HOOVER, Ala. – Something happened on Thursday afternoon, on the final day of SEC Media Days, that you just don’t often see.
No, it did not concern the Alabama fan that covered his head and shoulders with a box turned into a replica of a national championship ring, but rather the head coach of a Southeastern Conference program that has been at the other end of the spectrum from the Crimson Tide on the league’s pecking order. There was Vanderbilt coach James Franklin claiming the biggest challenge coaching the Commodores into his third season at the helm was figuring out to manage success. He even went as far as to say that dealing with adversity might be a lesser challenge.
Certainly, long-suffering Commodores can commiserate with the latter, but they are surely enjoying the former in what might be the best of times for a football program that went 25 years (1983-2007) without a winning record and bowl berth.
“Probably our biggest challenge is handling the success,” said Franklin, whose team won nine games last season — the highest total for the program since 1915. The Commodores capped the season with a win over North Carolina State in the Music City Bowl. “I think a lot of times when you’re taking over a program you’re dealing with 18- to 22-year-old males. Adversity is probably a little bit easier to handle than the success.”
Wow, he went there.
Then again, those nine wins in 2012 were just one of many program markers surpassed over the past two seasons. Atop the lengthy list for last season’s breakthrough include consecutive bowl berths for the first time, a top-25 final AP ranking at No. 23 for the first time since the poll began post-bowl voting in 1968, most SEC wins (five) since 1935, most points scored (30 per game) since 1916 and most wins (15) over two seasons since 1904-05.
Riding the wave of his charge up San Juan Hill, good old Teddy Roosevelt was president way back in 1905. And that was even some 28 years before the SEC was formed in 1933 by charter members that included Alabama, the league’s all-time winningest football team, and Vanderbilt, the league’s losingest.
But amongst the summer wave of momentum heading into the season that starts Aug. 29 at home against Ole Miss came some unsettling news. In late June, four Commodores — defensive back Brandon Banks, safety Corey Batey, receiver Jaborian “Tip” McKenzie and tight end Brandon Vandenburg — were dismissed from the team amidst an investigation by Nashville Metro Police and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation of a possible sex crime involving a female in an on-campus dorm room.
Franklin deflected questions at SEC Media Days concerning the matter by saying he could not comment on an ongoing investigation. It has been the only blemish thus far surrounding Franklin’s program. Commodores fans are hoping it doesn’t turn into a black eye.
The positive buzz around Nashville, Tenn., though, is that the Commodores might well be for real, if only they can hold onto Franklin. It translated into support last season when home attendance at Vanderbilt Stadium increased 16 percent and the team played in front of three sell-out crowds — most since 1996.
“I think more than anything you see a commitment at Vanderbilt right now,” Franklin said, “not only from the head coach and the players, but from the administration and the boosters an the fan base and everybody else, probably more so than it’s ever been at Vanderbilt. To me that’s exciting.”
Plans are developing for a complete renovation of Vanderbilt Stadium, which seats 40,550, the smallest venue in the SEC. And in October, Vanderbilt will christen a $31 million indoor practice facility that dramatically upgrades its overall facilities.
Ultimately, though, it comes down to athletes. For Vanderbilt to have sustained competitiveness in a league that has won seven straight national championships, they must recruit the best players in the country. Thus far, that’s been a big hit for Franklin and staff, too.
The incoming Commodores class was ranked No. 19 in the country by Scout.com. Franklin’s staff has 15 current commitments for a 2014 class ranked at No. 32 at the moment.
“We sell the recruits on the fact you have a chance to come and do something that’s never been done before,” Franklin said. “To me, that’s an unbelievable opportunity and not a lot of places can say that. They got a chance to come and build something with their own hands, and that’s what we’re trying to do with Vanderbilt.”
Indeed, these might well be the best of times for Vanderbilt football competitively. And Franklin can continue to sell recruits that they can still jump on the Commodores’ football train that hopes to leave the station for good.
While Vanderbilt is the only SEC charter member to never win a league football championship, there are Commodores fans out there quietly wondering what it would feel like to compete among the league’s elite on a regular basis. Because if you’re there, then you’re also in the national conversation as well.
And that’s about as crazy as an Alabama fan showing up at SEC Media Days dressed like a championship ring.