This perfect head coach comparison is bad news for James Franklin's tenure at Penn State

Former Georgia football coach is a perfect coach comparable to Franklin.
Penn State Spring Football Game
Penn State Spring Football Game / Scott Taetsch/GettyImages

As Franklin enters his 11th season as head coach at Penn State, many begin to wonder what lies ahead for Franklin or simply his career arc with the Nittany Lions. In a lot of ways, it is Franklin who is the true successor to Joe Paterno, it is nothing against Bill O’Brien with his brief yet impactful tenure in Happy Valley, who is the most visible face of Penn State athletics. A decade into the reign of James Franklin, it's starting to become apparent that the perfect coaching comparison for him is Mark Richt. 

Richt's Hall-of-Fame career which began at the University of Georgia (2001-2015) and ended at the University of Miami (2016-2018), draws plenty of parallels to Franklin's time on the sidelines at Vanderbilt and Penn State.

Promising Starts

Both Richt and Franklin had promising starts to their careers. At Vanderbilt, Franklin guided the Commodores to two of their four 9-win seasons in program history (Dan McGugin has the other two - 1904 and 1915). 

When Franklin arrived in Happy Valley, the program was still recovering from sanctions, fortunately, the NCAA had begun restoration of the Nittany Lions’ scholarship allotment. Yet, by 2016, in Franklin’s third season, Penn State won its first outright Big Ten conference championship since 1994 (Ohio State is recognized as co-champions with Penn State in the 2005 and 2008 seasons). 

Between the 2016 and 2019 seasons, Penn State appeared in three New Year’s Six bowls in four seasons, a feat last matched when Penn State went to three consecutive New Year’s Six bowls between 1980 and 1982 under Paterno.

Richt began his Georgia career by guiding the Bulldogs to feats not accomplished since the Herschel Walker/Vince Dooley days of the early 1980’s. 

Georgia finished 13-1 in 2002, at the time it was the most wins in program history and since matched or topped by current head coach Kirby Smart in four different seasons, ranked No. 3 in the nation, their first final Top 5 ranking since 1983.

By 2005, Richt had guided Georgia to two SEC Championships in four seasons, the most since they won three in a row under Dooley between 1980 and 1982.

Major QB Recruiting Misses

Both have had their fair share of excellent quarterbacks. Richt had Matthew Stafford, Aaron Murray, David Greene, and DJ Shockley.

Franklin’s tenure, on the other hand, has been dominated by two long-time stalwarts, Trace McSorley and Sean Clifford, who both rewrote the Nittany Lion record book. 

Now, Franklin is left hoping that current starting quarterback Drew Allar lives up to the promise of being the nation’s top quarterback in the Class of 2022 by 247Sports.

Despite the relative stability at the position, both men had notable recruiting misses that could have turned the tides of their programs.

Richt had a major quarterback rough patch during his final years at Georgia, Christian LeMay (2011), Faton Batua (2012), Brice Ramsey (2013), and Jacob Park (2014) never materialized as starters. The drought was exacerbated by missing on Gainesville HS (Gainesville, GA) prodigy DeShaun Watson, who committed to Dabo Swinney’s Clemson Tigers during his sophomore year of high school.

Despite a two-year full-court press, Richt could not flip Watson to stay home. Richt did not have the difference maker at quarterback and living in the shadow of Nick Saban's dynasty at Alabama only accelerated his demise in Athens. 

While Franklin hasn’t had a major quarterback recruiting dry spell like Richt, he does have a major recruiting miss that could have turned the tide of the Nittany Lions in the Big Ten. 

Justin Fields originally committed to Penn State in December 2016, he was rated as a low-end four-star quarterback who had some upside. However, as Fields developed, his stock rose and he became the top dual-threat quarterback prospect in the Class of 2018, and Georgia was able to flip his commitment.

While that de-commitment should not have haunted Penn State as much as it did, Fields realized at Georgia he was not going to unseat starter Jake Fromm and decided to transfer from Georgia.

After landing at Ohio State, Fields tortured the Nittany Lions completing 78.6% of his passes for 506 yards and six touchdowns. Ohio State won back-to-back Big Ten championships and went to the College Football Playoff each season, Fields was Big Ten MVP and Offensive Player of the Year both seasons.

Turning Points

During Richt’s early tenure, it seemed he had Georgia on the precipice of a national championship. 

In his first seven seasons at Georgia, Richt had five Top 10 finishes in the polls including finishing No. 2 in the AP following the 2007 season.

Many Georgia fans thought 2008 would be the breakthrough as they were preseason No. 1 and a heavy favorite to capture the program’s first national championship since 1980.

After a close encounter with South Carolina, Georgia dropped to No. 3 and hosted No. 8 Alabama in the program’s “Black Out Between The Hedges.” 

What was supposed to be a coronation of Georgia to a national audience and join the proverbial table with LSU and Florida who captured the previous two national championships, Georgia was blacked out in the first half against the Crimson Tide as they rolled out to a 31-0 lead. The 41-30 loss to Alabama was a notice to the SEC that Saban was building a juggernaut and led the Crimson Tide to an undefeated 12-0 season until they met Florida in the SEC Championship Game.

For Georgia, hopes were extinguished and Richt would, until his dismissal, be under the big game microscope.

As Penn State entered its 2017 matchup with Ohio State, the Nittany Lions were ranked No. 2 in the country and many felt running back Saquon Barkley was going to hoist a Heisman Trophy, and this was the game that was supposed to shift the power of the Big Ten to the Nittany Lions. 

On the opening kickoff, Barkley had one of his signature moments as a Nittany Lion going 97 yards stunning the Ohio State crowd.

Penn State would roll to a 35-27 lead late in the fourth quarter and were in a goal-to-go situation that would have given the Nittany Lions at least a 14-point lead if they would have converted. When Penn State needed Barkley to convert most, he fell short on third and goal from the three, losing three yards.

After the electric opening kickoff touchdown, the Buckeyes held Barkley in check allowing only 75 all-purpose yards (44 rush, 23 receiving, 8 kickoff) and a rushing touchdown.

The Nittany Lion offense couldn’t convert on any major opportunity to put away the Buckeyes. Ohio State was able to convert, allowing them to come back to upset the Nittany Lions 39-38 and keep the Big Ten throne for themselves.

Big Game Woes

Richt is a hall of fame coach, enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame Class of 2023, he won nearly 75% of his games at Georgia, with multiple SEC Championships and New Year’s Six bowl triumphs.

What ultimately did Richt in at Georgia was his inability to win big games and consistently beat his rivals.

Following the 2008 loss to Alabama, Georgia was 5-11 against Top 10 ranked opponents. Against key SEC rivals, Richt had difficulty with Florida (5-10), and Nick Saban coached teams at LSU and Alabama (3-5). Despite an overall winning record against Steve Spurrier at South Carolina, it was losing four of five between 2010 and 2014 during Richt’s demise that exacerbated his inability in the big games.

Franklin’s biggest criticism is his lack of success in the big games.

Penn State is winless against Ohio State since the miracle 2016 game where Marcus Allen blocked an Ohio State kick that Grant Haley scored the deciding touchdown, the Nittany Lions have endured notable collapses and blowouts.

Since Jim Harbaugh rebuilt the Michigan program, Penn State has endured some notable embarrassments against the Wolverines including allowing 418 yards rushing in 2022, and last season’s head-scratcher with an anemic offense and a defense that was so dominant it contained JJ McCarthy all afternoon, but had no answer for a Michigan ground game. 

Since becoming Penn State head coach, Franklin is 3-17 in games where an opponent enters with a Top 10 ranking.


There is still hope for Franklin to shed his reputation as a coach who comes up small in big games. Tom Osborne is a classic example of that career trajectory.

Ask Nebraska Cornhuskers fans about Osborne today and he is universally adored, but that wasn’t always the case.

Prior to winning his first national championship in 1994, Nebraska was a consistent nine or 10-win program where their losses usually came against Barry Switzer’s Oklahoma Sooners and one of the Florida powers in the Orange Bowl.

Osborne finished his career going 60-3 and three national championships, Franklin is a long way from that.

At some point, Penn State, which is investing plenty of money into its football program, will be faced with a crossroads. Hold onto Franklin through his 10-year contract extension that keeps him through 2031, and hope he turns into Osborne (or even a diet-version of the all-time great head coach) or cut bait and try to hire the next Kirby Smart to replace its version of Mark Richt.

Franklin has his ardent supporters, notably LaVar Arrington who defended Franklin after the Michigan debacle, “We’ve had two coaches post-Joe (Paterno), and we judge them based on what we do against Ohio State and Michigan,” LaVar Arrington said on FOX Sports Radio following last season’s Michigan loss. “What I think about is — Joe (Paterno) didn’t beat Michigan or Ohio State either! I didn’t get a win against (Michigan football). Not one! We didn’t beat Michigan. So stop comparing (James Franklin) to Joe. That’s the first thing.”

While it may feel like the grass is greener, making a move from a head coach consistently winning 10 games is risky. Something the fans who usually clamor for Franklin to be fired after a big lose fail to recognize.

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