TUSCALOOSA, AL - OCTOBER 08: Head coach James Franklin of the Vanderbilt Commodores yells to his defense against the Alabama Crimson Tide at Bryant-Denny Stadium on October 8, 2011 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
SB Nation's Steven Godfrey profiles Vanderbilt's brash new head coach with an exclusive, all-access look into the biggest remodeling campaign in SEC football history. Follow @SBNationCFB
Saturday, November 12, 2:40 p.m.
"BEAT UT! BEAT UT!"
The chant is growing from the crowd above. It crests when the Vanderbilt Commodores' senior class makes a curtain call, jogging back to the south end zone of Dudley Field to show their gratitude to the remaining fans. It’s a small but vocal mix of Vandy undergraduates, player families and even a few local sidewalk fans with black No. 6 jerseys.
"GET BACK OUT THERE, GO, GO, GO. THANK ‘EM," 39-year-old head coach James Franklin is screaming. "THEY’RE HERE FOR YOU. THANK ‘EM!"
He's emphatic enough to make the nine players return to the field at game speed, despite their exhaustion. Entering the day at 4-5, Vanderbilt had three games left to win two for bowl eligibility in Franklin’s first season as head coach. Doing so would put the ‘Dores in a postseason game for only the second time since 1982.The Commodores dismantled Kentucky 38-8, defying predictions of a classic "Same Old Vandy" game that these nine seniors had so often lost before.
The remaining fans, the smallest crowd imaginable for a SEC home team's postgame celebration, are hanging over the railings, desperate to touch the victors. Most are yelling a chorus of "BEAT UT," an invective expressly forbidden among players, staff and coaches by Franklin until just moments ago.
Vanderbilt is now one win away from a bowl game, and seven days away from a trip to Knoxville. It’s Tennessee time.
"BEAT UT! BEAT UT!"
The players being to chant back, and with that, as quickly as Franklin ordered his players out for another bow, he’s haranguing them to get their asses back to the locker room. Boosters, athletic administrators and Frankin’s wife, Fumi, take turns trying to embrace him. He's pacing, and never stops barking orders, even through a few visible tears.
"YOU CAN BEAT UT," screams a bearded man in his 40s, dangling above the entrance to the Commodore locker room and waving a gold pom-pom, "YOU. WILL. BEAT. YOOOO, TEEEE!!!
Over the next seven days, Franklin's vision of a team that thinks, plays and lives "six seconds at a time" will be tested, as the explosive rookie head coach and the afterthought program he signed on to coach try to cap off an unthinkable one-season turnaround at the expense of its in-state rival. And all while handling the outside pressure of sudden success with no precedent or perspective to fall back on.
And away from West End Avenue in Nashville, Tennessee, no one's particularly happy about this change.
Monday, November 13, 11:55 a.m. CT
Franklin spends the majority of his Monday press conference indulging the Nashville media with the topic they've waited patiently for weeks to dress up: the Tennessee game. There are certainly other topics he'd enjoy promoting more - the steady ascension of junior quarterback Jordan Rodgers (brother of Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers) or maybe the ability of defensive coordinator Bob Shoop's unit to create takeaways. Or that Vanderbilt - "Same Old Vandy" - is leading the SEC in offensive plays of 40 yards or more. After the requisite pleasantries, the orange badgering begins.
"To be very honest, and I don’t want to offend anybody, but it’s more of a rivalry for us than it is for them. A rivalry needs to be competitive," he says early on.
After the line of questioning devolves into a David and Goliath framework that's potentially bad P.R. - the comparison of size, passion and influence between the dominant UT presence and Vandy's smaller and relatively disinterested base - Franklin bristles.
"Again. I’ll answer any question you have about Vanderbilt and our fans. Obviously the tradition and the history of Tennessee is impressive. But again, my focus is on our challenge."
"I don't understand it," Franklin says later in the week during an offensive meeting. "They're framing it like we're the ones under the pressure. Vanderbilt hasn't beaten Tennessee in, what, however many years over there, and they've got to win out to be bowl eligible. I don't get it."
That's likely due to the unusual circumstances of this 107th meeting between the Vols and Commodores. Derek Dooley's Tennessee team is reeling in his second season, returning to Knoxville after a blowout loss to Arkansas and needing to win out to finish .500 and earn bowl eligibility. Meanwhile, the Commodores weathered their own big losses to South Carolina and Alabama before scaring Arkansas and Georgia, two games they could've easily won if not for turnovers and special team errors (fumbles and missed field goals have haunted them all year). By virtue of statement wins against Ole Miss (30-7) and now Kentucky, Vandy is favored on the road at Tennessee for the first time since, again: 1982.
Tuesday, November 14, 11:35 a.m.
One of Franklin’s favorite forms of internal communication with his staff and team - and there are many - is Microsoft PowerPoint. He incorporates a PowerPoint presentation into every team meeting, every day. Some are nearly lecture length. Some are three minutes. Whatever he deems necessary that day.
"He's precise. He's extremely detail-oriented," director of football operations Michael Hazel says, while staring at a fresh set of edits to the day's PowerPoint, delivered back to him in Franklin's signature red ink (he only uses a red pen, no matter what).
Hazel is one of the few holdovers from previous staffs, and has become one of Franklin's right hand men while he crash courses through "Vanderbilt History and Protocol 101."
"Bullet points, the way the words come up on the screen, everything. Then take that attention to detail and spread it across the entire program, from marketing to ticket sales to coaching. He's constantly aware of his surroundings. He's constantly looking for something to improve," Hazel says.
"He" suddenly appears, unannounced and out of nowhere, wearing a black dress shirt with a VU logo and dress slacks, a basic ensemble complimented with one accessory - a cheap cowboy hat that looks to have been spray-painted gold. He's been standing in the hallway outside Hazel's office waiting for a reaction.
"Yeah? What do you think?" Franklin asks. "You know how Dooley has the orange pants, right? Here's our answer. I come out with this and we're on SportsCenter no matter what. I can coach the whole game in this."
He's big smiles, big energy, a grin ear-to-ear, but with so much enthusiasm it's hard not to mistake him as being earnest. Seriously? A gold cowboy hat.
"Of course not," he shrugs, tossing the hat onto a chair. Instantly he's out of Hazel's office and already in another conversation down the hallway.
In terms of assessing the job ahead of Franklin, levity is crucial. Since Vandy's 8-4 campaign 29 years ago, the Commodores have compiled a 89-228-1 record. A charter member of the Southeastern Conference, the school was a titan during college football’s infancy (under Dan McGuguin, Vandy was 124-30 from 1904-’22). But among talk radio wonks and sidewalk fans across the SEC, there is no more tired punch line than any quip ending with "Vanderbilt football."
Such consistent ineptitude is the result of a chain of very tired-looking coaches delivering very tired-looking teams to an indifferent, highly affluent alumni base spread thin nationwide, playing in a city preoccupied by professional sports of late and dominated historically by fan bases of orange, crimson, blue and several other hues. Watson Brown, Woody Widenhofer and even Gerry DiNardo, who parlayed a head coaching gig with the crappy Commodores of the early 1990s into a head coaching gig at LSU - they all found and left the Commodore program in something of a polite football coma while the rest of the SEC thrived.
Even Vandy's classic revival tale has already been told and forgotten. Head coach Bobby Johnson’s 2008 team shocked the country with a 5-0 start and then held on for dear life through a 1-6 finish to upset Boston College 16-14 in the Music City Bowl, a 3.5-mile trip from their home stadium. It was a storybook season by historic standards, but it was ultimately still Same Old Vandy. The ‘Dores would finish 2-10 the following season, and Johnson would tactically resign just weeks before the 2010 season, forcing the university administration to retain his assistants as an interim staff for the full season.
Under former offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell, the only headlines made were the interim coach's colloquial yarns that summer at SEC Media Days. Vandy would again finish 2-10 in the SEC, their 17th season of three wins or fewer in the last three decades.
"I stood in front of those kids after last season and told them all: 'We failed you. You’re better than 2-10. No matter what anyone else thinks, Vanderbilt is better than 2-10. We’ve got to go find you a coach,'" vice chancellor of student athletics David Williams said.
Williams is the man in charge of all Commodore sports, but had never conducted a national hiring search for a football coach. After releasing Caldwell and his staff, Williams told anyone who would listen that Vanderbilt’s next coach would be the product of a top flight, national search.
Some coaches’ representatives refused Williams outright. Some presented specific plans to deliver Vanderbilt minimum bowl eligibility. "A lot of them actually talked about getting to exactly six wins, just to six, as if that was our ultimate goal for the entire program," Williams said."Those guys were obviously planning to get in here and move on as quickly as possible." Most notably, red hot offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn was rumored to have played the Vandy opening against his bosses at Auburn for a raise instead of seriously considering it.
Then Williams found the guy in the gold cowboy hat, a former coach-in-waiting under embattled Ralph Friedgen, the Maryland coach who decided against stepping down after the 2010 season as previously agreed upon. Suddenly stuck at the altar, James Franklin came available to Williams, who remembered him from a chance meeting when the coach was an assistant with Kansas State. In Franklin, Vandy found a young, accomplished offensive mind who shared the same delusion: that Commodore football was a success waiting to happen without any compromise in academic standards.
Franklin's hire passed with little fanfare. "I wasn't the most popular guy. Last week the sink in my office was leaking, and the plumbers from the university staff showed up to fix it. I introduce myself, and right away the guy says 'Yeah, I know you. Wasn't too happy when they hired you, but you're growing on me.'"
Over time, Franklin would find an identity as the coach who overhauled an outdated conditioning program with the help of longtime Maryland strength and conditioning coach Dwight Galt. He would be the one who, in a season of uniform fads across the sport, instituted the simple switch to all-black uniforms for big games, which caused some players to literally weep. He would be the rookie head coach not afraid to tangle with Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham at midfield, and the man in charge who was so often emotional at both ends of the spectrum that he would regularly fight back tears in postgame press conferences.
And he'd become the guy who won the non-conference games you're supposed to in the SEC, led two unabashed beat downs of suddenly inferior conference opponents and scared the crap out of the SEC elites, all with a team that won four games in two seasons.
"I said in my first press conference, it's time for this football program to have a commitment to the level of excellence that everything else on the campus has," he says. "Can you have that, realistically? Yes."
Tuesday, 1 p.m.
Commodore fans and Vandy staffers often hold up six fingers, honoring Franklin’s season-long mantra of "six seconds at a time," a philosophy that encourages a roster of once emotionally resigned players to measure out their tasks just one play at a time. It also creates a calculated form of amnesia and naivete that allows the rest of Commodore Nation to believe that, despite a lifetime of irrelevance, the culture is changing, six seconds at a time. Ignoring overwhelming evidence is easier six seconds at a time.
For their part, Franklin's staff doesn't need a memory wipe when it comes to the reputation of Vanderbilt. Most have little prior involvement in the SEC, and several, including quarterbacks coach Ricky Rahne, a former quarterback at Cornell, are nerd school products and proud of it.
"I didn't know anything about Vanderbilt's culture specifically, but I knew coming in here that people think that at a smart school, all you care about is academics," Rahne says. "These kids care about school, but they care winning just as much. People might think 'Oh, those players are just there to get a degree, because they're going to be someone's boss some day.' You don't choose to play football as an activity. There's too much time, too much work for it to be considered just an activity."
Time management mantra or marketing device, the "six seconds" philosophy is constantly in application. On this day, it occurs to football information director Larry Leathers that when you hold out the thumb, index and middle finger on each hand, not only does it add up to six, it also creates the V-U Vandy "gang sign" plus a duplicate.
Franklin flips at the suggestion. "VALUE TO THE PROGRAM, LARRY! That's bringing value to the program!"
Wednesday, November 15, 10 a.m.
News breaks that safety Andre Simmons, a redshirt sophomore who has played in only one game all year, has been arrested and charged with aggravated robbery and aggravated burglary, a Class B felony in Tennessee. Simmons, along with another man, allegedly robbed another Vanderbilt student of $5,000 kept in a safe in the student’s dorm room at Lupton Hall, just three blocks from the football offices at the McGuinn Center.
Courtesy of Leathers and Franklin himself, there's a list of almost 30 different statistics that the Commodores have improved in this season compared to last year. Some are amazing: A 54.6 percent increase in total offense. A 109.6 percent decrease in total yards allowed on defense. A plus-six difference in turnover margin. And considering Franklin has had only one recruiting class in his short tenure, he and his staff have taken almost the exact same team and seemingly laid hands on it to produce a miracle of respectability.
But now there's a new punchline for a new joke, about the New Vanderbilt, how things must be improving in the program, because those James Franklin players are sticking up students like a real SEC team. For the record, Simmons wasn't a Franklin recruit, but the head coach feverishly disputes that designation. "There are no 'my kids.' They're all my kids. They have to be, or we don't win anything, we don't accomplish building a team. Those seniors got us here and they're my kids as much as any of them."
Williams issued a standard statement following the arrest, and Franklin and his staff declined comment as per policy. Logistically, Simmons is a non-factor during coaches meetings because of his minor role. Only once - during a rooming assignment checklist for travel to Knoxville - is his name even mentioned in the morning staff meeting.
"It’s a shame," Franklin will say Thursday afternoon, "It’s a shame that we have to go through this and that this kid has to go through this, because if you met this kid and you interviewed him, you would never think that he’d be involved with something like that. But now we have to bear this."
Not only is Franklin pitted against decades of on-field ineptitude and a culture of fan malaise. The standards Vanderbilt sets for its public image versus the near inevitability of potential off-field incidents among 130 FBS football players a year is a tighter rope to walk than any elevated admissions standards.
Franklin spends his mornings bouncing from recruiting web sites to sports industry news to general headlines, printing out any articles relating to student athlete discipline issues or incidents involving coaches and distributing it to his staff and players. A day later, an offensive staff meeting is interrupted when offensive line coach Herb Hand passes his Blackberry across the table to Franklin, who reads aloud that Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel has been arrested for a DWI. Most of the coaches in the room are in some way connected to Pinkel or his staff, and they're instantly somber.
"This school is never – and this was made very clear to me throughout the process of my hiring – this school Is never going to do anything to jeopardize anything that they stand for," Franklin says. "Rankings are great. Football, basketball, whatever. But the thing that this particular school holds so dear is their integrity, and their reputation of who they are and how they do business. In every decision that’s made here, that’s always held into account first."
Translated: Beat UT and all that, but there will be only one Andre Simmons, or else. Same Old Vandy.
Thursday, November 16, 7:25 a.m.
On his drive into work, Franklin decides to place an unplanned call into Nashville's most popular radio program - sports talk format or not - "The Wake Up Zone" on 104.5 FM. Hosts Kevin Ingram, Mark Howard and former Tennessee Titan (and Maryland Terrapin) Frank Wycheck provide the best local barometer possible for what's on the collective sports mind of Middle Tennessee.
Ingram also serves as a sideline reporter for the radio broadcasts of the Commodores, so Franklin has a built-in rapport. He addresses the Simmons arrest, talks about the university's admissions standards, and playfully yet forcefully reminds the listening audience just how important their support of Commodore football is. Against Kentucky, attendance was thin, and marked by large swaths of blue.
"It's hard to think that Vanderbilt could ever become the dominant presence in this area," Ingram says on Saturday. "This market is so congested, with the Titans and Predators and so many college fan bases, not just UT. But [Franklin] has by far done more to get people noticing what's going on. I think if he keeps this up, or could beat Tennessee, you'll see the fans out next season."
Thursday, 9:30 a.m.
The offensive staff gathers to smooth out situational play calling for Saturday's game. Mondays and Tuesdays are dedicated solely to building the plays that will comprise the majority of the attack, Wednesdays are dedicated to third down packages and refining the plan, and Thursday is reserved for situational plays, and a final paring-down of plays. Franklin informs his coaches repeatedly that if "you don't think you'll call the play, take it out."
Offensive coordinator John Donovan leads the meeting, with Franklin interjecting often but never usurping control of the proceedings. Franklin shifts effortlessly from the voice of just another assistant, debating routes with Rahne, Hand and receivers coach Chris Beatty, to pushing the proceedings along and reestablishing direction under Donavan, the quietest of the group, who's taking extensive notes.
The lights go down and film of Tennessee's run defense against South Carolina is loaded onto a flat screen monitor. The purpose of the viewing is to assist the staff in selecting coverages and audibles. Wesley Johnson, a redshirt sophomore, has started at left tackle, center and guard. His versatility is hailed by Hand, who suggests he could punt, too.
Eventually, the topic of "money plays," most of which could be considered trick plays, is brought up. They're due to be installed as part of the roughly 125 plays Vanderbilt will carry into Saturday night's game, and as a young offense has settled behind Rodgers, the "money" set has been crucial to lengthen drives and create scoring chances. This is obviously important stuff, but Franklin keeps the mood light, bringing up the subject seemingly just to harass the soft-spoken Donavan, who says little while popping cough drops.
Franklin: "John, you've been a real snob on the money plays lately."
Rahne: "Well, we were up by 30 in the last game."
One specific money play is debated.
[Note: the details of the particular play I've withheld by request, and I've changed the name. As of press time, it has not yet been called this season and could still be installed for upcoming games.]
Franklin: "What about [Phantom]? Where's [Phantom]? That bad boy's ready, the way we've been moving the ball. It's been marinating for like three weeks, John. Come on, man."
Hand: "Hell, longer than that. More like three months. That thing is ready."
Franklin: "See? See John? You're just a money snob."
"I always get a kick of sitting on those weekly coaching teleconferences," Franklin says later in the morning. "I listen to every coach talk about the issues they have - they don't have this, they need that, they don't have great depth, or playmakers, or whatever. I sit and chuckle, because i don't want to hear it. Coaches always make the mistake of looking at what they don't have, or waiting on 'their players.' Stop talking about it, and find a way to adjust."
Thursday, 12:30 p.m.
Every hot young coordinator or respected recruiter is merely a descendant of someone else, a branch of a coaching tree planted long ago. Offensive philosophies pass through these systems, most notably trends like the Air Raid or Spread Option. But so too does the Meatball Lunch.
Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop has Italian meatballs catered to the coaches meeting room for a communal lunch on the Thursday before every game.
"Call up Boston College right now. I guarantee you they're eating meatballs. Same at NC State."
Shoop brought Meatball Thursday to Nashville from B.C., where he was safeties coach under then-defensive coordinator and current head coach Frank Spaziani. In addition to countless hours of game planning blitz packages and coverage schemes, the Yale graduate also disseminates media information about his opponent.
This week's will-he/won't-he-start storyline around Vols' quarterback Tyler Bray has Shoop on Google, looking for any specific clues. He's watched Tennessee press conferences on YouTube and poked around Go Vols Xtra, a UT news site.
"You have to decipher what's real and what's not on your own, but there's information out there. Maybe something a coach says that only another coach would pick up on."
Franklin joins the lunch, and a graduate assistant cues up Frank Sinatra on the Pandora app of his smart phone. The topic turns to recruiting war stories - just how the hell coaches survived on the recruiting trail before colleges issued cell phones and credit cards.
"There's nothing like standing a pay phone in Compton with a pocket full of cash, trying to get a high school coach on the phone. You're begging to be mugged."
Linebackers coach Brent Pry is ridiculed for his believable, fake Southern accent. For a SEC staff, there's little authentic Mason-Dixon heritage in the room.
"Of all the guys on this staff, Pry, from Buffalo, New York, can sound like he's from South Alabama," Franklin marvels.
"How-dee," Pry smirks.
For all the certainty and reliability game planning and coaching has provided this staff, they share war stories and near-misses on solid verbals much in the same way fans on message boards hypothesize the process to be like - a crucial but perpetually unstable, unpredictable part of their jobs, requiring countless hours of energy with no guarantee of success even if they do grab the right signatures.
Thursday, 3:35 p.m.
Whatever Vandy accomplishes this season will be futile if this newfound quality of play can’t be maintained and ultimately improved upon. That fate is written in those blurry fortunes of recruiting, where Vanderbilt has long embraced an alleged self-inflicted curse of academic admissions standards that prohibits it from building a winning program in the SEC. Can Vanderbilt compete with other major programs for top talent, even the ones that might be potential risks in terms of grades or character?
"You can’t bring a kid to any school that’s not a good fit. The reality is that it’s not fair to the kid or the institution, and it’s really not even worth it for the football program. You’re going to invest all this time and it’s not going to pan out for anyone involved," Franklin says.
We’re sitting at the conference table in his corner office that overlooks the athletic venues on campus. He’s hedging on delivering a direct answer, so I go right for it: In order to silence all the criticism of Vanderbilt, can you really find enough players the "right way, the Vanderbilt way," and find success in the SEC? Without hesitation, he answers.
After a beat, he elaborates: "It's the toughest job in America. No doubt, this is it. Top academic standards and the toughest conference in football. So flip it, change your viewpoint, make it a positive. If you're one of the best players and one of the brightest kids around, where else would you go?"
This could be written off as high grade sanctimony, except that Franklin has somewhat already validated his claims, and not just by the program’s previous standards. Vandy’s 2012 signing class is currently ranked 21st nationally. In the 10 previous seasons available through Rivals.com, the ‘Dores have never finished in tthe Top 50. And while class rankings are notoriously volatile between now and February, the quality of players Franklin has secured is hard to argue. Four star Brian Kimbrow, a five-foot-nine, 165-pound all purpose running back from Memphis East High School committed to the ‘Dores on July 1, marking the first time the state’s top running back has ever pledged to Vanderbilt. By the Rivals.com ratings system, the only one of Vandy’s 19 current commitments lower than three stars is a kicker.
Vandy’s practically invaded the state of Georgia to build depth, pulling in six commitments so far. And unlike so many years past, the Commodores are beating out real schools for talent. Jacob Sealand, a linebacker from Tucker, Georgia, committed to Vandy in May over Arkansas, Miami and South Carolina. Vandy. Same Old Vandy Vandy.
But recruiting rankings are often a poorly calibrated barometer of success. And after all, while Franklin’s staff might be able to make occasional gains by virtue of a refined process and a reinvigorated focus (he claims Vandy has never had a nationwide recruiting plan, but has since instituted one, recently landing a commitment from a four-star wide receiver in Minnesota), it’s still Vanderbilt.
That No. 21 ranking? Even if it holds through national signing day, there are six SEC programs (seven including new addition Texas A&M) currently higher than the Commodores, the painful reality of "success" in this conference. How could any recruit with equal opportunities at a SEC powerhouse and with the Commodores honestly stare down nearly a century of irrelevance at a school with fewer fans, a smaller stadium and humbler facilities? Surely even notoriously short-sighted teenagers can’t be distracted from the gulch between Vandy’s reality and the rest of the SEC's.
Franklin prides himself on optimism. His contention is that he’s right for Vanderbilt and that, under his watch, the program will achieve new heights. No better illustration of that is his core recruiting strategy. Where you see a restricted, pricey private school ignored by locals and ranking leagues behind its behemoth colleagues, high school football players across the country are staring at pamphlets this very moment that sing:
- -Live in a unique and wonderful city in Nashville
- -Receive a world class education
- -Play in the best conference in the country
- -Compete for early playing time
When I suggest that a model for success could already exist in the progress of "smart school" BCS programs like Northwestern and Stanford, he bristles at the pigeonhole. He contends that his system is wholly unique to this situation. Nor does he believe that Vanderbilt should adopt an offensive system friendlier to restricted admission, similar to the service academies.
"You have to be careful here. Just like if you were to bring in a big time, top coach to Vandy and they’d fail because of what they perceived they didn’t have, you can’t drop in a system from any other school into this university. It’s not like Stanford just recently had success. Northwestern didn’t historically have success like here, but in the last 15 to 20 years they have, which, from about [Gary] Barnett on, they figured out their way of doing things successfully. So you can take lessons from those places but to try and take their models and run them here would fail. This is entirely unique."
Still, it seems like nothing more than bullet points on a Power Point slide.
Me: "Alright, lay it on me then."
Franklin: "What’s that?"
Me: "I’m a four-star linebacker with multiple SEC offers. I can meet the admissions standards for Vanderbilt, but I could go and play for another SEC team. And I’ve seen terrible Vanderbilt football my entire life, because in reality, I have. So, let’s hear it."
I think for a second that I’ve pissed him off, but I’m told later by several staffers that he loves the challenge, that he is classically competitive like all coaches but unlike most of his colleagues, really does revere blunt honesty.
"Well, it just depends on what you want to do. Let’s say this: You can go to School X. They’re winning there at School X, and they’ve always won there. And they’ve got five years worth of recruiting classes of guys very similar to you. So you can go there, to School X, and you can be just another guy that shows up at School X. Or, you can come with me, and you can build something with your own hands, and do something truly special."
It’s an easily identifiable route he's taking: Be different, be special. I’m unmoved. Who wants to lose to be special? Having lived almost my entire life in SEC country, with a degree from a SEC school not named Vanderbilt, I feel qualified enough to believe his argument won't dash the visions of Same Old Vandy,
He seems to register my indifference, and leans in, folding his hands on the table.
"My point is, when you get done doing the things we’re working on here, and when you’ve been a part of building something, you’re going to be so much more appreciative of what you’ve accomplished…"
His intensity begins to peak, and it feels like he’s staring at me and yet also through me. I’ve seen great recruiters talk before, but his believability is enough of a distinguishing mark for me to temporarily reign in my cynicism. Which, in hindsight, is how he gets me.
"… because you know you’ve had a dramatic impact. People are going to look back and remember you and your teammates and me as the difference in changing this program’s history. Forever."
And here’s where I can’t help but think he’s begun to tailor his pitch to what he thinks I, the local hypothetical four star linebacker, would be interested in. He’s not dealing in terms of charm or even directly catering to my ego, so much as he’s demanding I take up arms at some kind of crossroads in football history, lest my name not be sung out in history.
Then, without any of the chest-thumping, amphetamine-fueled theatrics considered a prerequisite for today’s top recruiters, he takes it home calmly, yet lacking no passion.
"When you’re sitting on your couch with your kids 20 years from now and you’re watching ESPN and there’s a "30 For 30" film on talking about the greatest turnaround of any football program in college football history, and you’re sitting there with your kids, and they’re talking about you, and they’re talking about me, and they’re talking about Vanderbilt? "
He stops suddenly, incredulous, as if the fable he’s spun is now too big for even him to process. He leans back, and pauses for a second, then stares right at me.
"You have a chance to do something that’s never been done in history. You can go to School X and be that other guy. Or you can come here with me and do something unique. And do something different. And do something that changes history."
I say nothing and shuffle my notes, because for the next 30 seconds I’m fixated on violently form tackling the entitlement right out of School X’s quarterback on some storybook SEC Saturday night, under a poetic October sky as black as my all-black Commodore uniform, and… damn, Vanderbilt?
Thursday, 4:30 p.m.
Before the daily team meeting, Franklin admits for the first time all week that he's concerned his struggle to maintain absolute normalcy around his program might have slipped, if only because of the buzz around campus, the city of Nashville and the entire state of Tennessee. It's the fervor he's wanted since day one - he frequently compliments opposing team's fans, such as Georgia's, for their enthusiasm, punctuality, passion and numbers - but now it's showing a double edge.
"As much as I've been trying to tune what everyone has been saying, it's... constant. And we have the off-field issue [Simmons] to deal with, so yes, I'm more uncomfortable right now than normal," he says.
The third slide of Franklin's daily PowerPoint presentation holds the crux of his message to the team, all of them staring straight ahead, from front row to back, in the team meeting room. With a click, the slide changes to a picture of Tennessee's classic orange "T" logo, and the caps-locked words "DON'T BUY INTO THE HYPE."
Franklin is quick to address the origin of the hype - it's not the Vols he's trying to downplay or diss, but the buzz surrounding campus. He makes a strong point of reminding his team that this will be UT's Senior Night, and that the 'Dores can "EXPECT. THEIR. VERY. BEST." For a room full of barely controlled testosterone, little bravado or chest thumping about the rivalry game. In a moment where emotions could peak for entire week's worth of carefully planned preparations, Franklin carries his meeting with a businesslike tone.
The Commodores started the season 2-0 for just the fifth time in 27 years after nearly blowing a 14-3 lead at home to Connecticut. The fourth quarter of that game would give Franklin’s team its first opportunity at reshaping their own image: The Huskies took a 21-14 lead after a 64-yard fumble return for a touchdown and a successful two point conversion.
From the shallow sidelines of Vanderbilt Stadium, chants of "Same Old Vandy!" became clearly audible to the players and staff. Disgruntled fans on the home sideline, beleaguered season ticket holders in prime field-level seats, were already convinced that Franklin’s magic beans were a bust in just seven quarters.
Franklin was the first to notice, and stalked the sideline during a television timeout, visiting his players a cluster at a time to loudly remind them, "You are not the same old Vanderbilt. This is not the same old Vanderbilt."
Moments later senior cornerback Casey Hayward returned an interception 50 yards for a touchdown, matching UConn’s momentum. Stacy would rip off a 48-yard run in the closing drive to set up a field goal. From the moment Franklin intercepted the message of "Same Old Vandy," the Commodores would go on a 40-7 run, beat UConn and Ole Miss, and move to 3-0.
"I first bought into Coach Franklin in the Spring, right away after we'd talk about football and life," said senior linebacker Chris Marve, a player the staff points to as the unofficial team leader. "Just with everything this senior class has been through, what we've done this season for the future teams, it's going to be hard to leave. Playing for Coach Franklin is like playing for your dad."
Thursday, 7:30 p.m.
Franklin arrives for his weekly radio call-in show in the lobby of the Holiday Inn Vanderbilt. A crowd of roughly 60 fans is on hand, most above the age of 45. A local power outage prevents the broadcast from achieving remote transmission. Essentially, the show can't go on live, and station has already switched to another program.
Instead of leaving, though, Franklin answers questions from the crowd for close to 90 minutes. On his last answer, about keeping a positive mindset through adversity, he talks about being raised by his mother, originally from England, who raised Franklin and his sister on her own after their parents divorced. Franklin's father was an American serving in the military when they met. When he mentions his refusal to ever let down, he begins to choke up.
Friday, November 15, 12:45 p.m.
Close to 200 fans are lining the sidewalks around the McGugin Center as the team prepares to board the buses for the trip to Knoxville. Members of the marching band are in attendance, as are the cheerleaders and mascot, and even a local TV crew. The mood is festive and the players give genuine smiles when they first see their fans.
According to Leathers, this isn't a weekly tradition, but it's common for the week of a road game at Tennessee. Pete Mason is a Nashville native and a Commodore fan for 45 years. His sign reads, "Keep It Alive, Go 8-5!"
Williams watches the buses leave for Interstate 40, and reflects on the potential of what a win Saturday could mean for everyone, from Franklin to the university to himself. Vanderbilt eliminated the traditional athletic department structure in 2003 to much criticism and ridicule from the media and colleagues alike. Now Williams could have a bowl season from a rookie head coach to go with his nationally ranked basketball program and undisputed powerhouse baseball team.
"We're going to keep doing this the right way. If everyone else wants to change the emphasis, and focus on winning above everything else, go ahead and let them. We can still win. I believe that. We believe it's possible to win within the system that creates the right environment for a student athlete."
Saturday, November 16, 6:35 p.m.
The Commodores are warming up in the south end zone of Neyland Stadium as the student body and marching band begin to fill in the surrounding area. Pry stands under the goal posts, as calm as Sunday morning, smiling as his watches his players. His analysis is succinct.
"Our team’s ready. At this point, we know it’s going to be a fistfight. Just a long, hard fight."
It’s roughly a half hour from kickoff, and the incessant, hiccupping regiment of "Rocky Top" has begun in earnest. The crowd is sparse by Tennessee standards, but loose after a day of drinking and energized by the unseasonably warm weather. At the bottom floor of Neyland, the P.A. music is reduced to a fuzzy thud. It’s loud and getting louder. The overwhelming advantage of the incumbent program is inescapable. It's time for that unbeatable combination of numbers and passion to deliver a strike of intimidation. After all, that's the essence of home field advantage in the SEC, and the Commodores have yet to win a road game in 2011.
As the defensive line moves from one side of the checkerboard end zone to another in warm-up drills, a Tennessee fan in the front row sets upon his target, senior defensive tackle Rob Lohr.
"HEY 84! HEY, BIG BOY. YEAH, BIG BOY. OH HELL, LET’S DANCE, SON! I GOT A HUNDRED THOUSAND FRIENDS GOT MY BACK, BIG BOY! VAAANDY! VAAAAANDY!"
Lohr doesn’t acknowledge the fan until almost 10 minutes later, when, peeling out of the last rep of a blocking drill, he takes a wide berth, jogs past an idle security guard and straight to the heckler, who freezes upon visual contact.
"Hey brother." Lohr, says. The six-foot-four, 290-pouns senior is suddenly inches away from his tormentor, but simply offers a fist bump. His heckler is agog, but manages to hold up his hand in a weak fist. Lohr taps it gently, grins widely, and runs back to the huddle, never breaking stride.
The heckler looks at the closest security guard, who laughs.
"Hey man! Where were you there? Did you see that? He could have killed me!"
The guard laughs. "Why don’t you scream at one of those skinny wide receivers? I’ll think about it then. Otherwise, shut up."
Officially, Commodore players have mirrored the vague generality that "Coach Franklin’s a passionate guy."
Only off the record will one player confirm the obvious.
"Hell yes. With the Georgia coach [Grantham], we’d have stood with him, too. Who else is gonna stand up for us? He knows we’re sick of being pushed around by everyone else. We've got that attitude now."
Saturday, 11:05 p.m.
Franklin is vibrating. He seems incapable of sitting still. Led in by Leathers, he's visibly distraught. Tennessee has beaten Vanderbilt 27-21 in overtime, after a Rodgers pass was intercepted and returned 90 yards on the first series of OT. It's Rodgers' third interception of the night, and ultimately, turnovers have robbed Vanderbilt of an upset. The Commodores move the ball more efficiently, hold possession longer (over 20 minutes in the first half) and look to be the better coached, better executing team, except for fumbles and interceptions. Kicker Ryan Fowler misses two field goals that could've put the game away before the fourth quarter.
The 'Dores seem especially jinxed by penalties. A 72-yard pass that would've set up Vandy on the Tennessee two-yard-line in the third quarter is called back for a cut block. Later, after taking the lead 21-14 and forcing Tennessee to kick a field goal on its next drive, Vandy blocks the attempt, only to be penalized for running into the kicker despite contact with the ball. Tennessee ties the game and goes on to win.
Franklin is seething about the penalties, twice interrupting himself from attacking the officials. "Every obscure or rule or possibility has seemed to happen to us this year. The officials explained everything very well to me on the sidelines, but I didn't have my rule book on me. They explained it very well. They were very pleasant. We'll send the plays in and I'll talk to the league on Wednesday. I'm used to that now," he fumes.
Tennessee has now beaten Vanderbilt 28 of the last 29 times. Same Old Vandy. A local Knoxville reporter mentions this stat to Franklin.
"We lost today. That's the only loss I'm concerned about."
Another reporter asks if the Vanderbilt culture has changed without "getting over the hump and playing a game without mistakes." Franklin goes full death stare. He's now not interested in selling, or in any of these particular gentlemen buying.
"We've won five games. We'd won four in the last two years. Our kids fight every single day. We're recruiting better than ever. The culture has been changed. The culture's changed. Wait two years, and you'll see some real culture change. I promise you that."
He leaves shortly afterward and says nothing in the corridor and nothing the tunnel outside the visitors locker room. All around him staff and coaches hustle to load up equipment and hand post-game travel meals of Chick-fil-A to players, all in total silence, all sharing the same angry, wide-eyed look of shock. He sits for a second in a folding chair, with a final stat sheet of the game, circling particular numbers, then makes a slow walk to the buses outside. About 60 Commodore fans, primarily friends and family of the players, close around the last stragglers boarding the charter buses for final goodbyes. Same Old Vandy is gone, down Neyland Drive and headed home.
Monday, November 21, 9:35 p.m.
For the time being, the "six seconds" mentality is shot to hell. The Tennessee loss has taken on ugly new life with the release of a cell phone video capturing a Dooley-led postgame celebration in the Volunteers' locker room. In it, an ecstatic Dooley tell his celebrating players that "There's one thing Tennessee does, and that's kick the shit out of Vanderbilt."
Dooley might as well have said it himself while being hoisted in the arms of his players: Same Old Vanderbilt.
Franklin responds in his Monday press conference with his trademark intensity, but is measured in not returning fire. Instead, he takes a role similar to a journalist covering the rivalry, and lets perspective do the talking:
"That’s a wound that I’m going to leave open that’s not going to heal. We’ll leave it open for a year and we’ll discuss it next year ... We’ll watch it as many times as we’ve got to watch it next year.
"I look at it as respect. Some people act like they won the Super Bowl, and they beat a team that the two previous years had won four games total. Obviously, we are closing the gap and threatening some people and making some people uncomfortable. We’ll see. We’ll leave it at that. We’ll move on. But we’ll have a lot of discussion about this next year when the time is right."
Franklin calls me late that evening, wrapping up recruiting work and about to drive home.
"I started to feel better about it today. Now it might not even be the worst feeling I've had this season. Arkansas, that was a tough game, to lose on turnovers similar to how we gave the game away on Saturday."
We talk about the improvement ahead of his players, and how the energy of a young quarterback like Rodgers has to be carefully managed in the coming weeks, and the months leading to next season. As for Dooley, it's just another flashpoint between a SEC powerhouse and the suddenly rowdy, defiant doormat of the league.
"It's all been the same, all season. This deal [Dooley], the incident with Grantham, all of it: Right now, we're supposed to stay in our place. We're supposed to be the school that doesn't make a fuss, that takes what you give them. People aren't happy about us not doing that anymore. Everybody has an edge here, except when we start to show one, 'Woah! Look out.'"
"I knew this would happen. I knew I couldn't make any changes here, the changes we want to make, being Mr. Nice Guy. When I went to the coaches meetings last year, I smiled and shut my mouth and learned a lot, and everyone was really nice. That's how you act when you first enter a situation."
"Next year, they'll know who I am and what we're about."
Coda: Saturday, 11:50 p.m.
Only a few cars are left at the top level of parking deck G10, off Phillip Fulmer Way on the UT campus. Near midnight the view is impressive. Directly above us, the southwest corner of a lit Neyland Stadium hangs ominously, while behind us the Tennessee River snakes around the lights of downtown Knoxville. But the straggling Vol fans still here are focused solely on the Oregon-USC game glowing from a portable television strapped to the guard rail of the garage walkway.
A woman passes by twice, auctioning off what’s left of the tailgate food to the random strangers cheering on a Trojans upset. Grilled sausage, a cheese platter, and five Bud Lights.
"Y’all take ‘em please, because my husband doesn’t need ‘em."
It’s been roughly an hour since Rodgers’ last interception, and Franklin’s most effective endorsement comes from an analyst leaning against the tailgate of Silverado pickup drinking beer and smoking a Marlboro Light. While the rest of the group discusses the possibility of an all-SEC BCS Championship, Jonathan, a 34-year-old Knoxville native in an Orange windbreaker, reflects on the evening.
Volunteer Nation is momentarily calm. At 5-6 with Kentucky remaining, a bowl big is inevitable, and faith that Dooley is still the architect of a dynasty to come is intact for another weekend. Vanderbilt is Same Old Vanderbilt.
"That probably wasn’t the best Vandy team I’ve ever seen, but only because (Jay) Cutler was so good. But that’s the first time I think I’ve ever been convinced we were gonna lose to Vanderbilt. The whole game and all week, I thought for sure we’d lose."
He pauses to smoke, and then continues.
"I mean, they didn’t play like Vanderbilt. That could’ve been Georgia. It’s that coach. I’d read about him, but he was down there going nuts. They didn’t quit after the turnovers in the first quarter. They’re going to be better until that coach leaves. That's a new Vandy team, I'm tellin' y'all."
"That guy, what’s his name? Yeah… that Vanderbilt coach. He's lost his damn mind."