A college football coach's season at war with the coronavirus — and his own school
By KENT BABB | The Washington Post | Published: January 19, 2021
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On his last day as a football coach, Tony Franklin led Middle Tennessee toward the end zone one last time. Players and coaches followed. Some took a knee. They listened.
Franklin has spent four decades on one sideline or another, calling plays, shaping offenses and minds. At California, he designed a run-pass option attack for Jared Goff. At Louisiana Tech, his up-tempo spread led the nation in scoring. At Kentucky . . . well, that's complicated, and it ended with Franklin getting death threats and going broke. But he had been honest, and right, about one of his profession's wrongs.
He has been in Murfreesboro, Tenn., for the past five years as Middle Tennessee's offensive coordinator. He shadowboxes before practices and curses during them. He's known for his creativity, his brutal honesty and a thick Kentucky drawl. At 63, he considers himself young.
But he's done. He has known for a while.
"Always remember," he told the group at Floyd Stadium in December, a few days after the Blue Raiders' final game was canceled because of injuries and the coronavirus. Players were assembled with social distancing in mind. "You are what you do, not what you say you do."
Then Franklin apologized. The past few months had been hell, and not just because Middle Tennessee went 3-6 as dozens of players got injured and sick. Throughout college football this was a broken, ethically dubious season — memorable less for dazzling highlights than for a duct-taped schedule that continued through outbreaks, postponements and 19 canceled bowls as conferences and schools insisted on playing through a pandemic that has killed nearly 400,000 Americans.
It ended last week when Alabama was crowned national champion, after Ohio State's COVID-19 concerns nearly postponed the title game. That drew attention, as did interruptions at major programs in power conferences. But the truth is, college football is made up of dozens of smaller programs that rarely attract the spotlight, each composed of a hundred unpaid players overseen by a highly paid coaching staff. There are far more Middle Tennessees than Ohio States.
On the field that day, Franklin told players he had tried to protect them. That maybe he could've done more. He spoke about purpose and trust and karma, at times wondering aloud if a principled man can exist in an underhanded game. He closed by talking about bullies, saying the best way to deal with them is to punch them in the throat.
"Some things are worth fighting for," he said. A few minutes after that, the meeting ended without ceremony, and everyone walked away.
In March, in those hazy first days when the coronavirus was no longer traveling in silence, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised Americans to avoid gatherings and travel. The NBA suspended its season, and the NCAA canceled the men's and women's basketball tournaments.
Football season, though, was months away. Plenty of time for the virus to run its course, and programs throughout the United States scrambled to establish a plan.
Franklin read about how the virus spread. Even then, he says, he thought football should be shut down. He considered volunteering at hospitals in New York and Boston.But his boss, head coach Rick Stockstill, called a mandatory team meeting. Like other schools, Middle Tennessee had moved classes online for the remainder of the semester. Stockstill, though, wanted players and coaches back on campus.
Franklin didn't like it. He says he was diagnosed in his 20s with a rare form of cancer and was terrified of getting sick. He stood during a staff meeting and said defying CDC guidelines was a bad idea. He says Stockstill ignored him, and for a while, Franklin left it at that.
"I USED TO FIGHT FOR WHATS RIGHT AND STAND UP," he wrote March 19 in his personal notes, which he shared with The Washington Post, along with emails, text messages and other documentation of his efforts to raise concerns to superiors. "BUT THIS IS AN EASY JOB AND I JUST NEED A FEW MORE YEARS AT THIS INCOME."
Nearly two decades earlier, Franklin had declared bankruptcy. Now he had a five-year contract that paid him up to $350,000 per year. He was close to retirement, and he knew better than most that retirement in college football involves accepting its code of silence.
But as the virus began toppling cities, the whispers in Franklin's conscience grew louder. He kept reporting for football meetings but concluded that Stockstill and others refused to take the virus seriously. (Stockstill, in an interview with The Post, denied this, and school officials said an internal investigation backed the head coach.) Eventually, Franklin texted Athletic Director Chris Massaro.
"We are wrong bringing these kids back," Franklin wrote. "I will personally tell each player on offense to only come back if this is a place they feel safer and that they need shelter."
Massaro reminded Franklin that the school's policies were changing by the day and encouraged him not to do anything rash. He also cautioned Franklin "to not be insubordinate" and that the athletic department "will not tolerate opposite messaging."
Franklin reminded Massaro that, as much as calling plays on game day, he believed it was his job to protect the impressionable young men in his charge. Stockstill eventually called off the meeting, and Franklin stood down. Then 3,839 deaths in March became nearly 60,000 deaths in April. During in-person meetings, Franklin sat alone at a desk away from the rest of the staff, and he and his wife decided to spend the coming months apart: her near other family in Raleigh, N.C., and him in a small apartment near campus.
"You're just a few months away," Franklin recalls thinking. "Can't you just shut up and let somebody else fight the fight?"
Two decades ago, it was Franklin against everybody. Back then he was an offensive assistant at Kentucky, where he called plays for Coach Hal Mumme and helped bring the Air Raid offense into the college football mainstream.
In the hyper-competitive SEC, Franklin witnessed things he disagreed with, such as boosters who violated NCAA rules by providing money or other impermissible benefits for a player to consider or sign with the Wildcats.
After the team went 2-9 in 2000, he and four other assistant coaches resigned or were fired. Franklin was the only one to self-publish a tell-all book about his four seasons in Lexington. The book named names, claiming that then-athletic director Larry Ivy told Franklin cheating was necessary in college football and that some coaches turned a blind eye to those who broke rules.
An internal investigation revealed more than three dozen violations, and Mumme resigned in 2001. Franklin learned that, during the investigation, former colleagues had attempted to blame him for improper recruiting. Franklin sued Mumme and the school, dropping the suit after Kentucky agreed to send a letter to coaches and administrators at various levels of college football stating Franklin hadn't broken rules.
But Franklin, having violated perhaps the most sacred of coaching oaths, say she was blacklisted. Five years came and went, and the only coaching job he got was with the Lexington Horsemen of the ill-fated National Indoor Football League. One morning a noise woke him, and he ran outside with a baseball bat to find a repo man taking his SUV. He and Laura lost their house, and before Christmas one year, Franklin pawned bowl and championship rings.
He started a football consulting business for high school and small-college coaches, and if "The Tony Franklin System" can beat defenses in the mighty SEC, imagine what it can do for you. Franklin promised himself that if he ever got another job in college football, he would do whatever everyone else does. He would call his plays and collect his paycheck. He would shut up.
Troy University, an upstart program in a remote patch of southeast Alabama, hired him in 2006. The Trojans used Franklin's system to win back-to-back Sun Belt Conference championships, which drew the attention of then-Auburn coach and now-Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala. Franklin was back in the SEC, though the outspoken Kentucky liberal clashed with the ultra-conservative Tuberville, who fired him after six games.
No matter: Unless you resign, coaching salaries in college football are typically guaranteed. Franklin left Auburn with $560,000, the balance of his two-year deal.
He made that much each year at Cal, where, in three seasons, he helped Goff set 26 passing records and become the No. 1 pick, by the Los Angeles Rams, in the 2016 NFL draft. Franklin took the Middle Tennessee job that same year, to be closer to his ailing mother.
When Massaro approved Franklin's initial $300,000-per-year contract, Stockstill sent his new coordinator a text: "I have never been more excited about hiring a coach!"
As spring turned to summer, Franklin met virtually with Middle Tennessee's offensive players. He assured them that, whenever they returned to campus, they would be safe. But when they got back in June, Franklin says, he was alarmed by how seldom Stockstill observed the athletic department's coronavirus policies.
Football coaches at all levels have made a mockery of mask-wearing, with the NFL imposing hefty fines on coaches who expose their noses and mouths and some college conferences threatening to dock schools up to $1 million. Franklin says Stockstill frequently handed out papers and held conversations without a face covering and sometimes got inches from players' uncovered faces to yell instructions during practice. Lower-level staffers and players, in a sport that still too often values shows of toughness and machismo, seemed to follow the head coach's lead, Franklin says.
Stockstill claims he wore his mask "100% of the time."
Voluntary workouts were initially limited to 20 players — 10 on the field and another 10 in the weight room. But Franklin says strength and conditioning staffers regularly spotted players while neither were masked up. One current Blue Raiders player says that after a couple of weeks the weight room would be packed "with 30 to 35 guys, with no separation." The player is one of several members of Middle Tennessee's football program to speak on the condition of anonymity to avoid possible retribution.
One player tested positive for the coronavirus in June, the month the team returned to campus. The next month, 18 did. As some smaller conferences called off their seasons and larger ones pressed on with the help of medical committees and professionalized testing programs, Conference USA weighed the pros and cons of playing football amid dueling pressures: The pandemic caused a massive budget shortfall, and the sport brings in revenue but makes physical distancing impossible. One conference representative, Old Dominion, canceled its season. The other 13 schools decided to play.
In August, Conference USA announced that football players would be tested three times per week. One Middle Tennessee player says he was tested only twice some weeks. As the Blue Raiders' Sept. 5 opener approached, with federal privacy laws preventing coaches from identifying players who tested positive,players got used to their teammates just disappearing without explanation.
"We're thinking: 'I literally was just next to him in the weight room the day before,' " a different Blue Raiders player says. "People would just drop like a fly, and we wouldn't hear much about it."
One day in July, Franklin confronted Stockstill for again not wearing a mask. The conversation became heated, Franklin says, and Stockstill threatened to fire his offensive coordinator.
"One of those things, unfortunate things, that happened," Stockstill says. "But it was not because I wasn't wearing a mask."
After that, Franklin says, Stockstill wore an N95 mask during meetings — on top of his head or dangling from an ear. Franklin interpreted this as his boss taunting him. And one morning, Franklin says, two younger staffers took desks right next to the one Franklin usually used to socially distance. Neither was wearing a mask, Franklin says, adding that one repeatedly made fun of Franklin for being an alarmist and a tattletale.
"SOME DON'T BELIEVE IN SCIENCE," Franklin wrote in his notes. "SOME DON'T CARE."
Franklin again took his concerns to Massaro, the AD, this time during a Zoom meeting.
"Everything that your guidelines say, that the CDC says, we're not doing it," Franklin said, according to an audio recording he provided. "We say it. We give a good speech. We say that we're going to do that, but the reality of it is we're not doing it."
Massaro acknowledged some of the issues Franklin raised and said he was skeptical Middle Tennessee, or any program, would actually have a season. Still, he pledged to visit the football complex more regularly and to "coach everybody on mask etiquette."
When Franklin told him how the team's weight room had become a hive for irresponsible behavior, Massaro seemed surprised. The guidelines allow for a maximum of 10 people in the weight room, the AD said.
"When is the last time you walked in there and saw 10 people?" Franklin said.
"I kind of trusted that, so I don't know," Massaro said.
"Well I do know, and I have been in there, and I have seen it. And it's not safe."
"RICK IS GETTING BOLDER AND BOLDER," Franklin wrote in his notes one day.
"THEY WILL KILL SOMEONE-THEY DON'T CARE."
"I DON'T DESERVE TO DIE."
In July,Franklin sent a letter to Massaro and Middle Tennessee President Sidney McPhee, outlining his belief that Stockstill and others were ignoring the school's coronavirus policies.
Franklin wrote of the players: "They are men, not little boys, and certainly not sheep who should blindly follow. They are smart and brave and tough. I advise them to never accept an action from authority when you know it's wrong."
Though administrators intervened, Franklin says Stockstill and other staffers resumed their bad habits after a few days. Discouraged, he says, he spent $2,000 on masks and handed them out to players and their relatives. A player's mother texted Franklin to tell him her son "is not the boy I know prior to COVID." Another player reported that Stockstill and head athletic trainer Keith Bunch had ridiculed him for missing practices when he was feeling ill. The university declined to make Bunch available but acknowledged Stockstill had questioned whether the player was being truthful.
"Maybe to y'all eyes it's bulls--- but it's not," the player told Franklin in a text.
The 25th Blue Raider tested positive, then the 30th and 40th. Three members of the coaching staff also tested positive, Massaro says, as did five members of the team's strength and conditioning unit.
In October,Franklin told Stockstill that he no longer would attend in-person meetings. When the team took buses to play at Marshall nearly six hours away, Franklin drove his truck.
"I didn't hold it against him," Stockstill says. "He didn't feel comfortable, but everybody else did."
But players say the two coaches clashed increasingly often, occasionally in front of the team.
"It was brutal. Brutal," one player says. "You could feel it. Everyone could feel it."
A few days after Middle Tennessee officials learned this article was in the works, they released the results of an internal investigation that found that "everything was not perfect but there was no evidence presented that supports the allegation that Coach Stockstill willfully disregarded" protocol. In a phone interview, team physician Utpal Patel said he was comfortable with the consistency of face coverings and social distancing during the season, though he added that he rarely entered the locker room or weight room.
In an interview The Post conducted independently, though, a Blue Raiders player shared Franklin's view that, by and large, the coaching staff refused to take the virus seriously. He called this season one of the most anxious periods of his life.
"It was stressful, and it was scary," the player says. "Did I feel safe? Nope, I never felt safe. It was never a safe environment. . . . It went from 'Let's get them on the field the safest way' to 'Let's get them on the field by any means necessary.' "
On his first day out of coaching, Franklin went for a walk. Then he sent an email to Massaro: "My resignation from MTSU is effective immediately," he wrote Jan. 1.
He posted a letter on Medium, titled "Thank You Football" alongside a photograph of himself alongside Goff, and vowed in the postscript to "continue my war with the cowards of the college football world."
In an interview a few days later, Franklin described the alternating emotions he felt. The first, he says, was relief. A great burden had been lifted, and this yielded to excitement. He would reunite with Laura in a few days, and he looked forward to playing golf with his grandson. But worry followed, he says, considering Middle Tennessee's players won't have him as an advocate when they return to campus this month.
"Our players love Rick Stockstill. And they respect him," Franklin says. "And that's the saddest part of it all. They would do whatever he said."
Two weeks ago, Franklin emptied his apartment and packed his things into a U-Haul. He started east toward Raleigh, and on the way he confronted an unexpected emotion: regret. He had done what he vowed to never do again, and he knew there would be no third chance. By resigning, he forfeited the salary he was due for the final two years of his Middle Tennessee contract, though he hasn't ruled out a lawsuit against the school.
Franklin says he has about a year of living expenses saved. He'll consult again, but he's uncertain whether coaches in a sport that prizes discretion would have any interest in hearing from him.
During the drive to Raleigh, Franklin pulled onto the shoulder and thought about the previous months, the latest fight he had picked and the things he had lost.
"I didn't want to live through this again," Franklin said. "I did not want to finish like this."
His voice cracked.
"I just wanted to f------ go and start to get out of this business and do a life," he continued. "I didn't want to be a f------ pariah in this industry again, because it took me a long time to get back."
Doing so would've required him to keep quiet, and for better or worse, that's one thing Franklin could never do. If he had this time, he said, it would've made him just like everyone else in college football. So, after a few reflective moments, Franklin pulled the U-Haul back onto the interstate and told himself he had done what's right.
"It's f----- life and death," he said, gassing it toward the horizon and whatever comes after this.