PECKVILLE — This was James Franklin in his element. Shaking hands. Smiling for photos. Signing autographs for many of the 900-plus who came out to see the new head coach of the Nittany Lions.
Bill O’Brien may have pioneered Penn State’s Coaches Caravan when he arrived two years ago. But his successor is far more at home in this environment.
By the time the bus rolled into the lot at Fiorelli’s on Wednesday for the Scranton-area stop on the tour, he wasn’t showing any signs of fatigue. Not even after an afternoon luncheon in downtown Philadelphia and a trip all the way up the Northeast Extension.
Franklin’s college stomping grounds were in the Poconos at East Stroudsburg. But between his playing days and recruiting travels, he’s seen plenty of Luzerne and Lackawanna County.
“Recruited Scranton for a long time,” Franklin said. “Had a bunch of buddies at East Stroudsburg that I went to college with that are from this area. We actually played Bloomsburg one year up here.
“Got a lot of history, got a lot of memories of here. A very, very proud area of the state of Pennsylvania, and it’s cool to be here.”
He was joined on the stop by fellow Penn State coaches Cael Sanderson (wrestling) and Erica Walsh (women’s soccer). New quarterbacks coach Ricky Rahne and former Lions signal-caller Wally Richardson were also in attendance along with District 2 alums Eugene Lewis, Nyeem Wartman and Brian Tomasetti.
For Franklin, energy was the theme of the night. At the dinner portion of the program, he played the role of auctioneer, trying to raffle off season tickets for the fall.
Sanderson, who was good friends with O’Brien and on Wednesday praised the work he did, said he was grateful that Franklin was the one to pick up where O’Brien left off.
“He’s a big picture guy,” Sanderson said. “He loves recruiting and does a fantastic job. He gets off that bus, he’s not breathing till he gets back on that bus. He’s got the energy, and he loves it.
“I think he only doesn’t talk about football more than a couple seconds a day, and that’s what you need.”
Now in its third year, the Coaches Caravan at times has the feel of a political campaign with the bus driving around the Northeast and speeches at every stop.
To that end, Franklin has spent a decent amount of time talking about raising money to improve program facilities across the board. Penn State is already in the process of installing new high-definition scoreboards at Beaver Stadium for the upcoming season, but Franklin has his sights set on upgrades to the Holuba Hall practice facility.
“There’s just some things that we need to tweak and get right,” Franklin said. “It’s become a little bit of an arms race in college football when you look around the country at what’s going on. We want to be a part of that, and we want to be a leader in that as well.
“I’ve coached in the ACC, I’ve coached in the Big 12, (now) in the Big Ten. I’ve coached in the Pac-10, the SEC and the NFL. So I think I’ve got a pretty good perspective on what we’re competing with out there. … I want to make sure that when kids and families come and visit us, they know they’re going to be provided with all the resources that the top-15 programs in the country are providing them.”
Finances will continue to be an issue at Penn State as the school continues to pay installments on the $60 million fine imposed as part of the NCAA sanctions. Franklin said he has already had “supportive” discussions with administrators about fitting in upgrades into an otherwise tight budget.
Until then, Franklin will continue to spread the message on the rest of the caravan, which will arrive at Genetti’s in Wilkes-Barre on May 20.
The main ballroom at Fiorelli’s was sold out Wednesday, and it made an impression on the new coach.
“It was pretty clear that everyone said one of the most well-attended stops we’ll have is Scranton,” Franklin said. “Fiercely loyal Penn State fans in this part of the state.
“Everybody talks about the stadium size and the academic reputation — and those things are important. The thing that makes Penn State special is the people. And I think Scranton is a really good example of that.”