James Franklin grew up experiencing a different America than I did, and probably you as well. As the son of a black father and a white mother growing up in the 1970s and 80s, Franklin's parents separated, leaving young James to grow up with one foot in two different worlds. There was the life with his mom in largely white, suburban Philadelphia, and there was the life with his dad's side of the family, in Pittsburgh neighborhoods hemmed in by systemic, legal racial discrimination.
"It was pretty obvious to me at a very early age that there were differences," Franklin said. "But the interesting thing for me is that became my normal."
That experience molded Franklin into the man he is today, as the head coach at Penn State. It's a big job, not just because he's leading one of the 10 most tradition-rich programs in college football. It's a big job because he's a black man leading one of the 10 most tradition-rich programs in college football.
Simply put, Franklin has a different burden, a different pressure to succeed at Penn State than Ryan Day has at Ohio State or Dan Mullen has at Florida. In a wide-ranging interview with StateCollege.com, Franklin opened up about that burden he carries.
“I’ve talked to [Stanford head coach] David Shaw, a good friend of mine and a number of other coaches and I do think that a lot of the [minority] coaches carry a little bit of extra pressure,” Franklin added.
“I think a lot of people that are in this type of position, they know that there's a little extra emphasis there. They know if they're successful it's going to open up opportunities for more [minorities]. It's amazing how many older assistants in the NFL that reach out to me and say that to me in college ‘You know that when [minority coaches] are successful at a place like Penn State it's going to open up opportunities for more people.’
“I wouldn't describe it as weight but it's something that I'm very aware of. It's something that I'm conscious of. It's a responsibility that I think I have. You know, and the good thing is, that responsibility aligns already with what I'm doing.”
It's interesting to hear Franklin himself echo the same sentiment I heard multiple coaches speak of Franklin when reporting this piece last November. Said at FBS assistant:
“When we get jobs, we’ve got to win and we’ve got to win the right way. Like James Franklin, wins at Vanderbilt and gets the Penn State job,” the FBS assistant said. “When you win, people will come after you.”
Charlie Strong said nearly the same thing as Franklin does above back when he was hired at Texas.
"I went down in the stadium and walked across the field and looked around and thought, wow, this is it," Strong told The Sporting News in 2015. "I said to myself, you cannot fail, buddy. Too many people are counting on you."
The burden that black coaches carry into head coaching jobs is without an equal. When a white coach is fired, no one asks if that's the end of the line for white coaches at that particular school, or for Catholic coaches, or for left-handed coaches. And yet black coaches are asked to succeed not only for themselves, their families, their staffs and their players, but for their entire race. According to FootballScoop data dating back to the turn of millennium, only one school (East Carolina) has fired a black head coach and replaced him with another head coach.
Given all that, Franklin knows his success would ultimately open doors for other black coaches, and the numbers say the flip side of that coin is also true.
To Franklin, the election of Barack Obama in 2008 was a catalyst that he hopes his hiring and successes at Penn State can be within the arena of college football.
“(Obama's election) allows kids growing up in this country — men, women, black, white, whatever your background is — that you could be the president of the United States. And I think it opens up a different perspective... it opens up a different mindset and I think in a lot of ways that's the same thing when someone gets a job like head football coach at Penn State. It opens up a bunch of young assistant coaches across the country that feel like that's a possibility for them one day. I think for our players to be able to look up and see people in positions of power and in decision-making positions is important."
“There’s got to be enough of a visibility of a success rate for people to look at it and say, ‘Well, that’s a route I want to go.’ You have to see some progress,” former Black Coaches & Administrators executive director Floyd Keith told FootballScoop in November. “You have to be able to look and see, ‘That choice is something that I want to do.'”
StateCollege's interview with Franklin is wide ranging and in-depth and you should read it post haste.