Once the quarterback at Neshaminy High School, James Franklin now is one of the hot younger college football coaches in America. He called from the road, from the heart of SEC country, responding to an interview request. The first-year head coach at Vanderbilt was in Alabama visiting the family of a recruit who had committed to him.
It's been an interesting ride since Franklin's days as quarterback at Neshaminy and then at East Stroudsburg.
"I didn't know I was going to be a football coach even when I was in college," Franklin said. "I wanted to get my doctorate in psychology or psychiatry."
As Franklin talked for about 20 minutes, it was easy to see how this guy who grew up in Langhorne seems to be what Penn State is looking for in its next coach. Approachable and sharp, confident but not overly cocky. A respected offensive mind with a strong resumé that didn't skip any steps, including a season with the Green Bay Packers.
Here's the catch: If Franklin's the right guy for the Penn State job, he wouldn't take it. If he were to jump at it, he's wrong for it.
In obvious need of stability, Penn State doesn't need a Todd Graham, who just left skid marks at Pittsburgh, racing to Arizona State after one season in charge of the Panthers, leaving disgust in his wake, especially among players after a staffer texted them a goodbye message from their already-departed coach. That's essentially what Franklin would be doing if he took the Penn State job, leaving Vandy in the lurch after one season, after he signed an extension early this month and got the school to agree to a significant facilities upgrade.
Franklin, who turns 40 in February, wouldn't exactly be Graham. For all its self-inflicted wounds and the cloud that isn't leaving State College anytime soon, Penn State's program still is in a different stratosphere from Vandy's, for better or worse - and Graham would be coming back to his home state. In some ways, Vanderbilt fans might even be proud to have their coach get the Penn State job. It said a lot for Temple when Miami hired Al Golden. There would be parallels.
If Penn State has cast its net wide, Franklin's name surely was on the internal-discussion list. He declined to answer when I asked him if anybody representing Penn State had called anybody representing him. He said he just wanted to talk about Vanderbilt.
Franklin also knows the importance of the next game he coaches. Vanderbilt plays Cincinnati in the Dec. 31 Liberty Bowl. If Vandy's season is to go down as a success, it's a must win. Finishing 6-7 after a bowl loss just means there are a lot of bowls, and Vandy technically qualified for one.
Of course, a bowl game at Vandy is an event under any circumstances.
"You're talking about four bowl games in 121 years of football," Franklin said.
You also need to look at Vandy's 6-6 record from the right angles to understand what was accomplished. Sure, 2-6 in Southeastern Conference games, spruced up with wins over Elon, Connecticut, Army, and Wake Forest, sounds ordinary at best. And close losses are losses, even in the SEC. But Vandy lost to Georgia, Florida, Arkansas, and Tennessee by a combined 19 points. The largest margin was six points to UT in overtime.
A couple of the losses had a "Vandy is always destined to be Vandy" feel to them. A running-into-the-kicker penalty came in the fourth quarter against Tennessee when Vandy was up by a touchdown. Much worse was the Arkansas game, possibly the toughest defeat in all of college football this season. Up by eight points early in the last quarter against the 10th-ranked Razorbacks, Vanderbilt had the ball at the Arkansas 5-yard line when a running back fumbled, and a Razorbacks defender returned it 94 yards for a score. To top off the misery, Vandy missed a game-tying, 27-yard field goal in the final seconds.
"The only way we lose the Arkansas game is the way we did," Franklin said of the fumble return.
There are more than a few Terps fans wishing Franklin was in charge at Maryland now. That nearly happened. Franklin had signed a deal in 2009 under which he would have received $1 million if he had become head coach by Jan. 2, 2012. He was the head coach in waiting. However, athletic director Debbie Yow, who concocted the deal, left the next year.
Franklin said he "appreciated" the deal, "but it was a hard position to be in. . . . I was kind of stuck in the middle of all of it. And when the Vanderbilt position came about, the people really seemed invested in changing the culture, doing something new with the program."
"Everything about the job, about the program, about how football was perceived at Vanderbilt needed to be changed," Franklin added. "I realized that."
His own resumé is typical of any football coach rising through the ranks - from Kutztown, back to his alma mater, to James Madison. Then a year at Washington State, more responsibility at Idaho State, over to Maryland, up to the Green Bay Packers for a season as receivers coach. Then offensive coordinator at Kansas State, and a return to Maryland as assistant head coach and offensive coordinator.
Franklin said his offensive philosophy comes from "a bunch of guys I've been around. . . . We run some spread, some option, some true West Coast. Nobody is running a pure form of anything."
In reality, Franklin might be the perfect Penn State candidate if he had coached Vandy for a few more years, getting the program on solid and sustained ground. College head football coaches aren't just X and O technicians. They are CEOs. One season isn't enough of a litmus test, even for a school in Penn State's predicament.
Of course, Franklin's psychology degree might be useful at a place still in need of some healing. Whatever happened to those thoughts of being a psychologist?
"I had done a couple of internships in psychiatric hospitals," Franklin said. "I realized, 'Wow, this isn't what I want to do, at least on this level.' I realized that I could have just as big an impact on players' lives coaching."
If Franklin really believes that, he's got to stay put for a little while. Sounds as if he knows it.