The James Franklin era of Vanderbilt Football begins
by Jim Patterson
photography by Daniel Dubois and John Russell
The chancellor was literally thumping the podium. Crusty sportswriters rolled their eyes. The trolls were having a field day on the Internet.
Vanderbilt was announcing a new football coach. This had happened before.
“We win everywhere at Vanderbilt,” exhorted Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos. “We win athletically. We win academically. And there’s no (thump) darn (thump) reason we can’t win at football.
“Vanderbilt is all in here.”
At the December news conference to announce James Franklin as the 27th head coach of Vanderbilt football, “all in” emerged as the credo. Naysayers continued to say “nay,” but there was applause everywhere Franklin went in Sarratt Student Center, and members of the football team crowded into the event to get a first glimpse of their new coach. Simple messages of “all in” started to crop up among the debate on the Vanderbilt Facebook page.
Franklin, the “coach-in-waiting” at Maryland until his move to Vanderbilt, enlarged on the theme.
“The next phase that we need to happen is we need our Commodore nation – the people across the country, the alumni, the fans, the community of Nashville – to be all in,” Franklin said. “We are going to do some special things at Vanderbilt University, but we can’t do it alone.
“We need everybody to be all in.”
David Williams II leans back in a leather chair in his office at Kirkland Hall. He smiles as he recalls flying across the country for 21 days connecting with coaching candidates.
“We would get calls like, ‘I can be at the Sizzler in Kansas City,’ or ‘Can you meet me at the airport in Dallas?’” Williams said. “Many interviews were in Atlanta, but we had to stay nimble so we talked to everybody possible.”
Williams, vice chancellor for university affairs and athletics, started with a book of about 60 potential candidates, with 20 of those on the “targeted” list. Franklin was one of the original 20.
The easiest way to get knocked off the list? Ask if Vanderbilt has a special curriculum for athletes to ease the academic burden.
“We win the right way at Vanderbilt,” Zeppos said. “We can be the best in football and the best in academics. It can be done.”
Citing Stanford and Northwestern as models, Williams and Zeppos were looking for a true national recruiter able to ferret out young men with the academic and athletic chops to cut it at Vanderbilt.
“For so long we have used academics as an excuse for our football program, and people have bought in to that excuse,” Williams said. “We’re successful in basketball and baseball with the same academic standards. The key for Vanderbilt is to find those kids and those parents who don’t want to compromise.
“If you want to play football in the best conference – the Southeastern Conference – and you want the best education, there’s only one place. That’s Vanderbilt.”
Coming off twin 2-10 seasons and just two bowl games over 30 years, Vanderbilt had an image problem to overcome. Some targeted candidates considered Dudley Field a “coaching graveyard” that could imperil their careers.
“The history of Vanderbilt football suggested we had to sell this program,” Williams said.
A color brochure was created by the Division of Public Affairs at Vanderbilt and mailed to candidates. A video touting Nashville and Vanderbilt was quickly put together, featuring Zeppos, Williams, baseball coach Tim Corbin and basketball coach Kevin Stallings. Only about four candidates were ever serious enough contenders to be shown the video, also produced by Public Affairs.
“I don’t think there’s been a better time to be the football coach at Vanderbilt than right now,” Stallings says on the video. “Not only did the chancellor say it’s important to win, they gave us the resources to do what we needed to do to win.”
James Franklin was in no particular rush to find a job. He was in his second stretch as an assistant at Maryland and had a deal that guaranteed him either the top job or a substantial payment if he wasn’t offered the position in the event of a vacancy. Maryland had become bowl-game regulars over the past decade, and Franklin most recently mentored quarterback Danny O’Brien into the Atlantic Coast Conference Rookie of the Year and saw receiver Torrey Smith win first-team all-ACC honors.
“I had a pretty good situation,” Franklin said. “It was going to take something really special to get me to jump on board.”
Franklin agreed with Zeppos and Williams that Vanderbilt’s academics are a selling point instead of a hindrance.
“You can walk into a young man’s home and offer something to that family that very few schools can,” Franklin said.
“He can have the best of everything, which is a world-class education and an opportunity to play in the best football conference in America. … That’s something to be really proud of and build on. That’s going to be something you can sell.”
Zeppos offered to play whatever role was needed in the search process. Ultimately, he participated in every sit-down interview with potential football coaches. Williams said the presence of Zeppos – and usually a member of the Board of Trust – during the interviews signaled to Franklin the depth of commitment to the football program at Vanderbilt. As word got out, many candidates who originally had declined to consider the position contacted Vanderbilt or its search firm, Parker and Associates, to ask for another chance.
“If I need to be pulling the tire with (Franklin), if I need to be running with a parachute on my back, if I need to be with the players lifting weights, I’m all in,” Zeppos said.
In 2008, Vanderbilt defeated Boston College in the Music City Bowl, its first bowl appearance since 1982.
“I broke my cardinal rule,” Williams said. “My cardinal rule is that great success should only be followed by 24 hours of celebration, then you go back to work. We didn’t do that. We celebrated much too long.”
The fact was, the season ended with a 7-6 record, including the bowl game. “We kind of thought it was going to get better and better from there,” Williams said. “But when 6-6 is your goal, 3-9 is your reality.”
In the future, going .500 and making a bowl game won’t be good enough, Williams said.
“We may not make a bowl game next year and still feel the year is successful,” he said. “My hope is that we’ll get to a place where not going to a bowl game is a disappointing season.
“People may laugh at this, but my expectation is that within the next five years we’ll play for the SEC championship. I think to compete for the SEC championship is the goal.”
Strong words for a program with four wins over two seasons.
“I kind of like the fact that people say we can’t get it done because that makes it all the sweeter to accomplish it,” Williams said. “So, stay tuned.”
For video of Coach Franklin’s arrival and news conference and more information about Coach Franklin, visit www.vanderbilt.edu/coach.