An inside look at how Vandy landed its best recruiting class in history
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- James Franklin got an iPhone for Christmas. Eventually, the Vanderbilt football coach will migrate everything from his old BlackBerry to the new phone, but for now, both phones dangle from clips on his belt and buzz constantly. "My wife makes fun of me," Franklin said. "Even if I'm in my boxers, I have both of them hanging off the waistband."
He has to. A recruit might call, and that call might come during a period in which NCAA rules forbid Franklin from calling back. So Franklin clips the phones to his skivvies, and he rarely misses a call. He can't afford to. At Vanderbilt, which has been to five bowl games in 122 years of football, Franklin must work harder than his fellow SEC coaches to lure recruits who can not only handle the prestigious school's rigorous curriculum but also play well enough to lift Vanderbilt -- which won four games in two seasons before Franklin won six in 2011 -- from its usual spot as the SEC's Signing Day cellar-dweller.
Franklin seems to be succeeding. Vanderbilt doesn't get players Ohio State wants. It got one this year. Vanderbilt rarely beats Tennessee for players. It did this year. "It's the best class I've ever been associated with," Franklin said.
Tuesday night, Franklin's phones delivered the best and the worst news a coach can get on the eve of National Signing Day. Those episodes would provide the final bit of intrigue for a class that every major recruiting service considers the best Vanderbilt has signed in the Internet era. For Franklin and his staff, the letters-of-intent rolling off the fax machine Wednesday represented more than a year of work.
The collection of letters didn't include one player who was committed to Vanderbilt for eight months, but it did include the following:
• A quarterback who signed after a Vanderbilt assistant out-recruited his own brother.
• An offensive lineman who had to turn his back on decades of family tradition to become a Commodore.
• A linebacker who helped seal his late scholarship offer by holding his own personal slam dunk contest and sending the video to Vanderbilt's coaches.
• A tailback who turned down various powers (Alabama, Ohio State and others) because, to use a phrase Vandy coaches borrowed from Commodores baseball coach Tim Corbin, he would rather build a tradition than rent one.
These are only a few of the stories from a class that could make history at a school aching for football success.
Vanderbilt quarterbacks coach Ricky Rahne had never seen such a bizarre seating arrangement. As Rahne took his seat before Maryville (Tenn.) High played Whitehaven High from Memphis in the Class 6A state title game in Cookeville, Tenn, he saw the family of Maryville quarterback Patton Robinette. On one side of the family, decked out in black and gold, was Vanderbilt defensive coordinator
Each of the Shoop boys has more than 20 years in the business. They have faced each other on the field (in 2010 when Bob's William and Mary team played at North Carolina), but until Robinette, they had never faced off for a recruit. "The best thing about it," Robinette said, "is they really couldn't say anything bad about each other."
Robinette seems an obvious choice for two schools with lofty academic reputations. He was a straight-A student in high school and he scored a perfect 36 on his ACT. Even better, he planned to enroll at his chosen school in January. But which Shoop would win?
Bob had a feeling he would emerge victorious. After North Carolina abruptly fired Butch Davis in July, the Tar Heels staff under interim coach Everett Withers seemed destined to coach only the 2011 season before being replaced. Bob had a sense that if John was fired, Robinette would choose Vanderbilt. When Larry Fedora took over as North Carolina's coach and installed his own staff, Bob thought Vanderbilt would have the edge with his brother no longer on Robinette's trail. Besides, in conversations with Robinette, Bob Shoop and Rahne thought Robinette sounded like he wanted to come to Vanderbilt.
Rahne and Bob Shoop visited Robinette at his home on Jan. 5. Rahne spent much of the day schooling Robinette in the
Robinette was in Chapel Hill. He attended the North Carolina-Boston College basketball game, where he was photographed talking to current Tar Heels quarterback Bryn Renner. At 11:01 p.m., Robinette sent a text message to the
Robinette said his parents wanted him to attend an out-of-state school to help him broaden his horizons. On Sunday, Jan. 8, Robinette began orientation at North Carolina. He signed scholarship papers. But he couldn't escape a nagging feeling. "It didn't feel like it was where I needed to be," Robinette said. "I think my parents saw that, too." Robinette called Franklin and asked whether the scholarship papers were binding. They were not. Only a signed National Letter-of-Intent or attendance in a class would have bound Robinette to North Carolina, so he was free to go. Robinette apologized to Fedora. A day later, Robinette was in Nashville. The Commodores had their quarterback, and Bob Shoop had won bragging rights at family reunions -- at least until the next time the brothers face off for a recruit.
Vanderbilt offensive line coach Herb Hand is glad he didn't venture into the basement at the Paris, Tenn., home of offensive tackle Andrew Jelks. Hand isn't sure he could have handled all the Tennessee orange.
Franklin braved the Big Orange man cave at the Jelks house, though. "There were Tennessee pictures. There were T-shaped rugs," Franklin said. "There was a Power T that Andrew had painted when he was six. There were T's everywhere."
To make matters more difficult, Jelks' parents were longtime Tennessee season-ticket holders, and the Volunteers wanted Jelks to play in Knoxville. "It's probably the hardest thing I've ever done," Jelks said. "I thought about it a lot. I looked at it very close, from academics to the city I want to live in to the people I want to be around. At the end, Vandy was the place I wanted to be."
After Jelks committed to the Commodores in November, his father's Neyland Stadium experience changed a bit. "He got some funny looks," the 6-foot-6, 260-pound Jelks said.
The Volunteers didn't give up on Jelks, calling him on Tuesday to try to change his mind. Vanderbilt coaches didn't mind that, but they did take offense when Ole Miss assistant Wesley McGriff, who coached at Vandy last season, called Jelks on Tuesday to try to sway him.
When Franklin arrived at the office at 5:30 a.m. Wednesday, he had Jelks on his mind. "Let's get Jelks on the phone," he said. "Just to make sure."
Franklin didn't need to worry. After coaches from each school called Tuesday, Jelks had called Hand to let him know what had happened and to reaffirm his commitment to Vanderbilt. Wednesday morning, after Jelks faxed in his letter of intent, Vandy coaches roared. "Someone call Wes McGriff," Franklin yelled.
Meanwhile, in west Tennessee, a man cave is about to get redecorated. "It's decked out in Tennessee right now," Jelks said. "But we're going to have to change it soon."
Remember that piece of bad news that came through one of Franklin's phones? It came Tuesday at about 10 p.m. after defensive line coach Sean Spencer told Franklin to call Josh Dawson.
Dawson, a 6-4, 225-pound defensive end from Tucker, Ga., committed to Vandy in May. He and Tucker High teammate Jacob Sealand planned to play together in Nashville. But Georgia coaches wanted Dawson, and they wouldn't give up.
While the Vandy coaches envisioned Dawson playing defensive end in a base 4-3, Georgia coaches envisioned him playing linebacker in a 3-4. Jarvis Jones tore up SEC offenses from that position this past season, and the way Georgia uses Jones is reminiscent of the way the Baltimore Ravens use Terrell Suggs, who happens to be Dawson's favorite player.
Tuesday, Shoop e-mailed Dawson a YouTube clip of Suggs. With his hand on the ground on most plays, Shoop pointed out, Suggs didn't function all that differently than a 4-3 defensive end. Dawson faced tremendous pressure to stay in his home state, and the combination of pressure and a position Dawson liked better proved too much for whatever gains Vandy coaches had made in months of recruiting.
By late Tuesday, Spencer had gone through the stages of grief. He spent a little while on anger, but he didn't blame Dawson. Recruiting, Spencer said, is a lot like dating. Rejection is part of the deal. But understanding that doesn't make it sting any less. "We're competitive," Spencer said. "That's what makes you good. It can kill you, too."
Coaches must tread lightly when they try to hang on to a recruit with a wandering eye. They want the player to remain committed, but if they push too hard, they might push the player into the arms of another coaching staff. "You feel like you've done everything you can, and then it's out of your control," Rahne said. "There's a fine line between doing more and feeling like you're stalking the kid."
By Tuesday, Spencer, Shoop and Franklin had made all the calls they could with Dawson. Tuesday night, Dawson called Spencer with the bad news. "He was a man," Spencer said. "He called." Spencer told Dawson he would have to break the news to Franklin himself. Not long before he left the office for the night, Franklin called Dawson, and Dawson told Franklin he planned to be a Bulldog.
Wednesday, Dawson revealed his choice at a ceremony at his school. "He did the old hat flip," Spencer said, shaking his head. Dawson had picked up a Vandy hat and then switched to a Georgia hat. "That's just brutal," Spencer said. "It's the world of reality TV now."
Harding Harper tried to commit to Vanderbilt sight unseen in the fall. Franklin liked the 6-2, 212-pound linebacker, but he didn't feel comfortable taking a commitment from a player who had never been on campus.
Harper never managed to make it to Vanderbilt, but he stayed in touch with the coaches and made sure they knew he remained interested. When Chris Moody, a versatile athlete from McDonough, Ga., flipped to South Carolina from Vanderbilt last week, Vandy coaches told Harper, who also had offers from Arkansas, Georgia Tech and Central Florida, to stay ready.
With Moody gone and Dawson wavering heavily, Vandy coaches knew they could take one more defensive player. Harper was the next best on their board. But they still weren't sure. Tuesday afternoon, Harper cited his dunking ability as another example of his athleticism. Linebackers coach Brent Pry told Harper he was skeptical. So Harper told his high school coach to grab a video camera and headed to his school's gym. "I just went in the gym and started dunking," Harper said.
Not long after, the coach uploaded a video showing a series of Harper dunks to a website Vandy coaches use to manage footage of prospects. Pry showed the video to Franklin and Shoop, who came away impressed. The coaches had already been leaning toward extending an offer, but the video put Harper over the top.
"The opportunity to play early in the SEC was huge to me," Harper said. "I was just happy it came through."
The piece of great news Franklin received Tuesday pinged onto his BlackBerry at 7:42 p.m. It was a text message from Memphis, Tenn., tailback Brian Kimbrow, the crown jewel of Vandy's class. Franklin looked down at the screen and couldn't help but smile. Of all the players in the class, Kimbrow had the most opportunities to choose another school. But no one did more for Vandy's class of 2012 than Kimbrow, who probably deserves the title of associate recruiting coordinator.
When Kimbrow, Nashville defensive end Caleb Azubike and Nashville receiver Corey Batey committed to Vanderbilt together on July 1, the rumors began. There was no way Vandy could hold on to Kimbrow, who was coveted by Tennessee, Notre Dame, Alabama, Auburn and plenty of others. That day, Kimbrow told SI.com that there was no way he would flip on Vandy. "I've had a chance to think about this for two years now," Kimbrow said. "I've been being recruited since 10th grade. ... This is where I feel comfortable. This is where I want to go."
He had plenty of chances, too. The most tempting came last month when Ohio State offered a scholarship. In the tiny, lightning-quick Kimbrow, Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer saw another Chris Rainey -- a waterbug back who found great success in Meyer's offense at Florida. Kimbrow said no thanks. Every time someone else tried to land him, Kimbrow called Franklin -- who answers Kimbrow's calls with "Homeboy" -- to let him know he had nothing to worry about. "He took a lot of heat," Franklin said. "And he never wavered."
Tuesday, with word of Dawson's wavering spreading among the committed players, Kimbrow went to work again. He texted Hand and asked for the phone number of every committed player so he could call each one individually and ensure they stayed true to their commitment. About an hour after he made that request of Hand, Kimbrow composed a long text message to Franklin that came across in several 160-character blocks. Put in order and translated from American Teenager Text Abbreviations, this is what Kimbrow wrote:
"What an unbelievable kid," Franklin said of the best player in the best class in Vandy history.