It only took two weeks for one of college football’s highest-profile coaching jobs to become the story of the young season.
USC fired sixth-year coach Clay Helton on Monday, two days after the then-14th-ranked Trojans suffered a humiliating 42-28 defeat to Stanford in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Following the initial reaction to Helton’s firing, the question then became who would replace him as the Trojans’ next head coach.
Some of the usual suspects — Jacksonville Jaguars coach Urban Meyer, Fox college football analyst Bob Stoops and Iowa State coach Matt Campbell among them — made the rounds as names to consider. But one coach who has seemingly gained significant traction early in USC’s coaching search is Penn State’s James Franklin, who despite addressing the rumors has yet to say, publicly and definitively, that he would not take the job.
“I can’t stand any form of distraction,” Franklin told reporters on Monday. “I’ll discuss this today with the (team) leadership council so that we can make sure that all of our energy is on our preparation for Auburn. That’s how we’ll handle it.”
Quarterback Sean Clifford, part of that council, said Franklin talked to the council regarding the rumors on Tuesday. He offered no details of the discussion but said he doesn’t think the rumors are “anything we need to worry about.”
“Coach Franklin talked to us yesterday, addressed the topic,” Clifford said during media availability on Wednesday. “I don’t think that it’s anything that we need to worry about. It’s something that is kind of out of our hands. We’re just gonna focus on Auburn and then go from there. We’re really excited about what we’ve got on table this week, so we’re not gonna let outside sources change our thought process.”
Prior to Penn State’s media availability on Wednesday, Dan Parick — citing a source — reported on his show that there was “mutual interest” between USC and Franklin, though he offered no further details beyond speculation.
Later Wednesday, a reporter asked Franklin why didn’t simply refute the rumors outright.
“I have, I have,” Franklin said. “But I’ve also found and tracked this over time that, really no matter what you say, people aren’t happy with (it). So I decided I’m going to handle this internally. I talked to our team. It happens every single year. I’m not worried about distractions in the media and with the fans, I’m worried about my team.”
Franklin, 49, would certainly be an attractive target for USC, whom Trojans athletic director Mike Bohn has said wants to compete for national championships. The eighth-year head coach is 86-43 over 10-plus seasons coaching, which includes two nine-win seasons at Vanderbilt in 2012 and ’13. He also has three seasons of 11 wins in University Park, Pa., winning the Big Ten championship in 2016.
Moreover, Penn State enjoyed four straight seasons finishing among the top 25 teams in college football from 2016 through 2019, three times finishing in the top 10. He also has three New Year’s day 6 bowl berths, going 2-1 in those games. He has claimed eight straight top-25 recruiting classes, finishing no worse than 24th nationally and climbing as high as sixth in that span. His 2022 class currently ranks first nationally among all schools. It claims no recruits from the state of California, though he certainly would be able to take advantage of the talent-rich recruiting grounds of Southern California.
USC has had no issues on the recruiting trail, but hasn’t enjoyed nearly as much success on the field (despite Helton’s team beating Franklin and Co. in the 2017 Rose Bowl Game). Helton went 40-20 at USC since taking over full time in 2016, compared to Franklin’s record of 48-16 in the same span.
Franklin, on paper, would have an easier time achieving success at USC than at Penn State; he would not need to face Ohio State, Michigan or Michigan State every year, and would also Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa out of the Big Ten West division. In the Pac-12, Franklin’s likely toughest competition would come from rival Notre Dame, fellow Pac-12 South team Utah and the occasional meeting with Oregon, either in a regular-season cross-divisional meeting or in the Pac-12 championship.
Whether that’s enough to lure Franklin away from his “dream job” remains to be seen. But until USC fills its position, his name will be inexorably linked to the opening.