James Franklin's drive shines brighter light on VU football

Tuesday, December 27, 2011 at 12:49pm

The tryptophan could have been kicking in. More likely, though, the fast-paced lifestyle finally caught up with him.

Either way, James Franklin hit a wall.

After entertaining a house full of guests for Thanksgiving, he escaped upstairs and flipped on the TV.

“I was out,” Franklin said. “I felt bad the next day because I didn’t say bye to anybody. I was just out. I crashed. I think it just adds up, whereas when you were an assistant or coordinator, you’d at least get that one day a week to catch up and recharge your batteries. You never get that chance.”

Since he arrived at Vanderbilt a year ago, there have been very few down moments for the Commodores’ 27th head football coach.

Only the school’s second African-American head coach — and first in football — the soon-to-be 40-year-old has breathed life into a dormant program.

Franklin’s impact has been widespread, as he swiftly implemented his “change the culture” mantra. With a seemingly perpetual motor, he rejuvenated a program and fan base hungry for wins. After consecutive 2-10 seasons and just one bowl trip in the previous 29 years, Franklin has put Vanderbilt football in a brighter light.

“When I got here everybody wanted to tell me what we couldn’t do and all the problems,” he said. “Where now I go around, and people are just so positive and excited. It is night and day.” For the first eight months, he bounced around locally and regionally selling a new brand of Vanderbilt football to anybody who would listen.

He reached out to the students, walking up and down fraternity and sorority rows. He visited alumni chapters in Memphis and Birmingham. He pounced on numerous media requests — both local and national. His overwhelming message: A turnaround can and will happen at Vanderbilt.

Twelve months later, the Franklin chapter is off to a good start.

The Commodores put the finishing touches on a 6-6 regular season with a 41-7 whipping of Wake Forest last month. The victory sealed a spot in the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, where they’ll play Cincinnati on New Year’s Eve. Behind a stifling defense and exciting style of offense, Vanderbilt battled some of the SEC’s traditional powers to the wire and garnered national attention in the process.

At the forefront was the persistent, emotional and determined Franklin.

“I guess I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder,” he said while staring out his office window, across Jess Neely Drive and into Vanderbilt Stadium. “I’ve always been driven, always wanted to have an opportunity for better.”

Growing up just outside of Philadelphia, Franklin picked up the hard-working blue-collar mentality he carries with him today. His father, James, was a native of Pittsburgh, and his family line can be traced back to freed slaves. Franklin’s mother, Jocelyn, was a native of England. The two met when he was stationed at an Air Force base outside of Manchester. The couple moved to Langhorne, Pa., not far from the GM plant Franklin’s father worked at in Trenton, N.J. Their marriage didn’t last, though, and Franklin’s mother found herself raising two children on her own.

“My mom is probably the biggest influence on me because I saw how hard she worked to try to give me and my sister an opportunity,” Franklin said. “I was very, very close to my mom. Even now, I want to make her proud.”

Franklin also discovered the power of community. Jocelyn worked at several schools as a janitor and a hall aide, providing for Franklin and his older sister, Debbie.

Describing the lifestyle as living “check-to-check,” Franklin remembers a couple instances when nearby friends swept in to help. He recalls hiding his mother’s car in neighbors’ backyards to avoid repossession. Parents of his friends kept the Franklins’ house from being foreclosed by paying the back taxes.

“My life could be completely different right now if that didn’t happen,” he said. “So I’m very appreciative for friends and people back in that community that were unbelievable to me and my family.”



Franklin might have had one of the best collegiate football careers no one has heard of. A dual-threat quarterback, he set seven school records at Division II East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania and was nominated for the Harlon Hill Trophy, the Division II equivalent of the Heisman.

“He is probably the best scrambler to play in our conference,” East Stroudsburg coach Denny Douds said. “When things got a little messy, he would take off. I don’t know if he was a 4.4 guy, but he had the ability to make people miss. Everybody could be right, but James could make them wrong in a hurry.”

Coming from a Division II background, Franklin wasn’t privy to coaching connections with Division I schools. Thus, he took a road less traveled. He made stops at East Stroudsburg, Kutztown, James Madison and Washington State. He never made more than $16,000 and was paid just $1,200 at Kutztown, where he stocked soda machines on campus and tended bar on Sundays for extra cash.

“I didn’t want to be regionally specific. I wanted to coach in any conference, recruit anywhere. I thought that was important,” he said. “Because I didn’t play at a big school or have a background in coaching at a big school, I felt like any opportunities I could take that were going to be better for my career five years down the road I would take it, no matter where it was or whatever it paid.”

Initially he wasn’t set on coaching as a career. He served as a graduate assistant at Washington State to pay for his master’s degree and planned to get a doctorate in psychology. But as he began embarking recruiting trips into the inner cities — as a wide receivers coach at Idaho State, he’d often scout Los Angeles and Compton — he noticed he could affect the lives of young men who had similar upbringings to him.

“I realized early on I could have just as much of an impact on kids and their families by offering them an opportunity to go to college and get them an education as I could with psychology,” he said. “Between that and already having a passion for football I was like, ‘This is perfect.’ I want to help people and I love football, so I can do both things that I am passionate about and kind of make a career out of it.”



David Williams met Franklin by chance five years ago.

Williams, Vanderbilt’s vice chancellor of athletics, was representing the Southeastern Conference at a minority coaching forum in Phoenix. He remembers being approached by the offensive coordinator at Kansas State. Williams expected Franklin to give him a resume. That’s not what Franklin had in mind.

“I always remember that James came up and said, ‘My name is James Franklin and I want to introduce myself because one day I will be a head coach,’ ” He wasn’t asking for anything. I just remember the confidence he had and where his directions were. So I kept his name and followed him.”

Williams watched as Franklin continued to develop a reputation as a good recruiter and quarterbacks coach — he mentored future NFL quarterback Josh Freeman at Kansas State. He then became the offensive coordinator at Maryland in 2008 for his second stint with the Terrapins. In the winter of 2009, he was named the successor to head coach Ralph Friedgen. When longtime athletic director Debbie Yow left her post at Maryland in June 2010, however, that title carried less significance with new athletic director Kevin Anderson.

“I had a really good situation that I was excited about. That changed,” Franklin said. “I had a relationship. That person left. I no longer had a relationship with the new person coming in.”

So when Vanderbilt had a vacancy after last season, there was a mutual interest on both sides. Franklin interviewed twice — the second with his wife in tow — and he wowed Williams and Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos with his enthusiasm, his plan, his interview skills and his confidence.

Then there was also the book.

“He had this huge notebook full of all of the things that he had sort of gleamed from watching and being different places as it relates to how to organize a program and how to coach,” Williams said. “I thought he was bringing a book for us. It was really a situation where he was still working on the book. So everywhere James would go, he took the book, so it was … a work in progress.

“It was very impressive. You realize that this guy really had a plan and he had organization.”

That may be a massive understatement.

In his spacious office at the McGugin Center, Franklin has a closet filled with more than 50 binders. They are chock-full of game-planning materials and numerous studies from his days at Maryland and when he was a wide receivers coach for the Green Bay Packers in 2005. There is also “My Blueprint for Success: Head Coaching Manual.” During the summers as a young coach, he spent a couple hours each day, developing a coaching philosophy.

“Basically, it is anything I thought that would be an issue or that I would have to deal with in my career,” Franklin said. “It is not that I am actually using this book. It is more to make sure that I was organized and to make sure I had a plan for almost any situation that would come up.”

That edition has been revised over and over again, and the latest version is the Vanderbilt football bible. The materials in the thick three-ring binder are separated by numerous tabs, and the categories vary from head coaching philosophy, offensive and defensive philosophy, spring recruiting, potential staff members, official visits, team meetings, speaking engagements, scheduling information, summer jobs and internships and scholarship grid charts. Plus, there’s more on his computer, where he also keeps the many PowerPoint slides he uses for team and staff meetings. Though these might seem like small details, they have gone a long way in helping Franklin build a reputation.

“Around the football circles, he has been very well-known and very well-respected,” said Vanderbilt strength and conditioning coach Dwight Galt, who spent 27 seasons at Maryland. “It wasn’t a secret. He has worked with a lot of coaches. When he got the job here everybody said, ‘Yeah, I was kind of waiting for the Franklin guy to get a job.’”



The tears streamed down James Franklin’s face, underneath his designer spectacles and near the only hair on his head — his goatee, which is beginning to show hints of gray.

For more than 15 seconds, Franklin stood silent at the podium. Vanderbilt had just beaten Ole Miss 30-7, and Franklin was the first Commodore coach to win his SEC debut since 1935. Seeing what he and his staff spent the previous seven months working toward finally pay off hit Franklin, and he couldn’t hold back his emotions. Those close to him say those tears weren’t forced.

“That is 100 percent James. James does everything 100 percent. He really gives his all,” Franklin’s wife Fumi said. “I feel like they — the coaches, the administrative staff, the players — live, eat and breathe this program to try to build something. So there is nothing left to fake at the end of it. There is no energy for it.”

Franklin wears his emotions on his sleeves — not afraid to call out a senior at practice, not afraid to raise his voice during a post-game press conference or get in a shouting match with an opposing coach after a game. The latter occurred when Franklin and Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham exchanged heated words over a situation with a player following the Bulldogs’ 33-28 win at Vanderbilt Stadium.

Franklin also didn’t back down after a video of Tennessee coach Derek Dooley’s post-game comments to his team in the locker room surfaced on the Internet. Dooley yelled to his squad that “the one thing Tennessee always does is kick the [expletive] out of Vandy” after a 27-21 overtime victory in Knoxville. Asked about the video, Franklin said it would remain an open wound for his team.

“Obviously, we are closing the gap and threatening some people and making some people uncomfortable,” he said.

“I sleep very well at night knowing the only thing that we have done and I’ve done since I arrived at Vanderbilt is fight for our kids and fight for our program,” he said. “That’s all we’ve done. If anybody has problem with that, I’m sorry.”

From the day she met him at Washington State more than 13 years ago, Fumi said her husband has been driven in his profession. She has noticed a change, though.

“I think James is probably less of a workaholic now that we have kids than he was when I first started dating him,” she said. “I think the fact that we have kids has helped him maintain perspective on how important family life or life outside of work is.”

“That is important to me,” Franklin said. “I don’t want to look back and do all these great things in coaching and not have my wife and kids.”

Franklin’s two daughters, Addison, 3, and Shola, 4, have been seen wandering the halls of the coaching offices or even hanging out a press conference. He encourages all his coaches to bring children and wives to work in the afternoons or evenings to break up the grind of a demanding profession. He even threw a Halloween party — the Franklin family stole the show dressed up as the super-hero family the Incredibles.

“It is not a gimmick by any stretch of the imagination,” said Galt, who is one of Franklin’s closest friends and the elder statesmen on the young staff at age 54. “It is for all the right reasons, because he wants everybody to be a part of this.”

At times it’s hard for Franklin to separate the two, though. With two cell phones always near his side, he never really takes a day off — even on vacation. During a visit to the beach this summer, Fumi said Franklin had his feet in the ocean and his cell phone in a plastic bag, texting his assistants about plans for football camp. That was halted when a wave splashed onto the phone.

“I was like ‘There is nothing you can do. We’ll have to wait until we get we home,’ ” Fumi said chuckling. “He was going crazy. Two hours later I was finally like, ‘There is a Best Buy 35 minutes down the road. Just go get a phone. I can’t even watch you right now.’ Yeah, it is attached. It is a permanent fixture.

“It is certainly a lifestyle. … The reality of is his job is what he does dictates a lot of our life. It is just a piece of it. He is pretty good. Every once in a while, I’ll give him the look like, ‘Hang up the phone — now.’ And he does. As long as I maintain that power, then I’m fine with it.”

The coaching rumor mill seemingly spins out of control every offseason, and occasionally some of the wild, unpredictable speculation holds true. Thus it’s not uncommon for coaches’ names to be linked with certain job openings, as was Franklin’s when Penn State and North Carolina both had vacancies. Nothing materialized, but that didn’t keep Vanderbilt and Williams from locking up Franklin with a deal.

Earlier this month, the two sides agreed to a contract extension for the coach. Though Vanderbilt chooses not to disclose terms of deals, Williams said the contract includes a “substantial” increase in salary and years. In addition, the school plans to break ground on an indoor practice facility and make renovations to 30-year-old Vanderbilt Stadium.

It’s the sort of commitment the school hopes will keep Franklin at Vanderbilt for a long time. Of course, nothing is concrete in the sports world, and either side could break its end of the agreement. One invested person, however, would like to see the Vanderbilt-Franklin marriage last a while.

“I hope so because I literally just unpacked the last box [from last year]. I really hate moving,” Fumi said. “The plan is to not to have to go anywhere. The plan is for James to build something special here that they have started to lay the foundation for.”

The Commodores won only two SEC games this fall but lost four by a combined 19 points. With a highly touted recruiting class coming in next fall, Franklin hopes to make a bigger splash — especially in the SEC.

While he didn’t want to talk about two or three years down the road, he sees the big-time program possibility in Vanderbilt — that’s what attracted him to the job.

“You need the players, the coaches, the fans, the administration and the boosters to all come together and support so you can do something really special,” Franklin said. “Schools like this have had a hard time sustaining because you can’t get enough good players year in and year out to compete year in and year out with those other programs. Well, in a very, very short period of time we’ve shown we’ve been able to do that.

“So as long as we continue to support it and show that we are committed to having a big-time program, the sky is the limit.”

5 Comments on this post:

By: Dore4Life on 12/27/11 at 1:30

Very nice article!

By: Rasputin72 on 12/27/11 at 6:21

Even a bright candle flickers outwind in a brisk. wind.

By: jws37205 on 12/28/11 at 6:46


Well Rasputin, I would rather have a bright candle like Franklin than a dim bulb like Dooley. I hope Tennessee keeps Dooley as head coach for a long time. Then, the one thing Vandy will always do is kick the s#*t out of Tennessee.

By: Rasputin72 on 12/28/11 at 7:45

One of the best teams Vanderbilt has produced in the last 60years was beaten by the worst Tennessee team.of the last 60 years.

By: TITAN1 on 12/28/11 at 10:20

Rasp, you always like to say when Vandy wins it is a fluke, well when Tn beat Vandy this year, it really was a fluke.