STATE COLLEGE — Penn State has hired James Franklin as its next head coach.
Penn State made the announcement this morning, after the school’s compensation committee met to finalize the contract. That committee approved the hiring by a 6-0 vote this morning.
Franklin, 41, who led Vanderbilt to bowls in all three of his seasons there, replaces Bill O’Brien, who left the Nittany Lions after two years to coach the NFL’s Houston Texans.
Franklin won 24 games with the Commodores and is a Pennsylvania native with strong ties in-state. Penn State officials met with him this week in Florida. He will be asked to build off a foundation that O’Brien set amid scandal. Despite a lack of scholarships, a bowl ban and player defections from the late Joe Paterno’s roster, O’Brien led the Nittany Lions to two winning seasons (8-4, 7-5) while restoring some tempered enthusiasm in Happy Valley.
That torch has now been passed to Franklin, who played quarterback at East Stroudsburg, an NCAA Division II school in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference.
In college, he was coached by Denny Douds, who is an Indiana native.
He set seven school records during his senior season, and he also has coached at Washington State, Idaho State, Kansas State and Maryland before going to Vanderbilt.
Members of Penn State’s trustee committee on compensation met with Athletic Director Dave Joyner and others this morning to discuss the contract, which the group called “excellent” for both Franklin and for the university.
“Dr. Joyner and I have stressed that our No. 1 priority in hiring a new coach was to hire an outstanding leader for our football program, one who will continue our long tradition of student-athlete success on the field and in the classroom,” Penn State President Rodney Erickson said. “We have achieved that goal. On behalf of the University and the entire Nittany Lion nation, I am proud to welcome James Franklin as Penn State’s 16th head football coach.”
Much of Saturday’s meeting, at which specific terms of the contract were laid out for trustees, was done privately. The actual vote was public, lasting roughly a minute, and Penn State made the formal announcement of the hiring moments later. Trustees said Franklin’s contract terms would be revealed this afternoon.
“The contract is in line with other recent coaching contracts,” committee chairwoman Linda Strumpf said.
Franklin took over a Vanderbilt program that went 2-10 each of the two seasons before he was hired Dec. 17, 2010. He went 24-15 in his first three seasons as a head coach, matching Dan McGugin for the most wins in school history over a coach’s first three seasons.
The Commodores are 16-4 over the past 20 games, which is second in the SEC only to Alabama. Vanderbilt won the final seven games of 2012 and the final five of 2013 in a stretch that also includes back-to-back bowl wins.
He also led Vanderbilt to rankings in the final Associated Press poll each of the past two seasons, including No. 24 in the rankings released Tuesday. Vanderbilt hadn’t finished in the final AP poll before Franklin arrived since 1948 under Red Sanders.
Franklin also has doubled the number of nine-win seasons in school history by going 9-4 each of the past two seasons. Vanderbilt last won nine games in 1915 before Franklin. In 2013, the Commodores also beat Georgia, Florida and Tennessee in the same season for the first time.
He now has a new challenge and some big shoes to fill. O’Brien met the task of succeeding Paterno with ferocity and passion. He changed the culture by, among other things, placing names on the backs of the jerseys, playing loud music during practice to fire up players and overhauling the offseason weight training program. All along, he was lauded.
At the same time, though, he always paid homage to Paterno and his legacy. He said and did the right things to appeal to Penn State fans, and made the most of his 24 games at Penn State. In the end, that made him even more marketable to the NFL.
After a lackluster start — O’Brien lost to Ohio and Virginia to open his career — Penn State rattled off five straight wins, and finished the year with a rousing 24-21 win over Wisconsin at home.
This season, the Nittany Lions started off better — wins over Syracuse and Eastern Michigan opened the year — but dealt with inconsistency issues along the way. All that said, like his first season, O’Brien closed with a flurry, defeating the Badgers, this time in Wisconsin, 31-24, to close out the campaign.
O’Brien developed bonds with his players, but never let that get in the way of the task at hand. He needed to grow college football players into Penn State players, and in many cases, he was successful. It’s now on Franklin to push that mission forward.