Commentary: For risk-averse USC, James Franklin is far from a flawless pick to coach the Trojans

Penn State coach James Franklin watches his team play Indiana in State College, Pa., on Oct. 02.
Penn State head coach James Franklin watches the action during an NCAA college football game against Indiana in State College, Pa., on Oct. 02, 2021.
(Barry Reeger / Associated Press)
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The Penn State Nittany Lions were 24-point favorites against Illinois, a 2-5 team whose coach had said earlier in the week that the Fighting Illini did not have players good enough to compete in the Big Ten Conference. Penn State was ranked No. 7 in the country and playing in front of 100,000 fans in Happy Valley, its idyllic slice of America.

The Nittany Lions’ coach, James Franklin, walked onto the Beaver Stadium turf last Saturday with seemingly endless options for good fortune coming his way. He was considered one of the favorites to be offered the open USC and Louisiana State head coaching jobs, and, even if those positions didn’t intrigue him enough to leave, he could use the perceived interest to get a more lucrative deal with Penn State. After all, Franklin could claim that the only reason the Nittany Lions had suffered a loss in 2021 was an injury to starting quarterback Sean Clifford in the first half at Iowa, and his current team still could accomplish all its goals.

But a gray day in State College turned darker and darker for Franklin as each minute excruciatingly ticked off the clock. Penn State couldn’t finish off Illinois in regulation, so the teams went to overtime tied at 10. In the fourth and sixth overtimes, potential game-winning Clifford passes fell incomplete. In the record ninth overtime, the law of averages prevailed and Illinois completed a forward pass to win the game 20-18.

Penn State coach James Franklin reacts to a call during his team's loss to Illinois
Penn State coach James Franklin reacts to a call during his team’s loss to Illinois.
(Barry Reeger / Associated Press)
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College football history, albeit the dubious kind, had unfolded and Franklin was on the wrong side of it — certainly, for him, at the worst possible time.

Would USC and LSU want the coach who authored the most unsightly defeat of the season? Would Penn State entertain as easily any requests he had to make State College more palatable, especially if the Nittany Lions end with a mediocre record a year after finishing 4-5?

His desirability suddenly in question, Franklin became the most fascinating coach riding this year’s carousel. But what few knew Saturday afternoon was that he had an ace burning a hole in his back pocket: Sometime in recent weeks, Franklin had switched agents from Trace Armstrong to industry big-gun Jimmy Sexton, who represents Alabama’s Nick Saban and is known for getting his clients whatever they want. Florida’s Dan Mullen, Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher and Georgia’s Kirby Smart are also Sexton clients, so with Franklin on board he now represents five of college football’s top 10 earners.

Not surprisingly, the news of Franklin signing with Sexton leaked Monday to Football Scoop, a website that covers movements among coaches. The narrative around Franklin quickly changed to “he must be on the move,” and so there he was Tuesday at his weekly news conference, fielding questions about his new agent and whether he felt a long-term commitment to Penn State.

Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell and USC might not be an obvious match, but if Mike Bohn calls again, Fickell has a rare chance to lead a blue-blood program.

While Franklin could have reclaimed control right then, he handled those questions with the same clumsiness that defined Saturday’s loss.

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“My focus is completely on Illinois and this team and this program,” Franklin said. “I think I’ve shown over my eight years my commitment to this university and this community, and that’s kind of my statement.”

Franklin meant to say Ohio State, this week’s gargantuan opponent, not Illinois, the source of last week’s humiliation. He referred to the Buckeyes as Illinois several times and later said it would be a “tremendous challenge going on the road to [Michigan’s] Big House” when he meant Ohio State’s “Horseshoe.”

The jokes would soon come about Franklin’s lack of focus. Clearly, his critics said, his mind is already drifting toward Los Angeles or Baton Rouge.

Yet it should be asked: Why is it so widely assumed USC is actually targeting Franklin?

We’re checking the temperature of the USC football coaching search. Penn State’s James Franklin is considered a top candidate. Urban Meyer still isn’t.

There are reasons that he could be attractive — experience running a major program, success as a recruiter of blue-chip athletes and a big personality that fits L.A.

But there are also legitimate red flags from Franklin’s past that USC will vet — if it hasn’t already — and the issues go far beyond a recent on-field debacle.

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When Vanderbilt hired James Franklin for his first head coaching job in 2010, the Commodores were languishing in their usual role as Southeastern Conference doormat, having posted back-to-back 2-10 seasons.

Franklin, who had been in line to succeed Ralph Friedgen at Maryland before taking the Vanderbilt job, led Vandy to a bowl game in Year 1 and followed that with a 9-4 record, which earned the Commodores a No. 23 ranking in 2012’s final Associated Press poll. If Vanderbilt’s performance under Franklin felt miraculous, that’s because it probably was, and the next season brought even higher expectations in Nashville.

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But this hopeful picture was the backdrop to a tragic event that shook the private university to its core in the summer of 2013. On the night of June 23, four Vanderbilt football players gang-raped an unconscious 21-year-old female student in a dorm room.

The details of the incident as they came out in court were ghastly — the players took photos and videos, and one urinated on the woman. More than three years later, Brandon Vandenburg, Cory Batey and Brandon Banks were each convicted and sentenced to 17, 15 and 15 years in prison, respectively, and the fourth player, Jaborian McKenzie, was sentenced to 10 years of probation as part of a plea deal.

James Franklin, then the coach at Vanderbilt, waits for his team after a loss to South Carolina in 2011.
James Franklin, then the coach at Vanderbilt, waits for his team after a loss to South Carolina on Sept. 24, 2011.
(Rich Glickstein / Associated Press)

Eight years after the incident, there are still unanswered questions about Franklin’s handling of the crime.

Franklin’s awareness of the crime was questioned in a 2013 BuzzFeed story in which a source alleged he was “99.9 percent sure” the coach had seen video of the rape and told one of the four players to delete it. Although the Davidson County deputy district attorney said there was no evidence of a cover-up by the coach, Franklin testified a year later, in October 2014, that he had told his team he had seen the video to make a point about the seriousness of the allegations.

“I spoke as if I had seen the video because I was angry and upset and didn’t want to water down the message to them,” said Franklin, who by then had moved on to Penn State.

“Coach Franklin, did you lie?” the defense attorney for one of the four players accused of rape asked him.

“No, sir,” Franklin said.

Franklin’s role resurfaced in a filing by a player’s defense attorney, who alleged Franklin and strength coach Dwight Galt — who followed Franklin to Penn State — contacted the woman four days after the rape to tell her “that they cared about her because she assisted them with recruiting.”

In the years before the incident, according to the filing, “Coach Franklin called her in for a private meeting and told her he wanted her to get fifteen pretty girls together and form a team to assist with recruiting even though he knew it was against the rules. He added that all the other colleges did it.”

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Penn State coach James Franklin shouts instructions to players during a practice
Penn State coach James Franklin shouts instructions to players during a practice on April 17, 2021, in State College, Pa.
(Keith Srakocic / Associated Press)

Given these allegations, it was natural for Franklin’s critics to bring up a comment he had previously made in a radio interview about the wives of his assistant coaches.

“I’ve been saying it for a long time, I will not hire an assistant coach until I’ve seen his wife,” Franklin said. “If she looks the part, and she’s a D-1 recruit, then you got a chance to get hired. That’s part of the deal.

“There’s a very strong correlation between having the confidence, going up and talking to a woman, and being quick on your feet and having some personality and confidence and being fun and articulate, [and] walking into a high school and recruiting a kid and selling him.”

During the 2013 season, Vanderbilt was under an intense microscope because of the rape, but the Commodores still went 9-4 and finished No. 24 in the AP poll, polishing off the program’s most successful three-year stretch with a second consecutive bowl victory.

And when Bill O’Brien left Penn State for the Houston Texans that offseason, Franklin’s name vaulted quickly to the top of the school’s list of replacements.

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Penn State was barely two years removed from the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal and the firing of legendary coach Joe Paterno when Franklin surfaced as a candidate. Very soon, Michelle Rodino-Colocino, a Penn State professor of communications, started an online petition demanding that the school not hire Franklin.

“We find it appalling that, if reports are true, you are considering naming Vanderbilt coach James Franklin as our new head football coach here at Penn State,” Rodino-Colocino wrote. “Are you aware that his players are being investigated for gang raping another Vanderbilt student this past June and that James Franklin is suspected of covering up the attacks?

“USC passed on Franklin because of these allegations. It hardly needs saying that Penn State does not need a football coach on staff who covers up rape. Nor do we need one who is alleged of a cover-up. Right? Do the right thing. Do not hire James Franklin.”

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It is true that in the fall of 2013, after USC fired Lane Kiffin, there were rumors the school had interest in Franklin. Then-USC athletic director Pat Haden ended up focusing his search on Chris Petersen and Steve Sarkisian before hiring Sarkisian, and only Haden and his trusted staff know why Franklin did not rise to the top.

Not long after Penn State announced the hiring of Franklin, president Rodney Erickson and athletic director David Joyner addressed the Vanderbilt rape allegations at a news conference, defending the hire and saying Franklin had been vetted more intensely than any employee on Penn State’s campus.

Penn State’s support of Franklin and the passage of time pushed the Vanderbilt story to the back of people’s minds. The Nittany Lions’ thrilling upset of Ohio State in 2016 thanks to a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown led to a Big Ten championship and trip to the Rose Bowl which ended with a loss to Clay Helton’s Trojans.

Penn State still has not gotten over the College Football Playoff hump because of Ohio State’s dominance over the Big Ten East division, but it consistently performed like a top-10 to top-15 program until the Nittany Lions somehow got off to an 0-5 start during the 2020 pandemic season before recovering with four straight wins. This season is now teetering on the edge of disaster with top-10 Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State looming ahead.

For USC, which is still healing from its own sexual assault scandal with campus gynecologist George Tyndall, is Franklin the football coach so far superior to the rest of the candidate pool that the school would risk inviting further scrutiny onto its campus? USC administrators and faculty remain extra-sensitive to the perception of institutional impropriety and a laissez faire attitude regarding ethics within its gates, stemming from the “Varsity Blues” athletic admissions bribery scheme and the embarrassment of NCAA sanctions from the Reggie Bush scandal, among other missteps.

Penn State coach James Franklin leads his team onto the field against Illinois Saturday
Penn State coach James Franklin leads his team onto the field ahead of their game against Illinois in State College, Pa., on Saturday.
(Barry Reeger / Associated Press)

Eight years have passed since the Vanderbilt rape grabbed headlines — and since Penn State ignored Rodino-Colocino’s plea to move on from Franklin. Reached by the Times, Rodino-Colocino said her disappointment today is not that Franklin was hired but that she hasn’t seen any major efforts from the university to fix the toxic culture that leads to campus sexual assaults.

She thinks football coaches and players could be a driver for change campus-wide like few other institutional assets.

“If USC is hiring a new football coach, one of the things USC should do is ask him to be a leader against gender violence,” said Rodino-Colocino, who now heads Penn State’s Students Against Sexual Violence advocacy group. “Football is an institution that builds masculinity, and it’s an institution that people look to. Football players are also looked to as leaders and should be taught to set an example.

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“What USC needs to do is get real. No matter who they hire, especially after the gynecologist, make this the time when USC is going to be a leader in being an anti-rapist campus.”

USC president Carol Folt has continually talked about the importance of integrity as she tries to usher in a scandal-free era for the school. Athletic director Mike Bohn has echoed that sentiment when discussing the football program’s ideals.

There is no proof that James Franklin did anything wrong at Vanderbilt, but the questions linger. Is USC a school that is in a position to ignore them?