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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Can James Franklin change Vanderbilt from lovable losers to contenders?

Franklin's relentless energy has been contagious for the Commodores

When someone mentions the Vanderbilt football program, It’s difficult for me not to go into a chuckle. I honestly have to stop myself from bursting into full blown hardy laughter because the Vandy program has always been a joke here in Nashville. There are various reasons behind Vandy football being comical as this is a team that perennially in the cellar of the mighty SEC conference. They are synonymous with losing just as the Chicago Cubs, the L.A. Clippers and the Cincinnati Bengals (insert jokes here) all are in there respective sport leagues. Speaking of the Chicago Cubs, the Vanderbilt football program are the lovable losers of the SEC. Teams usually facing the Commodores routinely mark that game as a win when they look at their schedule because lets face it, the Commodores usually are a bad team. They are a premier academic school (Ranked # 17th by US News and World Report) smack dab in the middle of the behemoth football conference in all of college. So it’s understandable that they will have a hard time getting W’s with so many players not solely focused on athletics as they would be at powerhouses like Florida, Alabama and LSU just to name a few. The ineptitude of Vandy is remarkable when you take a look at the numbers. Check a few quick facts below for better illustration of my point:

• Vanderbilt football has not won a conference championship since 1923

• Vanderbilt has competed in only four bowl games total in its history dating back to 1894.

• By comparison, all of the other SEC's charter members (Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, LSU, Auburn, Mississippi State, Florida, Georgia, and Ole Miss) have no fewer than 14 bowl appearances.

• Vanderbilt has posted only four winning seasons—in 1974, 1975, 1982 and 2008.

• They have beaten rival (If you can even call this a rivalry), Tennessee only once (2005) in the past 28 years.

Brian Kimbrow
However, that lovable loser mentality may be changing when the Commodores added new coach James Franklin to their payroll. The former hotshot offensive coordinator of Maryland has brought a fresh approach and new spunk to a program that needed a nice kick in the rear. This was never more evident then when Franklin recruited and landed the top three prospects in the state of Tennessee this year, out-dueling Derek Dooley and hated rival University of Tennessee for their services. Tennessee has always dominated the in-state battles for talent around these parts, so this was monumental for the Commodores. In landing Caleb Azubike, Brian Kimbrow (Rated best player in the state of Tennessee by and Corey Batey, Franklin served notice that HIS Vandy team will be no push-overs. Franklin has identified what is what most fans and pundits think as a weakness and turned it into a powerful recruiting tool. The weakness that I am speaking of is their prominent academics reputation. Just like Jim Harbaugh did at Stanford, Gary Barnett at Northwestern and Tyrone Willingham at Notre Dame were able to utilize scholastic value in recruitment, so has Franklin. This is important because as most recently proved by Harbaugh at Stanford, if you can turn that perceived chink in the armor into an actual positive, then you have set yourself up in an enviable position.

Also, Franklin’s persona and charisma has seemed to resonate with the younger generation of players. “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." Franklin is young, hip, and understands players more than older coaches ever will. He has embraced technology in a way former Vandy coach Bobby Johnson never did. Franklin is on twitter, facebook and all the various social networks used today by young players. He also hasn’t brought into the notion that Vanderbilt can’t be a successful football school. And his confidence is a breath of fresh air for a school use to playing but not competing with the big boys of the SEC. He has been relentless and it seems to rubbing off on his players as they see a man they can put their trust in.

In closing, James Franklin has come to a down and out program and already put his stamp on it. This is a team that is coming off two consecutive 2-10 seasons and is not far removed from having its most successful coach retire (Bobby Johnson) right before the start of the season (2009). The program was in shambles even for Vandy, but it appears all this has changed since the slam dunk hiring of Franklin. A lot credit has to given to David Williams of Vandy for choosing to bring in the young and brash Franklin. The results on the field may not show this year as Vandy still has holes all over its roster. They still need to find a consistent QB who can lead the offense and they also need former 1,000 yard back Warren Norman to return to pre-injury form. It’s a lot to ask for but considering the miracles Franklin has already accomplished it shouldn’t be that hard for him. Vandy has a bright future which is something you almost never heard before he arrived. “This is an opportunity to be a part of something special ... turning a program around ... building something with your own hands so that when you look back, three, four, five years from now, you can be very, very proud of what you've accomplished," said Franklin regarding the future of the program.

Only time will tell if Franklin pans out here in Nashville. One thing I gather from researching and writing column is that it won’t be for lack of trying and that is just what the doctor ordered for the lovable losers of the SEC, better known as the Vanderbilt Commodores.

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