How much time does James Franklin have to turn things around?

Back in November – to the disproval of a majority of the Penn State fanbase – James Franklin signed a massive contract extension that runs through the 2031 season, but how much time does the Nittany Lions’ head coach have to turn things around?

Through eight seasons at the helm, Franklin is 67-34 with a conference championship, three total bowl wins (two of which were New Year’s Six bowls), and just one losing season. However, much of that success has not happened as of late, as the Nittany Lions are just 11-11 without a postseason win in the past two years, and went 0-3 against Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State last year.

With Franklin underdelivering recently, how hot is his seat moving forward?

Previously signed through 2025, Franklin’s new contract includes some massive buyouts on the University’s end, especially for the next few years. In the official terms of the contract, the school’s buyout is Franklin’s salary for the current year (base salary + supplemental + loans), multiplied by the number of years remaining on his contract.

His annual salary, which includes the base, supplemental pay, and loans, is $8 million. So, multiply that by the number of years remaining, and you’re left with Penn State’s buyout cost at any given point throughout the contract. Essentially, it just drops by $8 million each year – simple enough.

Let’s take a look at what the buyout would be for each of the next handful of years.

  • 2022: $72 million
  • 2023: $64 million
  • 2024: $56 million
  • 2025: $48 million
  • 2026: $40 million

So, it would take some disastrous seasons (even worse than the previous two), for Penn State to even consider letting him go within the next couple years – strictly because the buyout is so costly.

Since signing the contract, Penn State has brought in both a new president (Neeli Bendapudi) and athletic director (Pat Kraft). Will the two of them be as loyal to Franklin as the previous regime was? Probably not, but exactly how much slack will they give the head football coach that they inherited?

Well, as I mentioned, even a (slightly) sub.-500 record each of the next two seasons would probably not be enough to get rid of him, given the pricey buyouts, but where exactly does James Franklin need to get to, and when, for him to keep his job?

As long as the Nittany Lions keep sitting around the 7-5 mark, it’s unlikely that the University would let Franklin go within the next few years, but around 2024 and 2025 is when things could begin to get dicey for James Franklin if the Nittany Lions don’t begin to trend back upwards by that point.

The first reason is simple, and it is that it would be five consecutive mediocre seasons at that point (2020-2024).

The second reason is recruiting, and the fact that James Franklin has a great chance to stack together back-to-back top 10 recruiting classes for the first time in his career – with the 2022 and 2023 classes.

The 2022 class is already signed and on campus, and they finished sixth in the nation in 247 Sports’ composite rankings. The 2023 class currently sits at fifth in the country – despite the recent decommitment of Josh Williams – and features two of the top offensive linemen in the cycle.

Franklin has had some extremely talented teams, but some of his future teams could be even more talented – especially at some important positions.

With all of that talent, it doesn’t make much sense to fire Franklin in the near future, but rather to wait and see what he can do with it.

By the 2024 season, the class of 2022 that is highlighted by former five stars at quarterback (Drew Allar), running back (Nick Singleton), and defensive end (Dani Dennis-Sutton), will all be in their third year, and a Majority of the class should be key contributors (if not starters) by that point.

In that same season, the 2023 class will be in their second year, and while not as many of them will be contributing to that team, the top of the class will certainly – guys like Alex Birchmeier who is the No. 1 interior offensive lineman in the cycle, J’ven Williams who is a high four-star prospect and the no. 7 offensive tackles in the class, and many others that make up that elite recruiting class.

So, with all of that talent coming in, if by the end of the 2024 season James Franklin hasn’t at least gotten back to having a double-digit win regular season, his seat could truly start to heat up.

If not by then because the buyout is still quite lofty, then certainly if by the completion of the 2025 season, they haven’t won another Big Ten Championship and/or reached the College Football Playoff, then Bendapudi and Kraft could look to replace James Franklin, or at the very least give a razor-thin margin for error heading into 2026.

Point being, as long as Penn State doesn’t take a step backwards (even more than they already have) within the next couple years, James Franklin will likely keep his job. However, if by the mid-2020s, they haven’t gotten back to where they were from 2016-2019, he will be walking on thin ice, because if by 2026, he hasn’t been able to win another conference title with blue chip linemen and five-star talent all over the field (especially at quarterback), he likely never will.

Don’t expect James Franklin to be around for the entirety of his current contract if he cannot deliver another championship to State College by the late-2020s.

The key for Franklin to keep his job is to trend upward each season, continually building on the previous and adding to the win total each year until Penn State is back where the fanbase expects them to be.

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