Twenty years ago, they met as rival assistant coaches in the PSAC. Sean Spencer at Shippensburg and James Franklin at Kutztown.
They were friends years later when both spoke at a coaches clinic in Pittsburgh and Spencer drove Franklin — then Maryland’s offensive coordinator — around afterward.
It wasn’t exactly small talk.
“I think,” Spencer said after taking over as Penn State’s defensive line coach, “he was interviewing me in the car.”
Spencer coached the defensive line at Bowling Green at the time and Franklin was still a year away from becoming the head coach at Vanderbilt.
“I’m like, these are some weird questions!” Spencer joked. “I thought we were buddies, man! Why are you asking about my recruiting area?
“It was a full-on interview! We’re just driving and I’m trying to listen to the radio. And he turns the radio down and just starts talking about different things that are pretty synonymous with an interview.”
That’s how Franklin’s mind works. Anyone he’s met in coaching is potentially a future member of his staff, and he acts accordingly.
As it so happens, the Penn State coach now has an opening at offensive coordinator.
Franklin, it would seem, had his mind made up about John Donovan before the Nittany Lions’ 55-16 loss to Michigan State in the regular season finale, announcing his firing the following morning.
There’s also little doubt that Franklin has had some candidates in mind well ahead of time. Perhaps even going back more than a decade, as in Spencer’s case.
But if Franklin has shared his list of candidates for the job, he’s kept it to a very tight circle. Multiple sources declined to speak on or off the record about potential names, often with the response that they didn’t know who was legitimately in the mix.
Franklin was in Indianapolis Saturday serving as an analyst for FOX’s coverage of the Big Ten championship game but did not mention the opening on his staff during the pregame show.
The close-to-the-vest search has led to people reading into any scrap of information available, including who Franklin and his fellow coaches have begun following on Twitter recently.
As silly as that sounds, one of the first serious signals that Franklin and his staff were coming to Penn State in 2014 was when they began following Lions recruits en masse before any contracts with the school had even been worked out.
Of course, Franklin could be having some fun with the process, too. The same day that a Penn State website advocated Montana head coach Bob Stitt for the job, Franklin began following him as well.
Last summer, Franklin described a bit of his preparation process for handling turnover on his staff.
“We’ll be at a convention and I’ll go out to dinner with a defensive line coach,” Franklin said. “And Sean will be like, ‘Whoa, wait a minute. Why did you do that?’ “
Franklin paused and grinned.
“Just making sure,” he replied.
Turning serious, Franklin said he thought it was important to not get complacent when it comes to evaluating personnel.
“I’ve seen coaches make that mistake,” Franklin said. “They stop going to the coaches conventions, stop building relationships, stop doing those things. Then all of the sudden, when someone leaves, they have no idea who to hire.
“Then you see the program start to decline. Instead of hiring someone as good, or better, they start to decline.”
At the time, Franklin was speaking about assistant leaving for other jobs. The Lions fought that off last winter, giving defensive coordinator Bob Shoop a raise to keep him from taking the same job at LSU.
Spencer also received an offer to join what Franklin called “a prestigious program” but turned it down almost immediately. A year earlier, linebackers coach Brent Pry could have been head coach at Georgia Southern but elected to follow Franklin from Vanderbilt to Happy Valley.
It’s not out of the question that offensive coordinator is the only vacancy that Franklin has to fill. Shoop, for example, has been mentioned as a candidate for the head job at Tulane.
“None of our coaches should ever leave for a lateral move,” Franklin said. “It should be (a coordinator) to become a head coach or a (position coach) to become a coordinator.”
There was far less mystery surrounding Penn State’s bowl destination entering the weekend.
The TaxSlayer Bowl has already announced its interest in inviting the Lions — provided that Florida State is not available for the taking.
Barring a series of Saturday night upsets in conference title games, the 10-2 Seminoles are expected to snag an at-large bid to a New Year’s Six bowl. If that happens, the TaxSlayer would like to match up Penn State against either LSU or Georgia in the game, which will be played at noon on Jan. 2 in Jacksonville.
An official announcement is set for around 5:30 p.m. Sunday.
In the event that Florida State does slip down to the TaxSlayer, Penn State would likely end up in either the Foster Farms Bowl (Dec. 26 in Santa Clara) or Music City Bowl (Dec. 30 in Nashville).
Reach Derek Levarse at 570-991-6396 or on Twitter @TLdlevarse