A few weeks ago Sports Illustrated featured a 6-page spread on the Vanderbilt Commodores for its primary college football coverage. Eschewing my SEC Snobbery for just a moment, let’s dig a little deeper to discover just what it is about Vandy that required the spotlight of a national magazine.
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.
Yes, those amazing Commodores! Why, I can’t wait to begin my feature article about their pluckiness, high IQ and winning ways! Hmm? What’s that? Why did I choose to use the first 200 words of my story on the Vanderbilt Commodores talking about how Nick Saban “is like a fiftysomething Justin Bieber?” Pay you no mind, see!
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. Of the 1,050 credentialed reporters, fewer than 10 are there to cover Vanderbilt.
I can almost see the wheels churning inside this reporter’s head while forming his storey. “Say, based on this here credential list, less than 9 % of the media members are here to cover the Commodores! That’s a real shame. Wait, I’M not here to cover Vanderbilt, EITHER. Maybe I can build up their coach and speak about their academic success. Nobody will be talking about it because it doesn’t matter!”
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.)
Yes, compared to the most successful coaches in the SEC, like Nick Saban and Les Miles, who routinely close practice to both the media and NFL scouts, Franklin isn’t afraid to have the whole Commodore gameplan revealed Live and On Air!
He spoke to the leaders of Vanderbilt's student government and the Black Student Alliance. 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.
City Council! City Council! Is James Franklin using the Vanderbilt job as a showcase for his determination and media savvy? Perhaps that’s unfair to say. I did have to make sure that this wasn’t creative license and embellishment by the author, which it is not. Franklin really does rotate his weeks among (the four) fraternities and sororities in Nashville, trying to drum up interest in his program. Get this guy some coverage, dammit!
I also had to look up what a Kiwanis club is. At first, this embarrassed me. Until I discovered that I simply have to send you here, rather than even attempt to explain what they are myself.
"I'll do birthday parties," he says. "I'll bring balloons."
Alas, I could not find any information on the web to verify this, but I know this is 100% true. If you live in the Nashville are and are looking for a great gag gift for your buddy’s bachelor or birthday party, Franklin is available.
And he’ll answer on the first ring!
Also, if I were a supporter of the Vanderbilt program, the thought of my coach walking around time, begging for attention and showing up for birthday parties with Commodore Kazoos would almost certainly offense my sensibilities.
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.
I believe this may be my favorite part of the article. So, without pads, COACH FRANKLIN lines up under center, and throws an interception. Not to be outdone by this outstanding example of football skill, he then decides to level a poor defensive back that was presumably wondering what the hell he’s supposed to do with a crazy person in position of authority is foaming at the mouth and intending to nail him. Also presumably, he decided that avoiding giving his COACH FRANKLIN a concussion would probably be better than the endless shit he’d be taking for letting a 40-year old take him to school.
I seem to remember another brash, outspoken coach with a penchant for irregular and incomprehensible acts of intended inspiration. So, this is going to end well.
Single-ing out a winner, or just another loose cannon?
Last Saturday night in Nashville, before the Commodores played Connecticut, Franklin surprised his players with all-black uniforms, including black helmets.
This would be quite the act of leadership and inspired, innovative thinking – just the kind of thing a fresh young coach with loads of new ideas is brought in for? Unless of course the exact same thing was done just a few years ago by a coach within his own division.
The color was symbolic.
“Just give it a few quarters, men! Soon you’ll be seeing the same color from within your helmet, as from the outside!”
"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."
“Hey, Coach. We’re tired of being treated like a small-time program. Why does that even happen?”
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.
“Oh, yeah! That’s why! Our 4-20 record the last two years has been destroying our cause! Guess I’m so mentally stuffed with quadratics I forget how terrible we are each year!”
By the way, I love that the writer is sure to mention “Big East champion,” as if everyone in the country isn’t collectively wondering, “wait, the Big East is still around?” Vanderbilt went on to win its next game, I’m sure delighting the author who wrote this story, then promptly lost its next three by a combined 88-31.
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."
“Now that I think about it,” said Franklin, “We also lost the games that were decided largely with offense and special teams. We lost the close ones, but we definitely seemed to always be on the wrong side of the blowouts. We lost day games and night games, September games and homecoming games. I’m sorry what was the question?”
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.
And your winning meaningless baseball metaphor of the story is…paragraph number 38! Translation – Vanderbilt sucks and the SEC is hard.
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."
That’s better. It’s like trying to climb a mountain of success, but you have 3 tons of suckiness on your back. Chavous must have been a valedictorian.
Vanderbilt is in the SEC, but it is not of the SEC. 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. The SEC may or may not be out of control, but it certainly seems way out of Vanderbilt's control.
There are literally a million reasons why Vanderbilt has not had any violations. Sure, you can let complete assholes like Jay Cutler into your school, but try admitting LaDaniel Thompson (not real), who just ran the 40 in 4.2 and has a 5” vertical at 6’5” 210 pounds.
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.
Shit! These players seem to actually know they PLAY for Vanderbilt. It’s uncanny! MAYBE DIFFERENT COLORED UNIFORMS WILL CONFUSE THEM?
"The biggest battle," he says, "is getting [players and fans] to believe."
“The biggest battle,” truth-telling COACH FRANKLIN doppelganger says, “is trying to win games with players far less talented and athletic than our opponents.”
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.
God, this is just sad. Can’t you imagine the trophy merely sitting in an empty chair outside in the hallway?
The thing about Vanderbilt is that it seems as if it should be able to compete.
The thing about this article is that it seems as if it should have a point.
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.
This can’t have anything to do with the Commodores’ conference, and the degree of difficulty in playing better opponents in every facet of the game, or Vanderbilt’s multiple and glaring recruiting disadvantages, or lack of private or University financing, or really anything of note that you could be talking about but are choosing not to? No? Okay, then.
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.
I have no idea what “pure” means in this context, but my spidey sense is telling me it won’t help you win football games.
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."
I love that the coaches are shown here ripping their own players. “Say, how come these fellas are so smart, but they can’t learn them some football? By the way, does anyone know what I’m supposed to do with that screen that sits in the middle of my desk and plays the soothing trance symbols all day?”
One problem is that the Vanderbilt community generally expects to lose.
The Vanderbilt community, we can say now with confidence, is not delusional.
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.
None of which you have mentioned in your story, sir.
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."What he also does not say, however, is that the Vanderbilt can possibly win the SEC."
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.
Can Franklin pull this off? Every logical, statistical and thoughtful measure available says there's no prayer in the world powerful enough to help Vanderbilt win. Coach Franklin makes up for all of this, however, by being purer with his team.
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.
This absolutely, positively needs no snarky comment. It's good on it's own.
"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."
Wouldn't it be awesome if everyone was as gullible as a 17-year old jock?
"No, when you give me this raise."
"If I come home with you tonight,"
"AFTER YOU COME HOME WITH ME TONIGHT"
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.
Because his team is just so darn P-U!
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.
Fact: as evidenced by your opening line about media coverage, nobody cares about this fact.
"Ultimately we're going to have to put a product on the field that people are proud of," he says, "and I understand that."
So, like, a Hyundai?
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?
I absolutely adore this logic. I've been playing the same numbers in the powerball for 38 years, dadgarmett! My payday has to come sometime, don't it?
Editor's Note: Georgia barely beat Vanderbilt this weekend. Plucky!
LOSER - Swift kick in the ass. No bullshit. Velocity of kick dependent upon kicker (kick-ee likely to ask for more)
WINNER - Bottle of his choosing.
BONUS - Winning Percentage more than 10% differential? Georgia home game football ticket
This Week's Picks
Georgia (-11) Over Vanderbilt
Last week requires a retraction: Georgia has actually beat the spread four weeks in a row (plus a push). Count on them to make it five.
Michigan (+2.5) Over Michigan State
Is it just me, or does it seem like halfway through the CFB season, Vegas collectively says, "Okay, that's enough. You had your fun, now we're going to start trying."
Boise State vs Colorado State UNDER 54.5
Indiana (+40) Over Wisconsin
Wisconsin has averaged nearly a 40-point differential this season. Indiana's played (and lost) some really close games. I like the Hoosiers not not get beat by 40!
Especially with important games at Ohio State and at Michigan State, this is a recipe for some 3rd-string in the 3rd-quarter brew for Wisconsin.
Georgia Tech (-7) Over Virginia
South Carolina (-2.5) Over Mississippi State
Toledo (-7) Over Bowling Green
Kansas State (+3.5) Over Texas Tech
GEORGIA IS A GIRL
Each week we're going to bring to you what the University of Georgia football team is, metaphorically speaking. In terms of a woman you are sexually/intellectually/spiritually interested in:
Week of 10/3
This week Georgia's the chick you met a party, but the more you try to remember the more she seems like simply part of your imagination. Did she really make out with you on the hood of your car? You didn't tell her you loved her, did you?
Then a friend reminds you the girl's in one of your classes. While it's Spring Break, you're guaranteed to see her.
So play it cool, mates. Don't call her, don't masturbate to her. And don't get too excited. You never know if you spent the night sucking face with a sea donkey or a true bangin' chick. You'll know real, real soon.