STATE COLLEGE — His first job was as a receivers coach, but what James Franklin remembers about it is filling soda machines.
As a first-year assistant at Kutztown, some two-and-a-half hours away from Beaver Stadium, he made $1,200. He got razzed by players. He lived in a friend’s basement.
“I caught the bug,” Franklin said. “Caught the bug of coaching.”
That he would be here of all places, 19 years later, beginning the first day of what he called his dream job?
“It’s still surreal,” Franklin said Saturday after being introduced as the 16th head coach in Penn State football history. “But it’s been unbelievable. My family couldn’t be more excited about being here.
“To be the head football coach at Penn State, what an unbelievable opportunity. We don’t take that for granted.”
The process itself took longer than the 41-year-old from Bucks County would have preferred. He couldn’t officially take the job until one last technicality was finished — a Saturday morning conference call by a subset of the school’s board of trustees to ratify his contract.
With that vote, the East Stroudsburg University grad completed a path from that basement at Kutztown to the top level of college football.
Oh, and he’ll be getting a slight raise from that $1,200, too.
Penn State has made him one of the highest paid college coaches in the country with a deal that pays him an average of $4.25 million annually over six years. Only Ohio State’s Urban Meyer is set to make more in the Big Ten in 2014.
Franklin inherits the program from the departed Bill O’Brien, who left at the start of the new year to return to the NFL with the Houston Texans.
O’Brien spent just two years at Penn State, ably guiding the Nittany Lions through the severe handicaps from NCAA sanctions. But his quick departure is certainly still on the minds of Penn State officials, players and fans.
“I’m a Pennsylvania boy with a Penn State heart,” Franklin said. “We plan on being here for a very, very long time.”
The university will have to take him at his word on that. The buyout clause in his contract tops out at $5 million at the end of the 2014 season and decreases down to $1 million in the final two years.
By comparison, Penn State will receive roughly $6.5 million from O’Brien for his jump to the NFL.
Franklin, however, calls himself “a college guy” when it comes to coaching, having spent just one season in the pros — 2005 with the Green Bay Packers.
“To me, the NFL was more like a job,” Franklin said. “I worked with some unbelievable men with the Packers and they’re great guys … but you go home at the end of the day and you’re done.
“In college, you’re never done. If a kid calls you and he’s home sick at 2 o’clock in the morning, go get him. Or if a kid is struggling with something. You don’t deal with those things (in the NFL). For me, it’s about the relationships, it’s about the development of the kids.”
Franklin was one of the most sought-after young coaches in the country, drawing interest from high-profile college and pro jobs because of his standout work as the head coach at Vanderbilt.
If there was one major concern over his hire, it was from last summer where four of his players at Vanderbilt were charged with raping an unconscious woman. A fifth pleaded guilty for attempting to cover it up.
“The most challenging thing that I’ve ever been through personally as a father of two daughters and professionally,” Franklin said. “But what I think that came out through all of this, through their background checks and all the information that they got is that we were honest. We were up front.”
Though the district attorney in Nashville has cleared Franklin and his coaching staff of any wrongdoing, obviously the situation is even more scrutinized at Penn State in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
Athletic director Dave Joyner said it was a focal point of the interview process with Franklin.
“This whole process of vetting was maybe the most thorough vetting process of any search perhaps of any position at this university,” Joyner said. “So my belief, without a doubt, is that James Franklin is a man of extremely high character.”