Updated: Nov 29, 2021
Since USC fired Clay Helton on September 14, 2021, college football pundits have speculated about James Franklin's future at Penn State. However, on November 23, 2021, Penn State ended any job speculation by inking Franklin to a contract extension keeping him in Happy Valley until at least 2031. The new deal guarantees Franklin $7 million a year in base salary, a $500,000 per year retention bonus, plus other incentives. Also, if the NFL or another college program want to hire Franklin before April 2022, it will cost that program $12 million. However, this leaves the question, "Was this a good move by Penn State?"
I see the new deal as Penn State sending Franklin two messages. First, it is a reward and acknowledgment of the good he's done in his seven years at the program's helm, raising fan expectations from a New Year's Six bowl game to conference titles and potential playoff appearances. However, an 8-win season is no longer acceptable. At $7.5 million a year, it is time for Penn State to start appearing in more than one conference title game every six years, and it is past time for Penn State to show up in the College Football playoff.
Second, the administration is saying they are tired of the media linking James Franklin to every high-profile job opening. If Franklin wants to leave, it is going to come at a hefty price tag. Ideally, the buy-out close will keep Franklin focused on doing his job at Penn State instead of flirting with other potential jobs.
But was handing James Franklin a ten-year extension the right move? From a strictly off-field perspective, I say yes. There is no noticeable upgrade over Franklin right now. Maybe Penn State alum and current NFL-head coach Matt Ruhle, if the university could talk him into returning to the college game. Otherwise, no coach jumps out as an obvious choice who could both elevate Penn State into a national title contender but also not be a candidate for every significant job opening. Also, Franklin is having unprecedented success on the recruiting trail for Penn State.
However, every year, Franklin's Penn State teams manage to find a way to lose games they should win, and 2021 has a microcosm of Penn State's inability to "get over the hump." For example, after starting the year 5-0 and rising as high as #4 in the AP poll, Penn State lost five of their last seven games, including:
23-20 to #3 Iowa, a game Penn State arguably wins comfortably but for an injury to their starting QB;
33-24 to #5 OSU has 20-point underdogs;
21-17 to #6 Michigan when they had the ball with a chance to win the game late;
30-27 to #12 Michigan State in white-out conditions in East Lansing (more on this in a minute).
Every one of these games could and should have won. We are talking about college football, and weird things happen, but a coach worth a 10-year, $75 million contract extension turns those losses into wins. A coach worth the $7.5 million a year does not, for example, call a read-option on 3rd and one from his 49-yard line down by 3 with under 10 minutes to play when that same play failed every other time it was called. He also does not call a fake field goal and expect the punter to run for the conversion.
Do I think Franklin's new contract is a good thing? It definitely can be, but Franklin needs to start winning these close games instead of finding ways to lose them. In addition, he needs to begin developing offensive linemen to protect his start Quarterback and Running Back recruits. The bottom line is that winning will cure all ills, but after watching how Franklin guided Penn State through the 2020 pandemic season and let the 2021 season fall apart, I think many Penn State fans are justified in their skepticism.