Franklin taking Vanderbilt to new heights

By: James Carr
@jamescarr89

David Williams is excited.

He’s the athletic director at Vanderbilt University, among many other important titles around Nashville, Tenn., and, for the first time, his football team appears on the cusp of prolonged relevance in the SEC.

“You can’t be in the room with [head coach] James Franklin and not get excited about Vanderbilt football,” he says.

Of course, it’s one thing to be excited. Vanderbilt has been excited before.

The school and the city became slightly jaded after Bobby Johnson left in July 2010. Still feeling the buzz of a 7-6 season in 2008 that included a Music City Bowl victory, just the program’s second-ever bowl win in five postseason appearances, Johnson suddenly retired before the 2010 campaign. The retirement came between consecutive 2-10 seasons, leaving fans with little more than a glimpse of success.

But this time, Williams isn’t just excited. He’s confident. Vanderbilt (8-4, 5-3) is set to appear in its second-consecutive bowl game for the first time in school history.

“I’ve sent notes to the administration,” Williams said in an August interview, “Make no plans for December.”

Williams can only be so confident because of Franklin, the one he kept an eye one since Franklin impressed him during his days with the Maryland Terrapins. Franklin’s energy and enthusiasm not only has Vanderbilt football at their most competitive level ever, he has the city of Nashville at his fingertips as well, selling out games at a clip not seen since 1996 despite years of apathy surrounding the program.

That has been Franklin’s style throughout his career. Now, he has Vanderbilt aiming higher.

***

James Franklin does things by the book. His book, to be specific.

“I’m James Franklin, I wanted to introduce myself. I just wanted to let you know one day I’m going to be a head coach.”

That’s how Franklin met his current boss, Williams. Both men were attending a conference for minority coaches, mostly assistants. Franklin was then an assistant at Maryland.

“I thought it was interesting, that sort of confidence and that he knew where he was headed,” Williams said. “He wasn’t asking me to remember him or anything, so I always thought that if there was an opportunity where we were looking for a head coach, we certainly wanted to go further and interview him.”

Following the aforementioned 2-10 seasons, Vanderbilt was indeed looking for a head coach. Williams put Franklin’s name on the list. When he arrived on campus, his energy, enthusiasm and passion stood out.

So did his book.

“He brought this huge book, just a huge loose-leaf book that was just full to the brim,” Williams said. “And I first thought, well he’s bringing stuff to give us. But this wasn’t a book for us, this was a book that he carries around with him and in his free time on planes or waiting for meetings he’s studying from this book. And what’s in this book is everything that he has seen and learned about football and coaching.”

It includes details from his days with the Green Bay Packers, Washington State Cougars, Maryland Terrapins and, now, Vanderbilt. He takes it everywhere, to the point where his wife complains about interrupting family vacations. The book told Williams a lot about Franklin: He’s organized, motivated, knowledgeable, he learns lessons and he’s unique.

Essentially, though, it told Williams that Franklin was ideal for Vanderbilt and Nashville.

***

“I think Nashville is America’s best-kept secret,” Williams says.

When you’re in the city, this seems unfathomable. How can the home of country music, a stalwart amongst the South’s best barbecue, a city with multiple universities aside from the Ivy League school of the South and a state capitol possibly be a secret? Then again, how can a city with all of those amenities also claim Pabst Blue Ribbon as one of its most popular beers?

“[Nashville] is a city that has the ability to let you be who you are, and you can be who you want and they will embrace you in that as long as they understand that what you’re doing is giving love back to the city and back to the community, and James does that,” Williams said.

From calling into local radio shows unannounced to helping freshmen move in, Franklin has done his part to earn his standing in the city.

It wasn’t quite that easy when he first arrived on campus. Fans had heard the message before and had a very wait-and-see attitude when Franklin spoke about turning the program around.

“I can remember at the very beginning that people were like, ‘Yeah, well, we’ve heard that before. I’ll believe it when I see it,’” Williams said. “And he struggled with that. He asked, ‘Why are people so negative? Why don’t they believe?'”

“They’ve been beaten down by so many years of failure, so many years of not succeeding, that they need that opportunity to believe in someone,” said Clay Travis, a Nashville sports radio personality.

Franklin became that someone.

His first season not only took Vanderbilt to the Liberty Bowl, the first time a first-year coach at Vanderbilt had done so, but established a new attitude on the team. It didn’t show much on the record, but Vanderbilt played a number of quality teams close in games that would normally be blowouts. Their attitude was put on full display following another such loss to the Georgia Bulldogs at home last season, when an altercation occurred between coaches and players.

Franklin was fuming, but calmed down enough after the game to issue a statement to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, “We just had a tough, emotional game and some things were said that I didn’t think were appropriate,” Franklin said. “We’re not going to sit back and take it from anyone.”

Franklin doubled down on his mission during the offseason.

The team’s slogan for 2012 is “Anchor Down,” a sign that Vanderbilt isn’t going anywhere.

“You play Vanderbilt, you better be ready to play from the beginning of the game till the end,” Franklin said at SEC media days. “That’s whoever it is.”

The message got through. Senior defensive back Trey Wilson echoed Franklin’s sentiment. “We are not backing down for anybody,” Wilson said. “You hit us in the mouth, you’re going to get hit back. We’re not the little brother anymore, we’re not going to take it, to sit down and be quiet.”

***

Vanderbilt began the 2012 season against South Carolina. They were eager to put on display how far they’d come under Franklin’s leadership and more importantly to prove that last season wasn’t a fluke like so many previous Vanderbilt seasons.

Unfortunately, immediate success rarely comes in football and is far more rare in the SEC. While Johnny Manziel may beg to differ, Joker Phillips, Derek Dooley and John L. Smith are all seeking employment after short stints in the conference.

It didn’t come for Vanderbilt that opening night against the Gamecocks either, as the team fought and lost 17-14 with chances to win at the end.

The team lost, but was not defeated.

“We’re very close,” said safety Javon Marshall after the game. “It’s the little things, it’s the details. We just gotta take that next step. And we will. We’re gonna take it real soon.”

The ‘Dores would not get the big win they craved to announce their arrival, but Marshall was right. For the first time in a long time, Vanderbilt achieved sustained success.

Vanderbilt finished up the regular season 8-4 and beat everyone it should have beaten, some by the kind of wide margins the Commodores are used to taking. That’s the sign of a disciplined team, and a coach who has learned a lot along the way.

The question now: How high can James Franklin take Vanderbilt?

If his recruiting classes are any indication, the sky is the limit. Vanderbilt currently has the 21st-ranked class in the country, unchartered territory for the Commodores. When that talent meets Franklin’s disciplined system and approach, Vanderbilt will have all the tools it needs to compete in the SEC.

Of course, Vanderbilt will need to keep Franklin around Nashville. With college football’s annual job fair beginning in force this season, with four openings in the SEC alone, Vandy will face oncoming challengers. Williams isn’t worried

“I don’t worry about James leaving, but I’m happy to worry that other people are interested in James,” Williams told the Tennessean.

But that is for another season. For now, Vanderbilt is reflecting on what they have already accomplished, winning Vandy’s most SEC games since 1935, including the first six-game winning streak since 1955.

“We were at a point in the season where we had only won two games; we felt like we had a lot of winnable games coming up,” quarterback Jordan Rogers said after Vanderbilt blew out Wake Forest, 55-21. “To look back and realize we got six games in a row is a testament to how much better this time has gotten from game one.”

And, as they’ve earned, Vanderbilt is preparing for their second straight bowl appearance, wherever it may be.

“I love Nashville, and I’m excited about the (possibility) of the Music City Bowl, but we try to focus our time on the things that we can control, and wherever they tell us we’re going we will be unbelievably excited,” Franklin said.

No doubt, it’ll make for a good material in Franklin’s ever-expanding notebook.