By Richard Stevens – Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
Joe Franklin’s trophies have a room now. Most of them – really the Lobo ones -- are out of his dusty garage, out of the tucked-away ice coolers, out of the cardboard boxes, and are placed neatly on several shelves. It takes several shelves to house Joe’s iron. Joe has a lot of trophies – including 15 Mountain West Coach of the Year trophies -- and they probably deserve a room and proper placement.
Of course, some of them, including a National Coach of the Year award, didn’t make it into the main house There are too many of them. Joe says they probably are still in the garage, “but I really don’t know.”
Joe doesn’t seem to care too much about making his trophies happy or obvious. His wife rescued them from the garage and put them on display. Joe surely is glad he won them because otherwise some other coach would have won them. Joe might not have liked that because that probably meant the other guy’s team won, too. “I’m hyper competitive,” he says. “I don’t like to lose.”
Of course, Joe is talking more about his runners and his teams. “This really isn’t about me,” he says.
We’ll get back to the trophies later. Joe wants to go sit outside, eat some cheese and crackers and enjoy New Mexico’s biting blue skies. “You live in New Mexico so you can go outside. If we were back in Indiana, we’d be doing this,” said Joe, slapping imaginary bugs off his arms.
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Joe Franklin is skinny now. Not all that skinny and maybe lean is a better word to describe the Franklin frame that is down almost 50 pounds. Joe was close to 200 and is now closer to 150. He dropped the weight quickly and so quickly that Lobo baseball coach Ray Birmingham asked Joe if he was OK.
Joe was OK.
“I didn’t want to be the fat guy with the cute wife,” said Joe, glancing across at his wife of 16 years, Melinda (Mindy).
Mindy liked Joe just fine as Plump Joe. She likes him better lean, fit and healthy. “He has muscles now,” she says through a sly smile.
Joe won’t be mistaken for a young Arnold Schwarzenegger. Or for Ray Birmingham. Joe is fit for good reasons. “For about seven years, I would eat two Ding Dongs for breakfast with a glass of chocolate milk,” he says. “I quit that.”
Adds Mindy: “And he had muffins, too. He never did anything. No exercise. We have a picture of him standing on the track when he first came here (UNM). He was plump. Chunky. He’s changed his eating habits. That’s huge.”
Mindy got Chunky Joe off the couch and off the Ding Dongs. “I was doing cross fit and I would come home and show him all the cool things I was doing,” she said. “It rubbed off on him. He started doing pushups and planks. Then I convinced him to go to a cross fit class with me and he realized how out of shape he was.”
Said Joe: “I could do a plank for ten seconds and I thought I would die.”
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Joe Franklin almost died once. It was in 2002 or maybe it’s more accurate to say it began in 2002. It was about a five-year battle. He was one of six patients in a cancer unit in an Indiana hospital. Joe had leukemia. They called it acute myeloid leukemia, but is cancer ever acute? It’s scary and it can kill.
“Yeah, I was scared,” he said. “You don’t know if you are going to live or die.”
Joe had some early signs that maybe something was wrong. He didn’t feel all that peppy, which is unusual for Joe, an energizer-bunny type. He thought maybe it was a cold or maybe the flu. Then he jumped off a flat-bed truck while working on a track at Butler University and his foot swelled up big. He went to see a doctor. He took a blood test which led the doctors to dig into his bone marrow.
“You just do what they tell you to do and hope you make it through,” said Joe. “It was a different procedure back then and it was like the boy in the plastic bubble. I was in isolation and stayed in the hospital for 30 days.”
If you know Joe Franklin, you know he didn’t sit in bed and do crossword puzzles. Joe made some phone calls. Joe did some recruiting. “I recruited my team from the hospital bed,” he said. “A lot of that team was the one that finished fourth (in the 2004 NCAA cross country finals).”
Joe got out of the hospital bed and out of the hospital and beat the disease. Four of the six didn’t make it.
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Joe Franklin was raised in the heartland, in middle America, in the Midwest, in Greencastle, Indiana. It was a time and a place, said Joe, “Where you didn’t lock the doors, ran around wherever we wanted to, and everybody knew everybody.”
Joe’s parents taught school and he had a brother seven years older and another brother 14 years older. He played football, basketball and ran track. He lettered four years at Purdue with his specialty coming at 800 meters.
He majored in English and technical writing at Purdue and he leaned in that direction as a career path – briefly. Very briefly.
A cubicle saved Joe from life in a cubicle, at a desk. He hated it.
“I conditioned myself to use the bathroom eight to ten times a day just to get out of the cubicle,” said Joe. “I knew then I couldn’t keep doing that. I couldn’t sit still then and I can’t sit still now.
“I see coaching as a lifestyle more than a job. I don’t go to work except when I have to figure out my budget. Then it’s work.”
From the cubicle, Joe went to DePauw University to coach track. No surprise, he was named the 1991-92 conference coach of the year in his first – and only – season at DePauw. “I made about $3,000 a year and lived in the basement at my parents’ house,” said Joe. “But I had a meal pass and it was a nice basement.”
From the basement and from DePauw, Franklin went to Purdue as a restricted-earnings assistant. He then went to Butler in 1994 and stayed until 2007 when he came to New Mexico. At Butler, he won around 20 Coach of the Year awards and once picked up National Coach of the Year in cross country after that fourth-place finish. Joe does not know where that trophy is.
It’s easy to see why New Mexico snatched him away from Butler.
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Joe Franklin is laid back and easy going. There is a healthy, refreshing splash of humility in that ultra-competitive nature. His attitude about himself is ho-hum with a sprinkling of “ah shucks, no big deal.” Joe has even called himself the Lobos’ “bus driver.”
“The kids do all the work,” he says. “I just drive the bus.”
But there is a way to put Joe Franklin’s accomplishments at the University of New Mexico into quick and somewhat stunning cross-country perspective.
Just line up the Mountain West and regional trophies his Lobos have won since Joe took over the New Mexico track offices. If you want to make the line of iron a bit shorter, just line up the consecutive titles at the Mountain West run.
There are six of them for the New Mexico Lobo women. There are five of them for the New Mexico Lobo men.
That means that Joe’s men and women combined for a sweep for the fifth consecutive year on Nov. 1 up in Colorado Springs. If Joe ever decides to move his trophies out of his house, he’ll need a bus to do it. And a few more ice chests.
If there is pressure on Joe, it comes from within. The Pre-Joe Lobos won five cross country titles from 1962 to 2007. The Lobo long distance runners now have 16 crowns during Joe’s reign. His accomplishments as a Lobo are approaching the iconic level. This past school year Franklin’s Lobo won the Mountain West triple crown with championships in cross country, indoor and outdoor track.
“It’s fun to be that consistent, but the pressure mounts every year,” said Joe.
Yeah, the pressure probably does go up. When you sit on the throne and wear the crown, there is a target on your back. Like King Henry IV said through the words of Shakespeare: “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.”
There also is a reason runners come to run for Joe Franklin. There is a nice balance to the way he deals with his runners. He is fair. He is low-key, low stress, high results. He lets his Lobo runners have fun. He pushes them without shoving them. He shows them how to win.
He also does what every athlete wants his or her coach to do: Make them better. Maybe Joe gives his runners a lifestyle as much as a running chart. Whatever, it’s working.
“I think it’s important to find a balance, keep a balance, and make sure you have fun outside your job,” said Joe. “There’s not a lot to me. I’m a pretty simple guy.”
Simple? Maybe. Special? Definitely. It’s a corny way to end a story on Joe Franklin, but you have to say it: This is no ordinary Joe.
“Hey, we’re having turkey burgers tonight,” says Joe. “You are welcome to stay.”
Sounds good. Bring your own Ding Dongs.