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.

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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.

Shut up and coach
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.”

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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 chair 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?”

Franklin joined Middle Tennessee in 2016, after helping Jared Goff break records at Cal. (Helen Comer/The Daily News Journal)
The Franklin way
Two decades ago, it was Franklin against everybody. Back then he was an offensive assistant at Kentucky, where he 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 Coach Hal 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, says he 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