieldTurf and a new, giant video screen. That's important at Vanderbilt. That's not important at Penn State. If the program doesn't have everything money can buy, it has the money to buy it.

The point is that with commitment and passion, Franklin turned a basketball school into a football school.

"What he did at Vanderbilt will be multiplied by 10 because of the resources he has and the platform," Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin, a longtime friend of Franklin, said Saturday. "[With] his knowledge of the East Coast and recruiting, it's a great fit, great for Penn State."

The self-described "Pennsylvania kid with a Penn State heart" has returned home to a university that has endured two years of shame and anger and angst and frustration. Franklin will use his commitment and passion to accelerate the healing of the university's wounds.

Speaking of which, when asked about the four Vanderbilt players charged in a sexual assault case on campus last year, Franklin said the university had been extremely thorough in its interview. After he made the statement, athletic director Dave Joyner interjected to say that the university had done all the vetting of Franklin it could do, including about this case, and the answers led Penn State to hire him.

"We need to come together like never before with everybody pulling the rope in the same direction," Franklin said. "There's no reason we can't take this program where everybody wants it to be."

Penn State could use a little James Franklin.

As much charisma as Joe Paterno possessed, over the last half (at least) of his head-coaching career, he no longer could put it to use at the retail, one-to-one level. He got too big, and maybe too old, too. When he walked home from Beaver Stadium on Saturday afternoons, Paterno waved at tailgaters one and all -- but icons don't stop for a beer.

Bill O'Brien's brand of football alchemy proved just right for Penn State. O'Brien, over the course of two memorable seasons, extracted a sum from his locker room greater than the whole. O'Brien is a good coach and a better person, but he is a football technocrat. Every hour he spent at a Quarterback Club function was one hour less he could spend on his team.

When Franklin said he intends to recruit every high school and every neighborhood in the state, he might have meant it. He grew up just outside of Philadelphia on the eastern side of Pennsylvania. His father grew up in the Hill District of Pittsburgh on the western side.

"We plan on being here for a very, very long time," Franklin said. "This is my dream job. This is where I want to be."

Penn State could use a little James Franklin. The university is going to get a lot of him.