By Jeff Barker
The Baltimore Sun
6:01 PM EDT, May 7, 2014
Penn State football coach James Franklin paused Wednesday and — in an exaggerated deadpan manner — shouted a question to a member of his staff.
"Hey, Lauren, do we have Maryland on the schedule this year?" the former two-time Terps assistant inquired.
"Yeah, we do? Somewhere back there," Franklin said without the hint of a smile.
Franklin — once in line to become Maryland's head coach — knows full well that the Terps will travel to Penn State on Nov. 1 as part of Maryland's inaugural Big Ten season. It's a game that will hold plenty of meaning for area fans because of Franklin's Maryland history and because it will be the schools' first football meeting since 1993.
Franklin may have considered it premature on Wednesday to discuss the emotions associated with that game, but — in an interview followed by a speech to boosters in Baltimore — he addressed a variety of other issues, including recruiting in Maryland, his years with the Terps and his career arc.
Franklin is known for excitability and passion. When he sleeps these days, it is in his office. His wife and two daughters are in the process of moving to State College, Pa., following his departure as Vanderbilt's head coach in January to assume the Penn State post.
Wearing a dark-blue suit as he spoke in the ballroom of an Inner Harbor hotel, Franklin provided alumni a large dose of welcome bravado. The supporters had come armed with such questions as when Penn State will return to a national championship game, and whether the Nittany Lions will defeat Michigan in the sixth game of the season
Such successes, Franklin suggested, must be accompanied by tenacious recruiting. The new coach aspires to dominate in an area extending six hours in any direction from Penn State's campus. That, of course, includes the Baltimore-Washington region considered by the University of Maryland as its base.
"I consider this in-state. I consider New Jersey in-state," Franklin told the crowd. While there are other schools in the region, "they might as well shut them down because they don't have a chance."
That remark generated loud applause, and Franklin got a standing ovation when the session ended. Among those clapping was Tim Gaia, the father of Penn State offensive lineman Brian Gaia, a rising junior recruited out of Gilman.
"He speaks from the heart," the elder Gaia said of Franklin.
Franklin continued a Penn State tradition of including Baltimore on the school's promotional "Coaches Caravan" outreach tours.
But this year was different because it was Franklin's first, and he has a long and complicated backstory tied to the state.
In 2009, Franklin, now 42, was considered the future of Maryland football. The former East Stroudsburg (Pa.) quarterback was in his second stint as a Maryland assistant when he signed a contract promising him $1 million from the school if he was not named to succeed head coach Ralph Friedgen by Jan. 2, 2012. Franklin had attracted the interest of several college and NFL teams, and Maryland wanted to make sure he stayed around.
But Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow left for the same position at North Carolina State in June 2010, and her successor, Kevin Anderson, disapproved of "coach-in-waiting" agreements, which he considered divisive to the staff. With no guarantee that he would be Friedgen's successor, Franklin left to become the head coach at Vanderbilt in December 2010.
"People ask me a lot about the Maryland-specific deal," he said in the interview before his speech Wednesday. "I am unbelievably grateful for my time at Maryland. I had a great experience there. I think this senior class, there are still guys that I recruited. Debbie Yow is still a mentor to me."
Penn State's fall roster includes 10 players from the state of Maryland. His staff includes a number of former Maryland assistants, including offensive coordinator John Donovan, director of performance enhancement Dwight Galt and administrator Jemal Griffin.
In 2009, head-coach-in-waiting agreements were more common than today. The experiments did not unfold as planned at Maryland, West Virginia and some other schools.
"I think in a lot of ways it makes sense, but it has to be in a very, very specific situation," Franklin said. "After going through that situation, I probably would not do it again."
While he didn't get the Maryland job, Franklin said the arrangement had an upside.
"Ralph [Friedgen] was great in terms of involving me in the decision-making process — why he did things and how he did things," Franklin said. "The other thing is — whether it worked out or not — people started looking at me and putting [me] in a different perspective from that experience."
Franklin was 24-15 at Vanderbilt. Penn State said it carefully vetted Franklin after the 2013 arrests of five Vanderbilt players after an on-campus rape. Franklin has said he fully cooperated with authorities. But the case made his hiring sensitive, particularly since the 2012 conviction of former Nittany Lions assistant Jerry Sandusky on child sexual-abuse charges and the related NCAA sanctions against the school.
While he's now landed a top job in the state he was born, Franklin said he still considers Maryland home. After his appearance in Baltimore, Franklin boarded the Penn State bus and moved on to his next stop — Washington, D.C.
The "DMV" — shorthand for the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia — has become part of his lingo, even if that's confusing to people outside the region.
"I would say something about the DMV and people would have no idea what I'm talking about," Franklin said. "[They'd ask] why is Coach Franklin talking about the Department of Motor Vehicles?"
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