Here’s hoping James Franklin enjoyed his first season as Vanderbilt’s football coach.
In spite of the obvious challenges he faced, he actually had one of the easiest jobs in the country. Expectations were so low in the wake of back-to-back 2-10 seasons and decades of almost constant futility that the pressure to succeed was minimal, at best.
Now that he’s helped author a 6-6 record, guided the program to its second bowl appearance in four years and received a contract extension, the black and gold fan base (miniscule as it might be on a relative scale) is going to want even more. Not more of the same, more and better and more often.
Once expectations change, so does what’s acceptable. That’s when things become more difficult for coaches.
Just ask Houston Nutt.
He was considered an unqualified success when he went 9-4 in his first season at Ole Miss, a generally pitiful program prior to his arrival. Another 9-4 the following season was not nearly as good, because the Rebels were a consensus preseason top-10 pick and a favorite to win the SEC West (they went 4-4 in conference play). Two losing seasons later and he got fired.
Just ask Ron Zook.
Illinois had not gone to bowl games in consecutive years since 1993 and 1994. The Illini went to one last season and then were 6-6 (aka bowl eligible) this fall. Zook lost his job, though, because expectations peaked when his team started with six straight wins but then finished with six consecutive defeats.
Zook, of course, also was the poor sap who followed Steve Spurrier at Florida when expectations were impossibly high at that school. He had three winning seasons and finished the coaches’ top 25 each time — and got fired.
Just ask Rick Neuheisel or Turner Gill.
Neuheisel got UCLA to the first Pac 12 championship game — and got fired. In two years at Kansas, Gill went from the hottest commodity on the college coaching market to out of work because he did not work a miracle similar to what he did at Buffalo.
The examples are almost endless.
For his first year at Vanderbilt, Franklin was afforded the luxury of being close. His team lost by five to Georgia and Florida and by three to Arkansas — and that was considered good news. The fact that the games were competitive and went down to the wire was hailed as progress.
No one felt compelled to break down all the coulda, woulda, shoulda moments in those contests such as why, with a seven-point lead on Arkansas, his halfback threw a pass, which was intercepted and led to an Arkansas field goal. Remember, the final difference in the score was three points.
Similarly, no one can dispute the fact that Franklin made the right call when he replaced starting quarterback Larry Smith with Jordan Rodgers after six games, at which point the Commodores were 3-3. No one, though, felt terribly compelled to dwell on why he went with Smith in the first place or that he did so based on the idea that Smith “gives us the best chance to win.”
Most any other FBS coach in the country would have been blasted for not having made the switch sooner, like prior to the opener.
All of that is about to change.
Win or lose, this year’s bowl game is a reason for celebration. For the first time, Vanderbilt will graduate players who appeared in the postseason more than once. It is something few, if any, actually expected.
After that, each close loss moves Franklin closer to dismissal. Each bungled “money play” will have folks looking a little closer at a severance package, and the number of armchair quarterbacks who feel they know what’s best for the program will increase exponentially.
It was all fun and games this year.
Now it’s just games … games people expect him to win.