Vanderbilt developing winning culture under Franklin

Cultures aren’t built overnight, but they have to start somewhere. If Vanderbilt’s winning ways continue, college football historians might look back at the month between Oct. 9 and Nov. 9, 2013 as a pivotal period in the Commodores’ transformation process from permanent doormats to perennial contenders in the upper echelon of the SEC East.  

Granted, they aren’t there yet. Vandy is still one win away from bowl eligiblity, although the Commodores should beat Kentucky and Wake Forest and could beat Tennessee over the final three teams on their schedule. 

But even if they only win one of the last three, the past month will still hold a special place in Vanderbilt football history. 

It was during that stretch that the Commodores stared into a future abyss that looked both bleak and familiar. At 3-3 after an ugly home loss to Missouri and facing three straight games against Georgia, Texas A&M and Florida, the Commodores could have easily retreated to their old ways. The seniors on this team had already made history by playing in bowl games two consecutive years — a first for Vanderbilt football — and they finished ranked in the AP’s top 25 in 2012, something that hadn’t happened since Harry Truman was president. No one would have been surprised if the ‘Dores dropped three in a row and slipped quietly out of the bowl picture. It was the outcome that many, if not most, expected.  

But the foundation that coach James Franklin built in three years has turned out to be much sturdier than previously thought. Franklin’s team rejected the inevitable, casting aside the old loser ethos and opting instead to dig deep within to win games where no one thought they stood a chance. 

Since that Missouri loss, Vandy has gone 2-1, falling to Johnny Manziel and the Aggies but shocking the college football world by upsetting first Georgia and then Florida for the first time in school history. The latter win earned Vandy the honor of being named College Football Team of the Week by the Football Writers Association of America.   

Critics are quick to point out that Georgia was playing with a plethora of injuries, including the loss of the Bulldogs’ two star running backs and three of their best receivers, while the Gators threw three interceptions and allowed the Commodores to win with only 187 total yards of offense and 12 first downs. But the memory of how the wins happened will fade over time: the wins themselves will remain on the books forever.

“We’re a fundamentalist program, and I think that’s why over time we get better,” Franklin said immediately after beating Florida. “By really relying on your fundamentals and emphasizing fundamentals, I think you have a chance to have some success. If you look over our last year and a half, we’re 6-0 in the month of November, which if you study Vanderbilt’s history that hasn’t always been the case this late in the season.”  

Those words did not sound like they come from someone surprised to be winning, nor did they sound like the words of a man who expects the thrill ride to end. 

Vanderbilt stands at a crossroads. Another bowl victory this year and Franklin will be the hottest coach in college football with more suitors calling than he could ever entertain. Rumors already run rampant that he is a leading contender for the Southern Cal job. And if Mack Brown hangs up the spurs at Texas, Franklin’s name will almost certainly be bantered about as an option.

Whether he stays at Vandy or not could be irrelevant, though. Franklin is building something that outlasts tenure. He is building a culture of winning. 

Just as Jim Harbaugh took a bunch of bookworms and turned them into a smash-mouth football team at Stanford — a tradition that has continued after Harbaugh’s departure to the NFL — Franklin could be turning the ‘Dore-mats into a force in the SEC East. If he is successful, it could change the conference’s landscape for a generation.  

As Vince Lombardi famously said, “winning is a habit, and unfortunately, so is losing.” At Vanderbilt, one habit seems to be giving way to the other, a trend that could turn the tide in Nashville for a long, long time.