Here are some things I can tell you about Sterling Jenkins: He is 6-foot-9, and he weighs in at somewhere north of 300 pounds. Last year, he played offensive tackle at Baldwin High School, in the hilly suburbs of Pittsburgh, and next year he will play football at Penn State. He made this choice just a few days ago, which was the first time I had ever heard mention of his name.
But apparently, to those who make it their vocation to know about such things, Sterling Jenkins is one of the largest and most coveted recruits -- if not the largest and most coveted recruit -- in the state of Pennsylvania. The day Jenkins committed, Penn State coach James Franklin was giving a speech in the town of Hershey, and he told the crowd, "If my phone rings, I'm answering it." He was not just screwing around: When Jenkins dialed his number, Franklin picked up, started a "We Are… Penn State" chant with the crowd, and then stepped aside to finish the call.
Franklin has accomplished something almost unfathomable at Penn State in his first four months on the job, and it culminated on the day Sterling Jenkins tipped the scales of his recruiting class. Later that same afternoon, Franklin picked up another commitment, from a New Jersey dual threat quarterback named Brandon Wimbush. All of which means Penn State currently has the second-ranked recruiting class of 2015, behind only Alabama: Ten four-stars, and five three-stars (presuming they all actually sign letters of intent next spring), with more to go, as Franklin continues to sweep across the East Coast on a speaking tour, making Drago-esque proclamations about how the Nittany Lions are going to stamp out every opponent that attempts to infiltrate their recruiting territory.
Best as I can tell, Franklin (whose family has yet to move to State College with him) spends his days proselytizing to massive and fleet-footed teenagers, purchasing doughnuts for fans, getting accosted at the local grocery store, and catching a few hours of sleep on his office couch. At his introductory press conference, he made a crack about making appearances at children's birthday parties, and while he later retracted this overt offer to perform balloon tricks, he's done everything short of it. I imagine he's about three weeks away from hand-churning his own flavor of Creamery cherry vanilla.
In theory, all of this success should feel great to people like me, who grew up integrated with the culture of Penn State, who watched the identity of an entire region get stripped away by the horrific crimes of a pedophile and by whichever set of authority figures you choose to believe enabled his actions. What Franklin is attempting to do is to build Penn State back up again, to restore its ego, to thumb the overzealous critics and rivals in the eye, and to rebrand the place with his own manic enthusiasm. There is no easy box in which to place a happening as terrible as the one that took place at Penn State, but whereas Bill O'Brien felt like a bridge from scandal to "post-scandal," Franklin feels like he is attempting an entirely new construction. He is a salesman and a cheerleader, and Penn State could use a salesman and a cheerleader right now, and for many people with ties to State College who have spent the past three years attempting to justify themselves, it's not much more complex than that. And yet for the rest of us, it's another reason to worry that the whole mechanism of college football will never be as simple as it seems on the surface.
* * *
It's possible that these pangs of concern are wholly unfounded. It's possible that Franklin really is the moralistic dynamo he purports to be, that underneath the slick surface there really does reside a deeply ethical human being who could also record a very entertaining Ronco infomercial. It's possible that Franklin really did everything he could in regard to the alleged rape that took place on his watch at Vanderbilt, and that the recent defense filing, which alleges that Franklin spoke privately to the victim, and that Franklin "told her he wanted to get fifteen pretty girls together and form a team to assist with the recruiting even though he knew it was against the rules" is either an exaggerated or an entirely inaccurate accusation. The deputy district attorney on this case has come to Franklin's defense, and unless something more definitive arises, I think it's wholly unfair to make presumptions about Franklin's culpability.
But even assuming he did everything right at Vanderbilt, there is a larger question lingering here, and it ties back to Penn State's past, and it ties back to the emotional rifts of the past three years, and it ties back to at least the idea of Joe Paterno, if not the man himself.
The Paterno mythos is a complex and perhaps entirely illusory concept at this point; even so, it still feels relevant at Penn State. It still hearkens back to the "Grand Experiment," to the melding of athletics and academics under the guise of a football program, which feels less and less like a feasible equation in the modern world. Paterno, of course, wanted to win as terribly as James Franklin does -- he could be ruthless and exacting when he wished, and anyone who believes otherwise is hopelessly naïve -- but Paterno managed to couch that competitiveness in an anachronistic professorial outlook that made his tenure at Penn State, for a very long time, feel like something different.
That is not the case with James Franklin, because James Franklin feels very much like a modern football coach. He is a walking TED talk. His is the language of a pitchman rather than a professor. He readily admits to being a perfectionist, and he says things like this about coaches, according to Blue-White Illustrated's Nate Bauer: "They're control freaks, they're maniacs, and I'm one of them."
And that's the issue: I have no idea if, given the contours of this system, it is possible to be all these things and still maintain one's ethical framework. I have no idea if a college football coach can be both a control freak and a model citizen, and I don't think anyone else knows, either. This is, after all, the subtext of the debate Penn State people been waging amongst themselves for the past three years: Was the Paterno mythos inherently flawed? (Hell, you might say that this is the central question inherent to the existence of college football itself.) And this is the same question that lingers now, as the James Franklin era takes hold.
A few weeks ago, Penn State played its spring football game, and Harrisburg Patriot-News columnist David Jones conducted some interviews with fans, and during one of them, he expressed to a young man his thoughts that Penn State would have been better off hiring someone else. The young man was incredulous; the young man said, Have you seen the way this guy recruits? And Jones said yes, and Jones said he worried that Franklin, for all his seeming good will, might cause Penn State trouble at some point down the line. And the response he got weighed heavily on me for days after I read it.
"Yeah, I know," the young man said. "But I don't care."