CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – James Franklin recalls watching Super Bowl XLI in early 2007 and paying particular attention to Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears and Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts. It was the first and only time two African American head coaches have faced each other for the NFL championship.
"I remember thinking back as an assistant … and I said, 'This is going to have an impact,' " Franklin, who was at Kansas State at the time, said earlier this week. "And I think it did, especially in the NFL."
Franklin and Smith, the only African American head football coaches in the Big Ten, will be on opposite sidelines Friday night, when 10th-ranked Penn State (3-0) takes on Illinois (2-1) at Memorial Stadium in the conference opener for both teams.
Smith coached for 19 seasons in the NFL, 11 as a head coach. He accepted the Illinois job in March 2016 and has struggled through a rebuilding process, going 5-19 in his first two seasons.
Franklin, one of 13 African American head coaches in FBS, said he advanced through his career looking at Smith and others as "kind of role models and mentors for me from a distance." Now 46, he hopes to function in the same role for younger black coaches coming up.
"I'm working like crazy, No. 1, for Penn State," he 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."
As for the number of African American head coaches, Franklin said, "I'd love for us to get to a point where this really isn't a conversation anymore.
"I do think there's a lot of progress that still needs to be made in college and probably the NFL as well," he said. "I think all that anybody wants is that people have opportunities.
"Whether that is people of color, whether that is women, whether that is whatever it may be, that they have opportunities, and, at the end of the day, that the most-qualified people get the job, and that if you are going to take a chance or risk on someone that maybe is less qualified, that again the same opportunities are there."
In Friday night's game, the Nittany Lions will try to cut down on the mistakes they made last week in an otherwise decisive win over Kent State. They had eight penalties, including three that nullified touchdown passes. Although they had just one turnover, they fumbled the ball twice, recovering both times.
The Fighting Illini have a streak of 17 games in which they've forced a turnover. They've forced seven this season and are plus-5 in turnover margin.
"They're opportunistic," Franklin said. "I think the biggest factor in this game, no doubt about it, is going to be turnovers. They've gotten multiple turnovers in every game this season. That's going to be the story line of the game."
Friday, 9 p.m., Memorial Stadium, Champaign, Ill.
Records: Penn State, 3-0, ranked No. 10 by the AP; Illinois, 2-1. This is the Big Ten opener for both teams.
Coaches: Penn State, James Franklin (fifth season, 39-17); Illinois, Lovie Smith (third season, 7-20).
TV/Radio: Fox Sports 1; WNTP-AM (990), WNPV-AM (1440)
History: Penn State holds an 18-5 lead in the series. The Nittany Lions won the most recent meeting, 39-0, at Beaver Stadium in 2016, but lost, 16-14, in their last trip to Illinois, in 2015.
Illinois' strange defensive numbers: If you look just at yardage, the Nittany Lions should be able to move the ball without much resistance. They have averaged 489 yards of offense in three games, and the Fighting Illini give up 480 yards on average, worst in the Big Ten, and more than 325 yards through the air. However, Illinois allows just 21 points a game, holds opponents to 28.6 percent efficiency on third down, and is plus-5 on turnovers. Linebacker Jake Hansen had six tackles for loss against Kent State. So, Penn State must be efficient and take care of the football.
Who's the Fighting Illini quarterback? Senior A.J. Bush, a Virginia Tech transfer, ran for 139 yards and passed for 190 against Kent State in the season opener, but he has been sidelined since being hurt in Week 2. Though Bush is considered questionable for the game, the Nittany Lions have prepared as though he will play. Backup M.J. Rivers, a true freshman, passed for 168 yards last week but was sacked five times. The Fighting Illini have allowed nine sacks in three games, and Penn State ranks fourth in the nation with 13 sacks.