“Is this team really a family?” he said. “We’ve got 125 players. Do the kickers really know the D-lineman? Do the D-linemen know the receivers?”
Combined, Franklin said, these factors build and bond young leaders. “I want Penn State to be proud. I want this community to be proud. I want our players to be proud of not only what we do on the football field but how we’re doing it.”
For that to work, Franklin said, a coach must earn each player’s trust by being consistent “day in and day out” – showing up and paying attention.
“Players should feel like they can call their coach at any hour and that you’re going to pick up and take them out to lunch and find out what’s really going on.”
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It’s more challenging to be a student-athlete than ever before with social media
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When James Franklin runs onto the field on game day to the roar of a packed Beaver Stadium, he is working for 100,000 fans.
But the Nittany Lions’ head football coach hustles for one fan who is not there: his late mother. A British immigrant who moved to Pittsburgh and became a single mom, she worked as a custodian at her son’s elementary school.
“I wake up every day trying to make my mom proud and be the type of father she wanted us to have and the type of husband that she deserved,” Franklin said.
The sacrifices she made inspire him to give his all for his wife, his two preteen daughters and for Penn State, where Franklin is in his fifth year coaching, leading a team on the brink of breakthrough. It is a dream job for the 46-year-old Pennsylvania native, the opportunity of a lifetime, which he paused to reflect on as part of the Amway Coaches Poll Inspired Coaching series.
How James Franklin discovered his ‘calling’ – and is building the next generation of leaders
By Christina Ries for Amway Coaches Poll
James Franklin reveals the key to building leaders
I wake up every day trying to make my mom proud
I want Penn State to be proud
Starting them on the path that has brought him such fulfilment and freedom never gets old, Melillo said. “Those breakthrough moments are the most valuable to me, when I see somebody catch on way earlier than I did.”
For Franklin, those lessons are instilled through an ongoing discussion of “championship habits.” They’re solidified on Thursday nights when he invites a small group of players to his home for dinner with his family.
Franklin makes a point to nurture team bonding. The Nittany Lions participate in “shares,” when the entire team gathers and takes turns sharing a personal story.
At the heart of true strength, Franklin believes, lies vulnerability. He has taken the lead through his own “shares,” revealing how his father’s battles with alcohol shaped his childhood.
When you can listen and learn from each other, you tap into the beauty of college athletics and the diversity of players’ backgrounds, Franklin said.
He structured the locker room to maximize that education. The standard college football locker room is arranged by position: the D-lineman all sit in one corner, the quarterbacks occupy another spot and so on.
But Franklin set up their locker room to intersperse players by position and race.
He took on his first coaching position to help fund his master’s degree but was hooked right away. In the role of a coach, he recognized all the elements that had drawn him to psychology: the puzzle of humanity compressed before him, from the first practices to the big games, the players’ private battles and their locker-room dynamics.
“Through coaching, I realized I could connect with people and use the game of football that I loved so much to really make a difference in people’s lives – in some ways, maybe more than I could have through psychology,” Franklin said. “It was my calling.”
He set out to become the best coach he could, assuming a series of college coaching positions as well as internships with three NFL franchises. All the while he thought of his own college coach, Denny Dowds at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania. What made Dowds so effective was how much he cared.
“I’m a huge believer that if players know how much you care about them, then you’re going to be able to help them reach their potential,” Franklin said.
“What’s so special about college athletics is you’re getting guys at such a critical point in their life,” he added. “It’s more challenging to be a student-athlete than ever before with social media. Our guys are under such a microscope. That’s why mentoring is so important. We want to be able to help with that process and with that maturation, to take our life experiences and pour them into our players so they can learn from things we’ve done well and from mistakes we’ve made.”
For Franklin, the mission of building young leaders is personal: The son of a single-parent family now coaches many players from single-parent families. His goal is to equip them with a set of skills that will serve them the rest of their lives.
“That’s what the game of football is about, creating all those life skills – mental toughness, physical toughness, leadership, sacrifice – that you’re going to take with you forever,” he said.
Initially, Franklin envisioned an entirely different career. A star quarterback in college, he was revved up by his time off the field earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology. He set his sights on a doctorate.
Members of the editorial and news staff of the USA TODAY Network were not involved in the creation of this content.