JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The uniforms, white helmets and players that Georgia faces here on Saturday will be a novelty. The head coach? Oh, they remember him.
It was pointed out to James Franklin, now Penn State’s head coach, that in just three years at his previous job he made a big impression on Georgia and its fans, highlighted by two events: The postgame shouting match with Todd Grantham in 2011, and then beating the Bulldogs two years later.
Did he care to reflect on that, Franklin was asked Friday?
“I’d rather just talk about the win over Georgia,” Franklin said, smiling, “and not the other incident.”
Georgia will be the first SEC team that Franklin has faced since he arrived at Penn State. And perhaps that’s appropriate, given that it was perhaps the team that earned Franklin notoriety and then his ticket to Happy Valley.
There was the famous run-in with Grantham, then Georgia’s defensive coordinator, after the Bulldogs’ close win in Nashville four years ago. That was part of a larger message that Franklin sent about this not being a Vanderbilt that would be shoved around.
And a couple years later Vanderbilt upset Georgia – helped by a controversial targeting call – that propelled Vandy to a 9-4 record in what turned out to be Franklin’s final year there.
Bryan McClendon, Georgia’s interim head coach, faced Franklin on the recruiting trail and remarked that “he was obviously a guy that wasn’t going to be there long.” He wasn’t, but not before he spent three seasons riling up opponents, talking up his team, and generally changing the impression of Vanderbilt football.
“Oh, he turned that around,” Georgia senior Malcolm Mitchell said.
The Franklin who Mitchell and his team will face on Saturday seems unchanged. He is still a very commanding presence, exuding confidence without quite issuing bulletin board material. Penn State went 7-6 last year, though only 2-6 in the Big Ten, and enters the bowl 7-5 after improving its conference record to 4-4.
The program is still dealing the sanctions that were imposed the summer of 2012, which were supposed to keep the team out of any postseason for four years. But the penalties were lessened two years ago and here Franklin is, coaching in a bowl against a Georgia program he still knows well.
“They go out and sign a six-star tailback every single year,” Franklin quipped.
Franklin may have rankled Georgia fans, who never quite forgave him for the Grantham incident, but it was less combative among his fellow coaches. He and Grantham shook hands after the game the following year. Then-Georgia head coach Mark Richt had a good relationship with Franklin. That was despite Franklin doing his best to cut into the Georgia recruiting market – and the Bulldogs still flipping a Vanderbilt commitment, such as Josh Dawson on signing day in 2012.
How much does all that familiarity matter on Saturday?
“Obviously history and experience counts. It really does,” Franklin said. “So the fact we have some familiarity with their staff with their team and with the conference I do think helps. …
“But at the end of the day this is a player’s game. It’s going to be about players going out and having the leadership and execution against their players. Coaches will obviously have a role in it. But at the end of the day this is a player’s game. And I know our guys are really, really motivated and excited to go out and play, and play this game well.”