Four days before unquestionably the biggest game his program has played in a generation, the first six questions at Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck’s weekly press conference Tuesday centered on his recent seven-year contract extension.
That will likely will please and frustrate his next counterpart.
James Franklin, as you might have heard, is Mr. 1-0. On Tuesday, just before Fleck’s presser, Franklin tweeted the word “Minnesota” 25 times and punctuated the series with seven exclamation points. He has found a niche when it comes to keeping his team in the moment. Six questions about something so far removed from this game? He’d practically wretch.
But it’s November, and maybe Minnesota realized that a few extra million dollars in Fleck’s wallet and a half-dozen questions about something other than Penn State were small prices to pay for a bit of temporary sanity in what promises to be a crazy month.
Franklin and Penn State are not going to be able to avoid the madness for long.
Once the midseason point hits in college football, it’s not a matter of whether a major program is going to move on from its head coach. It’s when. In recent years, the formula has been “the earlier, the better,” and Sunday, a day after getting manhandled by a mediocre Miami team, Florida State fired second-year head coach Willie Taggart.
We know what Florida State is: A program with a history worth striving to match, the money and support from boosters to pursue any head coach it chooses to pursue, and the desire to spend that money. The Seminoles have been a mess going on three years now, but this isn’t an unattractive job for a coach who 1.) wants to get paid and 2.) wants just about the easiest path to the College Football Playoff he can find, smack dab in the middle of fertile recruiting ground and a conference that has just one powerhouse.
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Eventually, other big-time programs will open their jobs and wallets. There have been questions about whether Michigan State will bring back Mark Dantonio, and as much as Jim Harbaugh denies the rumors that always swirl around him, the Michigan job would be coveted if Harbaugh gets too good an NFL offer. Of course, there’s also Southern California, where the Trojans just lost to Oregon by 32 at home, where Clay Helton has been on the hot seat for years, it seems. That’s not to mention the Rutgers vacancy, or the remote possibility of a Mississippi State or Boston College or Virginia Tech or even Auburn opening up by the time December rolls around.
A coach like Fleck has, first and foremost, done enough at Minnesota to earn some stability from the athletic department. It’s also just as likely the Golden Gophers recognized that once some of these jobs started popping open, Fleck’s name would be floated around as a possible candidate. A contract extension almost certainly eliminates him as a candidate, enabling him to focus on a memorable season.
It’s a bit of a different situation, though, for Franklin and Penn State, which are contractually married through the 2022 season at an average pay rate of $6.55 million over the next three years, sans performance bonuses. The Nittany Lions are No. 4 in the College Football Playoff rankings. Franklin’s contract has already been extended once, and this is not the first time his name has been floated in conjunction with a potential job opening in November. Last season, he was seen as the top candidate to replace Helton if USC fired him after 2018. It didn’t, but the questions were there about Franklin, and he used some of that leverage to get better compensation for his most trusted assistants.
“Whenever anything comes up, we try to address it,” Franklin said this week when asked about a Yahoo! Sports report linking him to the Florida State vacancy. “Make sure everybody kind of understands where we’re at with everything, with coaches, with players, with recruits, with all of it. But we try to stay as focused as we possibly can on the task at hand. All those things that take away from that, we try to stay away from as much as we possibly can.”
Franklin added he loves being at Penn State, that he enjoys coaching the current crop of players and that he “(doesn’t) really see that changing any time soon.” Still, his name will be among the first mentioned for just about every high-profile job. That’s a blessing and a curse for Penn State, which is probably going to need to make a bigger financial commitment to the football program and facilities upgrades to keep Franklin and his current staff in place for the long term. It’s going to be expensive, but again, perhaps comparative peanuts when judged alongside the benefits of being the championship contender Penn State is right now, and certainly should be again in 2020.
It’s time for Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour to consider a longer-term deal that will keep Franklin in Happy Valley and outside programs off the pursuit for years to come. It’s the best path forward for a program on the cusp.
If Penn State determines, however, it ultimately can’t or won’t compete with the money Franklin could fetch on the open market, this might be the year it lets him see if the grass is greener. After all, there’s an obvious replacement for him on the market: Baylor head coach Matt Rhule has his team unbeaten in 2019, has shown marvelous adaptability in rebuilding the Bears and Temple as a head coach, has deep ties in New York and the mid-Atlantic, went to high school in State College and is a former Penn State player.
He might not be James Franklin as a coach, but he’d be an alternative. In silly season, you need all of those you can get when you have the kind of coach most every program wants leading their rebuilding efforts.