Franklin, 41, who led Vanderbilt to bowls in all three of his seasons there, replaces Bill O'Brien, who left the Nittany Lions after two years to coach the NFL's Houston Texans. Penn State made the announcement Saturday, after the school's compensation committee met to finalize the contract.
That committee approved the hiring by a 6-0 vote Saturday morning, and Franklin was introduced later in the day.
"Our program requires a very special kind of leader," Penn State President Rodney Erickson said, calling Franklin a "special talent." ''We ran a careful and deliberate search process and I believe we've found the right person to lead our program."
Franklin won 24 games with the Commodores and is a Pennsylvania native with strong ties in-state. Penn State officials met with him this week in Florida. He will be asked to build off a foundation that O'Brien set amid scandal. Despite a lack of scholarships, a bowl ban and player defections from the late Joe Paterno's roster, O'Brien led the Nittany Lions to two winning seasons (8-4, 7-5) while restoring some tempered enthusiasm in Happy Valley.
"I'm a Pennsylvania boy," Franklin said during his opening statement, "with a Penn State heart."
Franklin, who attended football camp at Penn State as a youth and played at Division II East Stroudsburg (Pa.), set seven school records as a senior, and also has coached at Washington State, Idaho State, Kansas State and Maryland. With the Terrapins, he was offensive coordinator and assistant head coach.
"I thought I was good enough to play at Penn State," he said, sternly. "I was not. So, I am so very proud to be able to be the head coach at this university."
Members of Penn State's trustee committee met with Athletic Director Dave Joyner and others Saturday morning to discuss the contract, which the group called "excellent" for both Franklin and the Nittany Lions.
"Dr. Joyner and I have stressed that our No. 1 priority in hiring a new coach was to hire an outstanding leader for our football program, one who will continue our long tradition of student-athlete success on the field and in the classroom," Erickson said. "We have achieved that goal."
Much of Saturday's meeting, at which specific terms of the contract were laid out for trustees, was done privately. The actual vote was public, lasting roughly a minute, and Penn State made the formal announcement of the hiring moments later. Trustees said Franklin's contract terms would be revealed Saturday afternoon.
"The contract is in line with other recent coaching contracts," committee chairwoman Linda Strumpf said.
Franklin took over a Vanderbilt program that went 2-10 each of the two seasons before he was hired Dec. 17, 2010. He went 24-15 in his first three seasons as a head coach, matching Dan McGugin for the most wins in school history over a coach's first three seasons. But the allure of Penn State, and the opportunity for a homecoming of sorts was too good to pass up.
"This is my dream job," he said. "This is where I want to be."
The Commodores are 16-4 over the past 20 games, which is second in the SEC only to Alabama. Vanderbilt won the final seven games of 2012 and the final five of 2013 in a stretch that also includes back-to-back bowl wins.
"On behalf of myself and my family I want to welcome James Franklin and his wife, Fumi, to Penn State," Sue Paterno said in a statement. "His deep ties to Pennsylvania and his exceptional coaching record have prepared him well for his new position.
"We wish Coach Franklin great success and we know he will find broad support and encouragement from Penn Staters everywhere."
Franklin led Vanderbilt to rankings in the final Associated Press poll each of the past two seasons, including No. 24 in the rankings released Tuesday. Vanderbilt hadn't finished in the final AP poll before Franklin arrived since 1948 under Red Sanders.
Franklin also has doubled the number of nine-win seasons in school history by going 9-4 each of the past two seasons. Vanderbilt last won nine games in 1915 before Franklin. In 2013, the Commodores also beat Georgia, Florida and Tennessee in the same season for the first time.
He now has a new challenge and some big shoes to fill. O'Brien met the task of succeeding Paterno with ferocity and passion. He changed the culture by, among other things, placing names on the backs of the jerseys, playing loud music during practice to fire up players and overhauling the offseason weight training program. All along, he was lauded.
At the same time, though, he always paid homage to Paterno and his legacy. He said and did the right things to appeal to Penn State fans, and made the most of his 24 games at Penn State. In the end, that made him even more marketable to the NFL.
But what he left behind - especially in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal - would be difficult for any coach to adopt:
- Though there is talk that this may be reduced at some point, Penn State's bowl ban has not been lifted yet and runs through the 2015 season.
- While some scholarships have been restored, there is not the full allotment that other Big Ten schools - including new members Rutgers and Maryland - have at their disposal.
- Recruiting season is in full swing right now, a time when high school seniors may cross the Nittany Lions off their list.
- And the trials of three former Penn State officials accused of trying to cover up the scandal at the time - president Graham Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley and vice president for finance Gary Schultz - are yet to be completed.
After a lackluster start - O'Brien lost to Ohio and Virginia to open his career - Penn State rattled off five straight wins, and finished the year with a rousing 24-21 win over Wisconsin at home.
This season, the Nittany Lions started off better - wins over Syracuse and Eastern Michigan opened the year - but dealt with inconsistency issues along the way. All that said, like his first season, O'Brien closed with a flurry, defeating the Badgers, this time in Wisconsin, 31-24, to close out the campaign.
O'Brien developed bonds with his players, but never let that get in the way of the task at hand. He needed to grow college football players into Penn State players, and in many cases, he was successful. It's now on Franklin to push that mission forward.
"We are going to dominate the state," Franklin said. "We are going to unite the coaches, we are going to unite the community, and we are going to grow the program to where everybody wants it to be."
AP Sports Writer Tim Reynolds in Miami contributed to this report.