James Franklin made a good first impression.
With a vibrant personality, an obvious confidence and a well-spoken manner, Franklin won over the Vanderbilt players, administrators and community at a news conference on Dec. 17, when he was introduced as Vanderbilt’s new football coach.
Now the question is whether Franklin can do what very few of his predecessors could: win on the field.
“These young men have been successful their whole life. Why does it need to stop now?” Franklin said. “We are going to get back to being successful both on and off the field. We are going to reflect the rest of the university, which is an expectation of excellence in everything we do.”
Franklin is only 38 years old and has never been a head coach, but he comes to Vanderbilt with a diverse background. During a 16-year coaching career, he has been an assistant at seven colleges and coached at the professional level. He was the Green Bay Packers’ wide receivers coach in 2005 and has had three NFL minority coaching internships (he is Vanderbilt’s first African-American coach of a major sport).
Franklin has been a part of a turnaround, too, most recently at Maryland, where he spent the last three years as offensive coordinator. He was also there from 2000-04 as wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator, and he helped the Terrapins to three straight bowl appearances after an 11-year bowl drought.
This is a different monster, though, as Vanderbilt has had just one winning season in the last 28 years. That, and the Commodores play in the Southeastern Conference, arguably the best football conference in the nation.
But those who have been around Franklin know that won’t faze him.
Tim Weiser was the athletics director at Kansas State when Franklin was the Wildcats’ offensive coordinator in 2006-07. Weiser, who is now the deputy commissioner of the Big 12 Conference, recalls Franklin as a high-energy guy but said as a head coach he will need to know “when to use a rifle rather than a shotgun.”
“To me, at the very top of the list is going to be patience, because he is going want to win and win right away,” Weiser said. “That is great, but that is something that has not happened there. If you’re not patient, you’ll get frustrated really quickly.”
Franklin will be thrown into the fire with a 2011 schedule that features nine games against opponents that reached a bowl this season. The nonconference slate includes a road game against Wake Forest and home games against Elon, Army and Connecticut, which won the Big East Conference title and will play Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. The Commodores also have to go to Alabama, Florida and South Carolina and host an Arkansas team that is playing Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl.
Not shockingly, Franklin said he hasn’t dwelled much on next year’s schedule.
“Our approach to everything in this program is going to be about the now, the present. I’m not really a results guy. I’m a process guy,” he said. “We are going to take it one day at a time.”
In the immediate future, Franklin is busy gathering a coaching staff. He didn’t count out retaining some of the current Vanderbilt assistants but said he has a core group of guys in mind.
Franklin’s specialty is offense, and he should be a big boost to a Vanderbilt program that was inept in that area last season. His offenses — primarily a West Coast style — gradually improved during his time at Maryland, ranking 92nd and 98th in scoring offense in his first couple seasons before jumping all the way to 42nd this season. With ACC Rookie of the Year Danny O’Brien at quarterback, the Terrapins went 8-4 and earned a spot opposite East Carolina in the Military Bowl.
Vanderbilt, on the other hand, ranked 112th out of 120 teams in scoring offense. Franklin hopes his past experiences will pay dividends here. He was around Brett Favre when he was in Green Bay, and he coached current Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman while Franklin was the offensive coordinator at Kansas State in 2006-07.
“I can guarantee you we are going to have a quarterback here,” Franklin said. “I have been in this game long enough, whether it is little league, high school, college or NFL — you have a quarterback, you’ve got a chance.”
Vanderbilt has given Franklin a chance, and now the young coach hopes to make his first impression last.
“There is going to be a commitment to excellence in everything we do. We are never going to settle. We are never going to be complacent,” he said. “We have very, very lofty aspirations for this program, and we are going to be chasing them every single day.”
All the tools in the shed
If history is any indication, the 2011 season is pivotal for Franklin.
While Vanderbilt’s new football coach says he wants to look ahead and “change the culture” of the football program there, it is telling to examine his predecessors.
None of the school’s last seven coaches had a winning record in his first year, and five failed to win more than two games in his initial season.
After a 1-10 campaign in 1979, things went up for George MacIntyre. The program steadily improved until 1982, when he guided Vanderbilt to an 8-4 season and an appearance in the Hall of Fame Bowl. The next year, however, the team plummeted back to Earth with a 2-9 record. Two years after that, MacIntyre was gone.
His successor, Watson Brown, also opened with a 1-10 season — the first of three in five years. Gerry DiNardo was 5-6 in his first year and put together two more identical campaigns during a four-year stay. Despite not having a winning season, DiNardo did enough to get noticed and accepted the head-coaching job at LSU in 1994.
From there, the story has been the same, with the first years showing little promise: Rod Dowhower (2-9), Woody Widenhofer (3-8), Bobby Johnson (2-10), Robbie Caldwell (2-10).
All four struggled with consistency — though Caldwell had just one year — and either resigned or got canned.
“I don’t spend time on things that I can’t control. The history and the past are not in my control,” Franklin said. “What I can tell you is that from today until eternity, my focus is going to be on creating the best Vanderbilt football program I possibly can.”
Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos said Franklin, unlike many of his predecessors, would have the resources to achieve those goals. Along with promises to upgrade the facilities, Zeppos and Vice Chancellor David Williams, who is in charge of athletics, said the university is willing to dish out the cash for a top-notch staff.
“We said to James, ‘Get the best staff that you need, and you have the resources for that.’ I think that is a big change,” Zeppos said. “I don’t expect an academic department to be successful without a great team, and I don’t expect him to be successful without the budget to get a great staff. He has got that, and that I think is a big difference.”