For Vanderbilt, playing in the nation's toughest conference is a losing proposition. But the only team in the SEC that everyone can love is 2--0, thanks to a new coach who has turned a blind eye to the past
This is an article from the Sept. 19, 2011 issue
The roar needs no explanation, but an onlooker provides one anyway: "Yeah. He's here." The he in question is Nick Saban, and his devotees have filled the lobby of the Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover, Ala., hoping to glimpse the Crimson Tide coach.
Saban has arrived for SEC Media Days, a three-day event every July that is so big in the South that its 2012 schedule has already been released. Commemorative T-shirts declare WE ARE COLLEGE FOOTBALL, a statement that rings both arrogant and true. Teams from the conference have won five straight BCS national titles, split among four schools (Florida, LSU, Alabama and Auburn). For a region that drinks up college football like sweet tea, Media Days are almost as much fun as chanting S!E!C! after a bowl win.
For fans, Saban is like a fiftysomething Justin Bieber. It does not seem to bother anybody that he is a reluctant guest of honor. "I think you all know that this is one of my favorite days of the year," Saban tells reporters sarcastically.
Appearing before the media alongside Saban and the three Tide players, almost for bookkeeping purposes, are the representatives for the Vanderbilt Commodores. They have a new coach, 39-year-old James Franklin, but the same old story. They have finished with a losing record in 27 of the last 28 years. They have not had a winning conference mark since 1982.
Even at a gathering of its conference brothers, Vanderbilt football is an orphan. Forget luring fans to Media Days. Vanderbilt barely draws any media to Media Days. Of the 1,050 credentialed reporters, fewer than 10 are there to cover Vanderbilt.
And yet: This appears to be Franklin's favorite day of the year. He says, "I believe whoever I meet, they're a Vanderbilt fan. And if they're not, by the time we get done talking, they are." He looks out at a ballroom of skeptical media members and sees opportunity in every seat.
Since becoming coach last December, Franklin has filled every single media request that has hit his desk. He cohosted a Nashville morning radio show and has invited radio personalities to broadcast live from practice. (They accepted.) He spoke to the leaders of Vanderbilt's student government and the Black Student Alliance. He has had staffers post short promotional videos on YouTube. He has visited every fraternity and sorority on campus ... twice. He has spoken to Kiwanis clubs and Rotary clubs. Sometimes it's hard to tell if he is trying to win the SEC or a seat on the city council.
"I'll do birthday parties," he says. "I'll bring balloons."
If the folks on Vanderbilt's campus think Franklin is passionate when he speaks to them, they should see him with his players. During one practice in August, Franklin, a former Division II quarterback for East Stroudsburg, stepped in against the Commodores' defense. Linebacker Archibald Barnes intercepted his coach's pass and tried to return it for a touchdown. Franklin sprinted toward Barnes and leveled a defensive back blocking for Barnes. The coach was not wearing pads.
Last Saturday night in Nashville, before the Commodores played Connecticut, Franklin surprised his players with all-black uniforms, including black helmets. The color was symbolic. Franklin hopes that, for the first time in a half-century, Vanderbilt is the aggressor.
"We're going to play like a big-time program," Franklin says. "We're going to act like a big-time program. They're going to be treated like [they play for] a big-time program."
The Commodores beat the reigning Big East champion 24--21 to improve to 2--0—matching their win total from each of the last two seasons. Franklin said it would have been more fun to blow out the Huskies, but winning at the end, largely with defense, might have been better. "I actually think we'll get a lot more out of winning that way than we would the other way," he said. "That was the kind of game that in the past, Vanderbilt didn't find a way to win."
Winning SEC football games at Vanderbilt may be the toughest task in any of the major American sports. It is like managing a major league baseball team with the Cubs' history, the Royals' resources and the Rays' fan base in a division with the Yankees and the Red Sox.
Or as former Vanderbilt safety and NFL Pro Bowler Corey Chavous puts it, "It's like trying to climb a mountain with a truck on your back."
Vanderbilt is in the SEC, but it is not of the SEC. Its undergraduate enrollment is 6,800; the other 11 schools average more than 20,000. Vanderbilt is 17th in the most recent U.S. News & World Report college rankings. The next SEC school is Florida, at No. 53.
Since 1987, 11 of the conference's 12 schools have been found guilty of a major NCAA violation in football. The 12th is Vanderbilt. In 2002, commissioner Mike Slive announced that he wanted every school off probation. The conference almost achieved that goal in 2008, but before everyone could take a group picture, a new wave of scandals hit. The SEC may or may not be out of control, but it certainly seems way out of Vanderbilt's control.
Franklin knew this when he took the job last winter after serving as offensive coordinator at Maryland (2008--10) and Kansas State ('06 and '07). He understood that before he could install his offense, he had to instill hope.
"The biggest battle," he says, "is getting [players and fans] to believe."
Franklin's recruiting has been extraordinary by Vanderbilt standards. The Commodores have the 35th-best 2012 class, according to Rivals.com—nowhere near Alabama or Florida, of course, but unprecedented success for the only private school in the SEC.
Vice chancellor David Williams II, who oversees athletics, hired Franklin for his energy, coaching ability, desire to recruit nationally and belief in both himself and the possibilities at Vanderbilt. Now Williams says, "We're even amazed at the level [of excitement] he has brought.... I watch how the kids respond. They really are getting after it. We've had [former] players come back and say, 'Vice chancellor Williams, I wish I was still here now.'"
Or, as senior quarterback Larry Smith says, Franklin "could sell water to a fish."
In the most tradition-loving conference in the most tradition-laden sport in America, Franklin says he does not want to hear about the past. But surely he will not mind this nugget: In December 1932, Vanderbilt had just finished its 18th straight winning season. That month, the Southern Conference split, and roughly half of it ended up as the SEC.
Coach Dan McGugin had built a football powerhouse, but the sport was starting to grip the rest of the South. With larger enrollments, more passionate fan bases and, in some cases, more generous boosters, the rest of the conference passed the Commodores. They stayed competitive into the 1950s, but for much of the past five decades, Vanderbilt has been the school you most wanted to schedule for homecoming.
Franklin says, "We haven't had 40 years of bad coaches here"—but the Commodores have had 40 years of coaches with bad records. In the early 1990s, Gerry DiNardo went 5--6, 4--7, 5--6 and 5--6. At many schools, that would have gotten him fired. At Vanderbilt, it got him the LSU job. DiNardo's replacement, Rod Dowhower, kept using the phrase "epic struggle" to describe his team's challenge. He won four games in two years.
Beginning in 2002, Bobby Johnson went 29--66 in eight seasons, but his reign is still considered a success, for one reason: In '08, he led the Commodores to a 7--6 record, including a win in the Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl in Nashville. The trophy sits alone at the entrance to the Vanderbilt coaches' offices.
"What Coach Johnson was able to accomplish was so remarkable," Chavous says. "I don't think people realize how difficult that is."
Chavous realized it when he was a freshman in 1994. Vanderbilt took a 5--5 record into its home finale, the big rivalry game against Tennessee. A win meant a bowl berth. Chavous remembers going to Vanderbilt Stadium that day thinking, This is what I came for.
He looked up and discovered this was also what thousands of Tennessee fans had come for. The vast majority of the crowd was dressed in Vols orange. Final score: Tennessee 65, Vanderbilt 0. To this day, Vandy season-ticket sales rise and fall depending on whether Tennessee is scheduled to visit Nashville.
The thing about Vanderbilt is that it seems as if it should be able to compete. The university is nationally respected. The campus is beautiful. The schools it most resembles have thrived—Stanford won the Orange Bowl last season; Northwestern has been to several January bowl games, including the Rose Bowl. In addition Vanderbilt's men's basketball team often makes the NCAA tournament, and its baseball team reached the College World Series in June.
Leaving the conference is not an option. Membership is too lucrative, and the competition is beneficial for Vanderbilt's sports outside football. With no chance to be the best team in its conference, Vanderbilt has sought to be the purest. In 2003 then school president Gordon Gee disbanded the athletic department and folded it into a division of student life. Johnson banned profanity on the football field. Other SEC schools had a habit of oversigning recruits—offering scholarships they didn't have, under the assumption that some of the signees would not qualify academically anyway. Vanderbilt's admissions standards are the highest in the SEC, and the team does not sign players unless the university has already decided to admit them.
Having the brightest players in the league does not necessarily mean having the brightest team. As he watched film at a recent staff meeting, Franklin expressed disbelief at one player, who could not grasp a new scheme. "He got almost a perfect score on the ACT, and he's struggling," Franklin told his staff. An assistant cracked, "[But] he'll split the atom for you."
One problem is that the Vanderbilt community generally expects to lose. Players are susceptible to that mind-set. Receivers wait to catch the ball instead of going after it. When leads start to vanish in the second half, the Commodores buckle. The last two years, Smith says, "we kind of fell into a typical Vanderbilt team, not being confident, not being able to finish games."
Franklin is trying to change that thinking. Other coaches, and even some people at the school, can rattle off a list of reasons why Vanderbilt loses. Franklin has a list of reasons why Vanderbilt will win. Oddly, the reasons are the same.
In Franklin's world, living on the dark side of the moon means you don't have to worry about sunburn. Did you say Nashville doesn't care about Commodores football? He says players get to live in a city with so much going on. Vanderbilt doesn't have enough talent? Then recruits can play right away. Franklin is too young to win in the SEC? He says, "I think of myself as an old-school, tough coach. But I'm not so old that I don't understand what [the players are] talking about."
And if you say that Vanderbilt can't possibly win in the SEC, he says that at Vanderbilt, players can get a world-class education while playing in the nation's toughest conference.
"Where else would you go?" he says. "Nobody else can offer that."
Can Franklin pull this off? History and 11 other rabid fan bases say no way. Franklin can't match the credentials of other coaches in his conference, but he is trying to make up for it by being closer to his team. Players' family members walk through the Vanderbilt football building, and Franklin, fresh off a tough practice, stops them, hugs them and calls them "partner" without seeming phony. When the Commodores saw the movie Horrible Bosses in August, Franklin realized, Uh- oh, that's me, I'm the boss now. He looked around. Nobody was in his row. He grabbed a few freshmen and made them sit next to him.
"I have no problem telling these kids I love them," he says. "And I want them to feel the same way about me. That's what we're working toward every day."
He already knows what every other Vanderbilt coach since World War II figured out: He has to do almost everything right just to have a chance. Franklin is trying to mold his system to his players, instead of forcing the players he inherited to fit his system, because he needs to squeeze as many wins as he can out of this group before his recruits arrive.
He has told his coaches: If a recruit is at practice and you don't know his name, do not ask. He told them to fake it if they must. During the January recruiting whirlwind, an airline temporarily lost Franklin's luggage. He was in a new city every day, so the luggage kept following him around, unable to catch up. He wore the same suit for six straight days. He jokes that he went from hugging everybody to standing back and shaking hands. But he was undeterred.
"The first thing he said to me was, 'We're not taking no for an answer,'" said quarterback Josh Grady, a three-star recruit who signed with Vanderbilt in February, two weeks after Franklin offered him a scholarship. "He was like, 'We're going to change the culture.' Whenever I would say, 'Maybe if I come,' he'd be like, 'No. You're gonna come.' I'd say, 'I understand we're gonna try to change the program.' He'd say, 'No. We're gonna change the program.' Little things like that made me buy into it."
Franklin is dotting all the i's and crossing all the t's, and still, it will be a challenge to avoid all the L's. Atlanta, the site of the SEC championship game, could not seem farther away. The history is almost suffocating. Fact: No Commodore has ever played in two bowl games.
Players simultaneously say they are working harder than ever and that they love their new coach. Charm and charisma only go so far, though. With every loss, the walls will close in a little more on Franklin's vision for success.
"Ultimately we're going to have to put a product on the field that people are proud of," he says, "and I understand that."
The number in the Win column is the one inescapable truth for the biggest underdog in college football, the only SEC team that the rest of the country can love. Franklin embraces that truth as enthusiastically as he embraces everything else. Vanderbilt has been waiting for the future for 50 years. It has to arrive at some point. Doesn't it?