A year after his brief stint as an NFL assistant ended, James Franklin had his eye on the Super Bowl.
Then the offensive coordinator at Kansas State, Franklin saw the Indianapolis Colts and Chicago Bears reach football’s biggest stage. And he saw, in particular, the two men leading those teams were African Americans like him.
“I remember thinking back as an assistant, when Tony Dungy and Lovie (Smith) were playing against each other in a Super Bowl, and I said this is going to have an impact,” Franklin said. “And I think it did. I think it did, especially in the NFL.”
The NCAA head coaching ranks aren’t quite as diverse.
On Friday night as Franklin leads Penn State against Smith’s Illinois team in Champaign, they are two of just 13 African-American head coaches at 130 FBS schools — 10 percent.
“I’d love for us to get to a point where this really isn’t even a conversation anymore,” Franklin said. “Obviously I don’t think we’re there yet. I do think there’s a lot of progress that still needs to be made in college and probably the NFL as well. But at the end of the day, I think all that anybody wants is that people have opportunities — and whether that is people of color, whether that is women, whether that is whatever it may be, that they have opportunities.
“So I have so much respect for Coach (Smith) and what he has done in his career. I think for me, I kind of look at guys like Lovie coming up in this profession as kind of role models and mentors for me from a distance.”
Franklin said he does not know Smith well — the Nittany Lions have not played the Fighting Illini since Smith took over the program in 2016 — but he has been inspired by him.
Both Smith and Franklin are the first African-American head football coaches at their respective programs.
“I realize who I am and what people see,” Smith told the Chicago Tribune when he was hired at Illinois. “And hopefully that’ll just inspire more young men to dream big.”
Franklin, who is 14 years younger than Smith, has similar hopes.
“I’m working like crazy, number one, for Penn State,” Franklin said. “I’m working like crazy for our players. I’m working like crazy for our lettermen and for this community. I’m working like crazy for my family. But I also feel like I carry a little bit of that weight that I’m also working for thousands of young African-American football coaches all over the country.
“That when someone gets into my position, the success that we have here hopefully opens some opportunities for other guys in the future.”
THREE AND OUT
Both sides are looking to get back a quarterback from injury.
Franklin revealed this week that all-around threat Tommy Stevens could have played last week if needed while recovering from a foot injury. He could make his 2018 debut against Illinois to knock some rust off — as a receiver as well as a quarterback — heading into next week’s showdown with Ohio State.
It’s a bigger issue for the Illini, who opened the season with fifth-year senior AJ Bush, a graduate transfer from Virginia Tech. But Bush suffered an apparent hamstring injury during a Week 2 win over Western Illinois, forcing true freshman M.J. Rivers into action.
Rivers nearly led Illinois to an upset win over South Florida last week at Soldier Field in Chicago, but Bush won the job outright in camp.
“Hopefully we’ll get a couple injured guys back, but the guys we will line up with, we feel good about,” Smith said.
Here comes the cavalry
Illinois has also been missing five players, including three starters, because of suspensions in the opening three weeks.
Though Smith has not said if any will return this week, they have all been practicing with the team and the start of Big Ten play would be a logical point for them to come back.
The biggest help could come in the secondary, where the Illini have badly missed safety Bennett Williams and cornerback Nate Hobbs. While the defense has done well to force turnovers without them, they have collectively rated as one of the country’s worst pass defenses through three games.
Projected starting tight end Lou Dorsey, a 6-foot-6 target, could also return for this game.
“We just have to prepare and assume that these guys will be back,” Franklin said. “And from everything we’ve seen and we’ve read, they feel like these are some of their better players.”
Friday night focus
This will be Penn State’s first Friday regular season game since 1982, the third of three post-Thanksgiving games against Pitt at Beaver Stadium. The Lions won the 1982 games 19-10 en route to the program’s first national championship.
Those three were all afternoon kickoffs. The last time the Lions played on a Friday night in the regular season was the 1978 opener against Temple at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia.
Penn State is 14-9-1 all-time in Friday regular season games. The Lions’ last game of any kind on a Friday was the Capital One Bowl at the end of the 2009 season in which they edged LSU in Orlando.
Reach Derek Levarse at 570-991-6396 or on Twitter @TLdlevarse