Come as you are: Tony Franklin’s return to the gridiron

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Jan Flatley-Feldman/Staff

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With a yellow legal pad perched on his lap, Tony Franklin wrote with fury. For 30 days and 30 nights, Franklin returned to that chair on his back porch, desperate to write the story that was certain to doom his career.

“The only way I would be happy was if people knew the whole story,” Franklin said. “I said, ‘Now, if you don’t like me and think I’m a slimeball and you don’t want to hire me, great. But at least it will be based upon the truth. This is what happened, this is my role and this is what I did. Hate me? Great. Don’t hire me. But at least it’s what really happened.’”

After coaching and teaching at several Kentucky high schools for 16 years, Franklin finally landed his dream job in 1998: a position at the University of Kentucky, coaching the running backs. From 1998 to 2000, under legendary offensive guru Hal Mumme, Franklin played an integral part in bringing the Wildcats to back-to-back bowl games for the third time in program history. He had completed an arduous climb to the prestigious ranks of college coaching. But something was wrong.

Franklin watched as other coaches lured recruits and high school coaches with illegal benefits. The whole ordeal didn’t sit well with him. He was faced with a choice: stay quiet and continue to ascend through the SEC coaching ranks, or leave the program. He chose to resign, but simply leaving without talking wasn’t enough.

He decided to write a book, titled “Fourth Down and Life to Go,” highlighting the program’s transgressions in excruciating detail. Nobody would hire him; after the release of the book, Franklin was effectively blacklisted from college football. He had buried himself in an ink-stained coffin.

“I felt grimy,” Franklin said. “I felt dirty. But the only way I could ever feel good is if people knew the whole story.”

Jobless and with no immediate employment prospects evident, Franklin racked his brain for a way to help keep his family financially afloat. The ever-entrepreneurial Franklin asked himself a question: What did he know that people would want to buy?

“And I thought, ‘Well, the offense was pretty good at Kentucky,’ ” Franklin said. “ ‘What if you taught that?’ ”

Franklin sensed flaws in the commonly commodified coaching clinics held all over the South. He disliked the hit-and-miss nature of the clinics, where a few coaches threw out some choice ideas but hardly committed themselves wholeheartedly to fleshing out their personal philosophies.

Franklin chose to do just that. He committed years of offensive wisdom to carefully curated packages. There were videos of basic fundamentals and A-to-Z practice plans. His unique derivation of the then-obscure Air Raid was put on film and marketed as a premium coaching clinic. The former high school teacher brought prospective clients to Kentucky and taught them his lessons directly. Success came slowly for Franklin’s new enterprise, entitled “The Tony Franklin System.”

“I had nine or 10 clients that first year,” Franklin said. “Most of them were friends of mine, doing it because they knew I was broke and I needed money.”

Franklin’s wife, Laura, picked up some of the financial slack in the years immediately after his resignation, but times remained tough. The family stayed in Lexington, unable to rid their minds of the Kentucky fiasco. TV trucks rolled into their driveway, cameramen and anchors in tow, and sprinted to his door to plead for an interview. Laura swore off the Internet — message boards, fan websites and the like — in fear of the backlash.

“It was hard,” Laura says. “It was not a fun time.”

But as the business finally rose, so did the Franklin family’s spirits. Franklin’s client base grew to more than 100 coaches by the third year of the program. The profits covered the family’s expenses.

One day early in 2005, Franklin was sitting in his office when an unfamiliar number popped up on his caller ID. It was a reporter from USA Today, interested in Franklin’s story and his business. When the story ran, Franklin’s business expanded exponentially and caught the attention of Larry Blakeney, the head coach at Troy. He decided to take a shot on Franklin, hiring him as the offensive coordinator.

“If it wasn’t for Larry, I never would’ve had another job,” Franklin says. “But I would do it again. I have zero regrets.”

These days, the up-tempo system Franklin sold 10 years ago to desperate high school coaches searching for any advantage is all the rage in college football.

Franklin claims that close to half of Division I football programs run an up-tempo offense, once considered gimmicky and easily solvable by critics of Franklin in the early 2000s.

Franklin now runs one of the fastest offenses in the country as the offensive coordinator at Cal, 12 years removed from his blacklisting.

“We were playing fast before fast was cool,” Franklin says.

After years of trying to fit his square peg in a round hole, he’s found his niche in the quirky confines of Berkeley, his oft-criticized Air Raid thriving in the California sun.

Michael Rosen covers football. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @michaelrosen3.