James Franklin was less than a week removed from accepting a new gig, a choice that completed a three-year boomerang from College Park to Middle America and back. His family tucked away in their room, Franklin made his way down to the lobby level of the Greenbelt Marriott.
The new offensive coordinator at Maryland sat quietly in the hotel bar, watching the Terrapins build an early lead before fading in the Emerald Bowl.
He heard the chatter of other patrons. On the players. On the coaches. On whatever a fan talks about when a 6-7 season is sealed and a third losing year out of four is clinched. The entire night, no one recognized Franklin.
He cannot expect a low profile any more.
Not after supporters gleefully queued up to greet him at Maryland’s spring game and welcome him back after a year with the Green Bay Packers and two more as Kansas State’s offensive coordinator. Not with an easily heard presence on the practice field and from the coaches’ box during scrimmages.
Not after already taking part in a quarterback decision that created angst among fans. And not as one of the few assistants that coach Ralph Friedgen would trust to bring in and run his own offense.
“He’s brought some enthusiasm and some freshness into the program,” Friedgen said. “I’ve been pleased to see his maturity and his growth.”
But in a lot of ways, he’s still the same James Franklin who spent five formative years at Maryland.
A dozen of Maryland’s scholarship seniors were on the roster in 2004, Franklin’s last season with the Terps. Franklin recruited several more - including wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey - before leaving for the NFL.
Franklin is usually one of the first assistant coaches on the practice field, a blase combination of a gray T-shirt and black shorts typically his attire. But if he doesn’t dress in a way that stands out, it usually isn’t long before he’s in the face of a lineman or demonstrating to a quarterback proper technique.
For those players who remember Franklin hounding them on the recruiting trail, it’s nothing new. A couple holdovers even have a name for it: mad energy.
“Mad energy is just nonstop persistence over any type of play, game, anything,” tackle Dane Randolph said. “I mean academics. He would check my report card at school. He would call the coach up and ask to get my report card and then ask me what my grades were to see if they were the same.”
From a locker over, guard Jaimie Thomas knowingly said, “That sounds about right.”
The pre-existing relationships were vital. Rather than needing time to build up credibility with veteran players, he inherited an offense with four starting linemen, a star wide receiver and three quarterbacks likely to play who were familiar with him.
It wasn’t long before their willingness to accept him back trickled to players who didn’t know Franklin.
“That helps,” Franklin said. “You’ve been in their home, you’ve broken bread with them, you’ve hugged and kissed babies and done all these types of things, and that’s important.”
There is also a benefit to returning to the place his career incubated. Franklin believes Friedgen’s arrival in College Park was serendipitous for his own development.
Franklin’s main tenets are unsurprising: put people in position to succeed but be flexible enough not to drown in your own philosophy. And while that sounds quite a bit like Friedgen, the 36-year-old Franklin goes about employing his ideas differently than the man 25 years his senior.
“Coach Friedgen has his style, the old style,” Heyward-Bey said. “Coach Franklin has the new style. But we make it work. It’s made it better for the older guys because we’ve seen Coach Friedgen’s style for long time. And now we get a little taste of Coach Franklin. It’s still Coach Friedgen’s team, don’t get me wrong.”
Lightening the load
For two years, Friedgen served as his own offensive coordinator, repeatedly insisting there was a handful of people he would trust to take over the job.
After all, why would Friedgen tolerate the extra work if he knew of someone he would be comfortable with? He found that person in Franklin, a man accustomed to Friedgen’s considerable demands as a boss.
“That’s kind of why I have a little bit of a sense of pride because he knows what I want and knows how I want things,” Friedgen said. “He’s very detailed, very organized.”
Franklin’s impact on Friedgen might be more significant than the version of the West Coast offense he installed or the playbook - one even longer than Friedgen’s - handed out to players.
Suddenly, Friedgen has the option of peering at the defense for much of practice, as well as use time to meet with players and maybe snag an extra hour of sleep rather than preparing meetings and scripts with bleary eyes at the start of a long day.
“The biggest compliment since I’ve been here is that Gloria Friedgen said to me, ‘James, Ralph is happier than he’s been in two to three years,’” Franklin said. “‘He looks better, he feels better, he’s happy. He just doesn’t feel he has all the weight of the program on his shoulders.’”
It helps that both men view the game in similar ways, a fact exhibited in Maryland’s decision to start Jordan Steffy at quarterback.
Friedgen sat back and listened to Franklin’s thoughts throughout the process before they agreed to start the fifth-year senior. But the two were never far off in how they viewed the competition.
“It’s almost eerie right now because from day to day, even from hour to hour … he sees what I see.” Friedgen said. “It’s almost to a point where we’re watching tape and I see a wrinkle off a play and I’ll think about it, and he’ll say something in a meeting that’s almost like the same thing I was thinking.”
That partnership might be what Maryland needs to reinvigorate its offense. And while Friedgen urged caution for initial expectations, it’s clear he hired the closest approximation of an extension of himself he could find.
“My core beliefs and who I am as a coach really came from Ralph,” Franklin said. “We had a really good conversation before I came of what his expectations were and what mine were. It really, really worked out well. Since I’ve been back, it’s been unbelievable.”
And from here on out, it will be anything but low profile.