Penn State Coach James Franklin seeks a breakthrough amid noise at Michigan

Michigan’s clamorous visit to Penn State on Saturday with the Big Ten suspending Jim Harbaugh on Friday finds Penn State at its own considerable juncture, centered around three 10s. It has a No. 10 ranking with playoff visions still viable as it plays No. 3 Michigan. It operates in the can-it-be 10th season of Coach James Franklin’s tenure while craving a rare win against one of its two nemeses (Ohio State is the other). And it plays at the 10th anniversary of arguably the best coaching job of this century in college football.

“Man, that was just — it was a hell of a time,” Kyle Woestmann, 32, said as he gazed back 10 years.

Thursday marked the 10th anniversary of when Vanderbilt, for whom Woestmann played defensive end while Franklin was head coach, went to The Swamp and clobbered Florida, 34-17, a pillar in a season spent upending all known order of the southeastern universe. Already it had beaten Georgia. Weeks later it would beat Tennessee. All through Franklin’s three seasons (2011-13) going 24-15 at Vanderbilt, the outcomes sent chroniclers scrambling down the history files to find nuggets such as when it last won nine games (1915), when it last won nine games two seasons in a row (never), or when it last beat Florida, Georgia and Tennessee in the same season (never).

“They knew how to develop talent,” Woestmann said of Franklin and his staff. “They knew how to win games. And they knew how to make us feel cared for and loved.”

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Nowadays, of course, Franklin stands 86-37 at Penn State but also amid long grumbles from a fan base that often views itself as more of a 106-17 kind of place (or 123-0) than an 86-37 kind of place. He has four 11-win seasons, one Big Ten title, a Rose Bowl win, a Cotton Bowl win and a Fiesta Bowl win, but also that 4-15 record against Ohio State and Michigan, that 3-16 record against top-10 teams and that lack of any College Football Playoff berths.

On Monday, he had his pre-Michigan news conference, and he started as ever with a balance sheet on the preceding 51-15 win at Maryland: “We won the turnover battle. We won the explosive-play battle. We won the third down battle. We won the sack battle. We won the drive-start battle. We didn’t win the penalty battle.” It has become a familiar part of the national tapestry to check in on his sessions and note how reporter after reporter asks how he’s doing, and he says fine, and he asks back how they’re doing, and they say fine, all matter-of-fact without any tenor of schmoozing.

“You’re not in your normal room and place,” he said to one reporter appearing on Zoom, before commenting on the reporter’s WiFi, then saying, “I’ll shut up.”

“Your flashlight’s on, just so you know,” he says to another. “That happens a lot with you.”

Another: “Hey, James, how are you?”

“Hey, John, how are you?”

They don’t spare him hard questions, and he doesn’t bristle that they don’t. “Fair question,” he often says. This week they revisited Michigan’s running game last year against Penn State (55 carries, 418 yards), Penn State’s gap accountability on defense, Penn State’s difficulty at wide receiver, Penn State’s need to demonstrate some dynamism on offense. (“But yeah, to your point, yes. Yes. There’s no doubt about it.”)

His team went 11-2 last season, and you can guess the sources of the “2.” He occupies one of those college football perches familiar through time, that of the program that does really well when its people want really, really well. He navigates this while just past the 10-year mark of navigating an atmosphere entirely different.

Woestmann redshirted in 2010 while wondering if he erred in choosing Vanderbilt over other offers such as Georgia. “And then Franklin comes in,” he said. “And I’ll never forget, we had our first mat-drill workout. It was like 4:30 in the morning. And he just ran us into the ground, and I was like, ‘Half our team might quit after this.’”

He had another thought, too: “This is the SEC.”

The accomplishment of Franklin and his coaching staff and Vanderbilt in going 6-7, 9-4 and 9-4 from 2011 to 2013 probably outpaces any other football accomplishment in the country this young century because of the brutal hegemony against which Vanderbilt operated: the SEC. In that realm, Vanderbilt long had dwelled as underling often derided for its emphasis on academics. It had at least one world-class talent, wide receiver Jordan Matthews — 112 receptions in 2013, 274 by now in the NFL — but it built mostly off the eternal value of being counted out.

“First team meeting with Franklin,” Woestmann said, “he came in and he was like: ‘Here’s the deal. No one thinks I deserve to be a head coach. And no one thinks you can win in the SEC. We’re going to work together to prove them wrong.’”

He added something many debutants might miss: Let’s strive to honor the seniors here, who have worked so hard already. Soon he invited back former players for meaningful visits, players who knew “the same grind whether you played in 1980 or 2020,” Woestmann said, and “a pride of having played football at a school like Vanderbilt where you’re constantly disadvantaged and an underdog.”

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Along their way to three bowl games and two bowl wins, they found themselves building their capacity to fight into something utterly unafraid and fully formidable. All of them felt “full of fire,” Woestmann said, from Franklin to his staff including defensive coordinator Bob Shoop and Brent Pry (nowadays the Virginia Tech head coach) and Josh Gattis (nowadays the Maryland offensive coordinator) and Dwight Galt (a strength coach Woestmann lauds). By the time of the opener against Mississippi in 2013, Woestmann said, “I’ll never forget, man, warming up, looking over at the students’ section, and all the Vanderbilt students are hanging over the rails wearing black.” He thought: “This is what Vanderbilt football could be.”

Woestmann, who led the 2013 team in sacks, has some telltale snapshots in memory: the early defensive huddle against Georgia when confidence budded, the halftime at Florida when confidence soared, the time quarterback Jordan Rodgers barged back into the game at the Music City Bowl after blood had gushed out of his face, the idea that the coaches once ran quarterback Patton Robinette over and over again at Florida because the play worked even if it didn’t make people coo over pretty brilliance. Right on back to the corners, the safeties, “the Steven Clarkes, the Andre Hals of the world, they were athletes, and they were gifted, but man, they were tough, and they were smart,” Woestmann said.

“We’re going to be tougher than hell, give you hell and wear you out,” Woestmann said. “And we’re going to run whatever play we need to run to win the game, and nothing more, and nothing less.”

When atrocity struck in summer 2013, with four team members indicted on charges of gang rape for which three still serve sentences, Franklin handled that with dismissals within a week and with frank team meetings thereafter.

Then, as it goes, this reshaping of football reality lured attention to Franklin. The native Pennsylvanian who played quarterback at East Stroudsburg State left in 2014 for Penn State, just as that empire tried to breathe again from the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Some Vanderbilt players expressed dismay at Franklin’s departure, and Woestmann doesn’t mind saying out loud that he was one. Ten years on, at 32, he says, “We were all so hurt because of how much we loved them and the staff, and it was kind of a knee-jerk reaction.” Ten years on, Franklin tries to beat Michigan in a different kind of noise and at a different kind of juncture.

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