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Tim Benz: Coming to James Franklin’s defense, am I really doing this?

Tim Benz
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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert speaks with Penn State football coach James Franklin during practice Thursday, July 26, 2018, at Saint Vincent College.

I don’t exactly have a long track record of rushing to the defense of Penn State coach James Franklin.

Come to think of it, I have no track record of rushing to the defense of Franklin.

I’m going to do so today.

As we posted Monday in our “First Call” section, CBS Sports online anonymously polled what they claimed to be about 25 NCAA Division I coaches for their opinions on various topics.

The one posted over the weekend was: “Who are the most underrated and overrated coaches in college football.”

To illustrate how inexact this “science” can be, three coaches — David Shaw, Tom Herman and Kirk Ferentz — got votes on both lists. So take it with a grain of salt.

But Franklin tied Florida State coach Willie Taggart for the most votes in the overrated category.

Honestly, my first inclination was to pile on and say: “Yeah! That’s right. He is overrated.”

That would be wrong though.

First of all, one would need to clarify where Franklin is being rated among coaches. Top five? Top 10? If that’s the case then, yes, I’d agree.

But I haven’t seen his name pop up in a lot of rankings like that. Have you? Furthermore, it was no small task to emerge from the end of the Sandusky-related sanctions and pilot what Bill O’Brien started to do in an attempt to move out from under the enormous shadow of Joe Paterno in Happy Valley.

O’Brien got fed up with it. Franklin took the baton and has gone the next step better than many had a right to forecast.

Back-to-back 11-win seasons as the Sandusky penalties began to fall away is an accomplishment. Period. So is winning the 2016 Big Ten title.

Still, even though Penn State is back to a championship-contending program, it’s not the kind of school that simply recruits itself like Alabama, Ohio State, or Clemson.

So Franklin deserves some credit to that end. Also, anyone who orchestrates two nine-win seasons in a row at Vanderbilt must know a little about college football. He is the only coach in the history of the Commodores to do so.

If you look at the quotes from these other coaches who were tied to the story about Franklin being overrated — again, anonymously — they largely smacked more of personal dislike than professional dismissal.

“James Franklin. His coaching peers know he is full of it.”

“When [Franklin] got the Penn State job, I thought, ‘Man, he’s a good marketer.’ He did a nice job with that. It’ll be interesting without Saquon [Barkley].”

When I read “full of it” and “marketer,” that sounded pretty familiar. That’s a common gripe about Franklin amongst football fan bases that don’t like Penn State.

In other words, the rest of the Big Ten plus Pitt, West Virginia and Notre Dame.

Just to name a few.

I’ve often heard words like “preening,” “phony,” and “self-promoter” used to describe Franklin. To be clear, when I heard those words, they often were coming out of my own mouth. However, based on the tone of those other comments from coaches, I guess I wasn’t too far off.

Unless we want to start revising history, until the middle of 2016, some Penn State fans were beginning to say the same things.

I know in Pitt circles there are frequent grumblings that when a recruit is up for grabs between the two schools, Franklin isn’t afraid to use an occasional “negative recruiting” tactic. I’m sure that practice isn’t limited to use against Pitt.

Then again, are we going to be such Pollyannas to assume it’s only employed by Franklin?

Of course not. But if some others don’t like Franklin in the coaching community — and based on these results it appears some don’t — they’ll act like he’s the only one that does it.

What ’s funny to me is an easier case can be made against many of the other coaches mentioned in the story.

Taggart gets the Florida State job for going 47-50 lifetime. Jimbo Fisher’s teams got worse every year after 2013, and he gets the richest contract in the sport’s history at Texas A&M. Lane Kiffin burns a bridge everywhere he goes but keeps getting work. Ferentz has two double digit-win seasons since ‘04 whereas Franklin has done it in each of the last two years.

Yet Franklin is the one who is overrated?

Call James Franklin whatever else you want. Apparently many are. But calling him “overrated” at this point in his career is inaccurate.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH.

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