Meet the ‘Bigga Figga’: New defensive line coach Jethro Franklin brings passion, energy to Missouri football
The Tigers’ new defensive line coach has 30 years of coaching experience and hopes to reignite “D-Line Zou.”
Mar. 12, 2021
Former Southern California defensive coordinator Rocky Seto remembers the interview as if it was yesterday. In front of a room full of the university’s coaching staff and administrators, a then-40-year-old Jethro Franklin interviewed for the Trojan’s defensive line coach position as if he was a player.
He didn’t draw up schemes or give a sequence of generic interview answers. No, Franklin passionately acted out every play in a high-energy interview, which left administrators, Seto and even then-coach Pete Carroll with little doubt as to who would replace the team’s previous defensive line coach, current LSU coach Ed Orgeron.
“He was banging on the board, getting all fired up and demonstrating his moves,” Seto said. “I was like, ‘Man, this guy is incredible. He was pretty dynamic, and it was pretty neat.’”
Seemingly everyone remembers the first time they met Franklin and learned firsthand about the energy and passion he has for football. Sam Anno, now a defensive coach with the San Diego Strike Force indoor football team, coached with Franklin for six years –– both with USC and the Oakland (now Las Vegas) Raiders –– and speaks fondly of his fellow Californian.
Anno and Franklin first met at one of USC’s high school football camps. They both coached the defense, but Franklin often stayed with the kids longest and pushed them hardest.
“I remember going out there, and there was Jethro standing tall with his whistle and all the kids,” Anno said. “We would do these drills and he’s just blowing the whistle, making those kids go about 100 yards.”
Former USC defensive lineman Lawrence Jackson’s first vivid memory of his new coach came during an early-season meeting. Seated in the first row, he murmured, “What kind of name is Jethro, anyways?” just loud enough to think only those next to him would hear the jab.
But Franklin stopped in the middle of drawing up a play and spun around.
“My grandfather gave me that name,” Franklin said. “And I’ll let you say nothing else about it.”
Years later, Jackson acknowledged his slip-up, but also said it was the day he gained another level of respect for his new position coach.
Over time, Franklin has garnered that respect at each and every stop he’s made in football, and for good reason. Those that knew him well had plenty of stories to share. He started his coaching career at his alma mater, Fresno State, where he coached the Bulldogs’ defensive line unit for seven years. Since then, he’s made nine other stops, from USC and the University of Miami to the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks.
In January, Missouri made Franklin its first defensive hire under new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks. And if his past is any indication, Franklin will bring plenty of energy and personality to the Tigers’ defensive staff as he looks to re-establish “D-Line Zou.”
“He’s always fired up and enthusiastic,” Seto said. “He loves people, he loves coaching football and he makes a big impression immediately.”
It’s hard to be around Franklin for any duration of time without hearing him referenced as “Figga,” or “Bigga Figga.”
Franklin received the nickname during his time as a player at Fresno State, and the name has a bit of regional significance. Those who grew up in California’s Central Valley Region gave one another nicknames based on the area’s fruits, and San Jose, California, –– where Franklin grew up –– and Fresno, California, are cities known for its figs. Since then, the nickname has stuck.
“You can never understand how that makes sense unless you lived in California and you had a history around the farm,” then-USC defensive assistant Pete Dalis said.
Franklin is now listed as “Figga” in Jackson’s phone contacts, but that’s a name that neither he nor any of his young teammates called the coach directly when they played for him. Players referenced Franklin as “Figga,” or “Bigga Figga,” in private circles, but they needed to earn his respect to call him that in a loose setting.
And just how players had to develop respect to call him “Figga,” Franklin needed to gain his players’ respect, too. The coach arrived in Los Angeles for the 2005 season, the year after the Trojans won a national championship under Carroll and position coach Orgeron.
Like in many of his prior stops, Franklin earned that respect quickly because of his openness and honesty with players. He had the coaching acumen, energy and past experiences, which stood out to college athletes. And many of the guys on USC’s defensive line related to him naturally just because he was a Black coach.
“It was that NFL players coach with the fact that he was also Black,” Jackson said. “That helped out tremendously, especially for me, knowing that I had someone who identified with what I was going through.”
Off the field, position group dinners never had much to do with football, and he had the reputation of the coach that showed up at each game as one of the best dressed.
“I’d like to find a D-line coach in college football that’s going to be able to relate more and motivate his guys more than Jethro will,” Dalis said.
Franklin’s ability to relate to anyone and everyone translated to the coaching staff as well. One day, when the coaching staff drew up play card after play card in the back room at the practice facility, Franklin began to “play” the trumpet parts to the band Earth, Wind & Fire’s song, “Can’t Hide Love,” with his mouth.
“Coach Carroll made sure that he had the best coaches around, and [Franklin] was one of those guys,” Seto said. “What was neat to see was that the players took to him, and he loved them well. He has a good energy about him and enthusiasm that most people don’t have.”
In addition to his defensive responsibilities, Franklin coached the Trojan’s field goal and PAT block unit during his time in Los Angeles. The night before each game, the coach went over previous film with players, and as he played clip after clip, he repeatedly drove his point home with his patented saying: “Drive, drive, drive up.”
But the night before USC played Washington State in October 2005 felt decidedly different.
With the lights dimmed in a conference room at the downtown Marriott the team used to stay at, those in USC’s pre-game day special teams meeting could only make out Franklin’s silhouette, projected against the screen. On that night, the players beat Franklin to the punch.
“Drive, drive, driiiiive uhhhhhhp!,” they parroted at Franklin, as he showed the same clip again and again. For minutes on end, the energy in the room crescendoed until the room filled completely with noise. The next afternoon, the Trojans beat the Cougars 55-13 and blocked multiple kicks. It was a moment that stood out amidst a long season, and one Dalis will never forget.
“He couldn’t even get a word out,” Dalis said. “I remember being in the box, and I believe we blocked something that weekend. I remember it because the enthusiasm in that meeting the night before was off the charts, and sure enough, you get a field goal or PAT blocked in that game.”
Franklin coached defense, but he helped young players realize the importance of special teams –– of how being able to consistently block kicks and save one or two points eventually adds up. If anything, it’s the perfect example of how players bought into what he taught.
“It was a special moment, and I think that that game, and blocking those kicks was a big deal,” Lawrence said. “Not just for the field goal block team, but the defense because it was most of us. We took that attitude back over to traditional defense.”
Franklin brings that animated energy in every aspect of his coaching, whether it be instructing a player one-on-one or chewing into the entire unit. Dalis likened Franklin’s gravelly voice to that of a preacher because of the way his voice inflected when coaching, which made a normal practice feel anything but monotonous.
“The guys will know that the drills are over, but he’s still blowing the whistle,” Anno said. “There will be guys half his age out there that won’t have the energized focus that he will have.”
Next season, Franklin will bring that energy and passion to Missouri’s sideline. Wilks hasn’t coached with Franklin before, but the pair’s paths have crossed multiple times before, and they both have mutual respect for one another.
“He is a guy that I feel like is going to bring a lot to the program just with the mere fact of him being a fundamentalist,” Wilks said.
Already in spring practices, Franklin has gone right to work. While working with the Tigers’ linemen, he hasn’t been afraid to stop a drill and jump in himself to give an example. He’ll give a player individualized instructions on the side.
And with 31 years of football coaching experience at every level, he brings a resume that bolsters coach Eli Drinkwitz’s entire staff.
“He knows how important and how critical D-line is,” Jackson said. “To me, he’s the D-line specialist and D-line guru. If Missouri makes it feel like home, then it will be home. And it will have a defensive line unit that will lead the team for years to come.”
Edited by Jack Soble | firstname.lastname@example.org