Penn State's James Franklin, Sean Clifford have withstood criticism [opinion]

Nov. 24—Sometimes it seems like James Franklin and Sean Clifford are the bane of some Penn State fans' existence.

That's only natural. The head coach and the starting quarterback of a football team receive the most criticism when things go awry.

Franklin understands that and understands why the connection between the head coach and the starting quarterback is unique.

"There is a weight that comes with that position," he said about quarterback. "There is a weight that comes with being the head coach. So it's probably the closest kind of correlation between players and the (coaching) staff."

Franklin and Clifford have carried that weight on their shoulders well.

Franklin never misses a chance to thank Penn State fans, including some who would rather see him working somewhere else.

Maybe Clifford has learned something from his head coach. He went out of his way this week to thank the people who cover the Nittany Lions, which has rarely happened in the last three-plus decades, and then the fans, even though a segment of them have booed him more than once at Beaver Stadium.

"Since Saturday (against Michigan State) will be my final home game in Beaver Stadium, I really want to thank our fans," he said, "and this amazing community for everything that we've all been a part of. We have the best fans in college football, in my opinion.

"It's been an honor that I've been able to walk into Beaver Stadium and to be a captain for this team, this great university, this community and especially for our fans."

Clifford knows many have called for him to be replaced by freshman Drew Allar. He knows many wanted to see him move on after last season when Penn State went 7-6. He knows many won't appreciate him, even if the Lions finish 11-2 and in the top 10 for the second time in his four years as the starter.

But he has always pushed on, despite an undisclosed injury that made him immobile for a lengthy stretch last year. He has always battled.

"It's the man in the arena," said defensive tackle PJ Mustipher, a fellow team captain. "Everybody can judge him. You can say what you want about him, but you ain't on that field. You're not in the spotlight. You're not the quarterback. You're not who everybody's looking at.

"I'm just proud to be his teammate. I've learned so much from him. I think the whole locker room has and he doesn't even know it. The program's going to miss him."

Clifford has been a great teammate, at least publicly. He's gone to great lengths to mentor Allar, Christian Veilleux and Beau Pribula, according to Franklin and offensive coordinator/quarterback coach Mike Yurcich.

He never once threw offensive linemen under the bus last year when he absorbed a pounding and always showed his support. He's repeatedly credited them this year for their improvement and for protecting him much better than a year ago.

"That whole crew continues to impress," Clifford said. "I can't thank them enough for all they've done this year."

Franklin said Clifford's greatest strengths are his perseverance and his self-awareness, which is one of the coach's better qualities, too.

Franklin has received criticism for Penn State's mediocre 11-11 record in 2020-21 and rightfully so. He also has taken hits for the Lions' last-second loss to USC in the 2017 Rose Bowl weeks after winning the Big Ten title; for their 1-8 record against Ohio State since he became coach; and for their failure to reach the College Football Playoff yet.

Franklin's accomplishments often are overlooked, though. Last week he picked up the 100th win of his career, the first Black coach to do so at the FBS level. His .679 winning percentage (76-36) is tied for the second-best in the last 100 years at Penn State, trailing only Joe Paterno's .749.

If the Lions beat Michigan State, Franklin at least deserves consideration for the Big Ten Coach of the Year award after the Lions began the season unranked and were expected by many to finish fourth in the Big Ten East.

They're 9-2, with losses only to two of the top three teams in the country, and likely are headed to no worse than the Citrus Bowl.

"Coach Franklin sets the tone for everybody," Clifford said. "He gets in early and stays late. He's the same guy every single day. Everybody has their ups and downs. Coach Franklin is somebody who's very consistent with his work ethic and how he drives the culture, the players and the coaches.

"That's why there's so much respect in our locker room for him."

Clifford can put himself in Franklin's shoes, and Franklin can do the same.

"It's shared experiences and sometimes shared suffering," Franklin said. "There are things that as coaches you can relate with your quarterback, (like) the role, responsibility and leadership that comes with that position and vice versa.

"You get a ton of grief and frustration. You sense that. You see that. You hear that. You feel that."