Last Saturday, in accepting the head coaching job at Penn State, James Franklin won a press conference. I don't know where this phrase originated, but I like to imagine it was spontaneously uttered by a 20-year-old intern at a sports agency, and from there it paid its way forward into the vocabulary of athletics administrators, who passed it down to a contingent of the media eager to appear savvy about the subtle manipulations of the people behind the curtain.
And so "winning the press conference" became one of those garbage clichés we cling to because it sounds like something sophisticated people say when addressing the performance of public figures. I wish I could throw it under the bus, but it is what it is. It does not hold any lasting meaning, and if you needed further proof that it holds no lasting meaning, all that has happened recently in the corporatized realm of college football hiring should give us reason to dispatch it for good. Because it is clear, at least in this sport, that winning the press conference matters less than it ever has before.
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Over the course of these past few weeks, in addition to Penn State hiring Franklin, Texas hired Charlie Strong, and Louisville hired Bobby Petrino, and Nick Saban hired Lane Kiffin to be his offensive coordinator at Alabama. And my first thought (like many) was that Charlie Strong seemed entirely wrong for Texas, because he is not the type of glib coach who wins a press conference, which seems a prerequisite for a job that comes with its own television network; and my first thought (like most) was that Petrino seemed wrong for any program, let alone Louisville, because he has oozed through perhaps the sleaziest trail of ethical transgressions of any modern coach; and my first thought was that Kiffin's performance as a head coach seemed the antithesis of the militant competence that Nick Saban has cultivated during his tenure at Alabama.
What do all these hires have in common? Every one seemed to deliberately contradict public perception. Every one seemed to reinforce the notion that winning the press conference doesn't mean a damned thing. Every one seemed to get at the idea that it doesn't matter how a college football coach sells himself to the population at large, as long as he sells himself within the job.
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This is also true, to lesser extent, of James Franklin, who is the most overt salesman ever to coach at Penn State. The "organic" choice for Penn State would have been Al Golden or Mike Munchak: a straight-arrow who exudes quiet competence, someone who sells himself by exuding a lack of pretense (as Joe Paterno once did). Franklin's hiring is actually kind of a wake-up call for those of us who have, based largely on environmental factors, stuck with Penn State football through it all. For a couple of years, with NCAA sanctions bearing down, with the weight of scandal crowding out everything else, winning games actually became a secondary goal. (Even before that, in Paterno's final years, the expectations were not the same as they once were.) It was kind of peaceful; real life had intruded in such a way that most of the typical message-board huffing (outside of that pertaining to Paterno himself) just felt myopically stupid by comparison. Bill O'Brien, a man who seemed willfully ignorant of the politics of his job, was the perfect bridge during those years.
But this is major college football, and so that feeling could not last forever.
This is not to say that I don't enjoy hearing James Franklin speak, or that I don't believe him to be (mostly) sincere, or that I don't believe he'll succeed at Penn State. I think (just as my colleague Matt Brown does) it is more likely than not that Franklin will succeed, and I also recognize that Penn State is facing unique challenges regarding its alumni/fanbase, and therefore the public bearing of its coach matters more than it does at other universities.
I have no reason to believe Franklin won't handle his public duties well. But that's not why he was hired. He was hired because he recognizes that his most important role is to sell himself to the people who really matter. That's what his controversial quote (which he later retracted) about the importance of the attractiveness of his assistant coaches' wives really meant: In the eyes of a coach like James Franklin, the press conference is only a small part of the pitch. In the eyes of a coach like James Franklin, life is essentially a recruiting pitch.
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And this explains the hiring of Charlie Strong at Texas, and the re-hiring of Bobby Petrino at Louisville, and the nine lives of Lane Kiffin. They don't always come across well in public forums, but I imagine if you put any of these men in a room with either a) A person with hiring authority, or b) An 18-year-old who runs a 4.4-40 yard dash, they would fall into some Don Draper-level verbal jujitsu. I imagine they save their best material for these types of meetings, because they recognize that these are the sales pitches that matter most. In the end, press conferences are for the public, and the public is savvy enough that they don't care if you win the press conference or not, as long as your victories come in the proper places.