Who he was or how he got in was irrelevant.
James Franklin didn’t mind his jubilant Music City Bowl postgame press conference being interrupted by the older gentleman in the last row wearing a Vanderbilt cap. Instead, the second-year coach was relieved to be congratulated and thanked by this friendly stranger so much that he got up to hug the longtime Commodores fan.
“You’re due for this, right?” Franklin asked after a 38-24 win over North Carolina State on Monday.
"This" was just the third bowl victory in school history. "This" was only the second winning season in the last 30 years. "This" was nine wins in one calendar year for the first time since 1915.
And "this," Franklin insists, will only get better.
“We have very, very high expectations for this program of where we are going, who we can be and what we can achieve,” Franklin proclaimed. “We’re going to work at it every single day like crazy. We’re not going anywhere so everybody better get used to it. We’re not going anywhere. This is the brand new Vanderbilt.”
Two Decembers ago, Vanderbilt “decided to hire some psycho that nobody ever heard of and gave him a chance,” Franklin explained.
So far the gamble has paid off. Since he arrived, Vanderbilt has won 15 games — the program’s most in a two-year span since 1928-29. He has surprised just about everybody, including his players. After consecutive 2-10 seasons in 2009 and 2010, Franklin immediately led the Commodores to success with back-to-back bowl games for the first time in school history.
“We had the same players from the previous two seasons,” running back Zac Stacy said. “It just exemplifies how much has changed around this program, the confidence he has instilled in us as players. He just brought out the full potential not only as football players but as men.”
Against N.C. State, Vanderbilt (9-4) used the same balance of offense and defense it has displayed for most of the season.
Stacy, the bowl’s MVP, ran for 107 yards and a touchdown, Jordan Rodgers tossed two scores and the defense forced five turnovers. All added up to Vanderbilt’s seventh straight win — the longest win streak since eight in a row in 1948.
“This is an epic win,” wide receiver Jordan Matthews said. “This is great for the team to end the season on that type of win streak.”
Now the Commodores head into the offseason with momentum not seen on West End in decades.
In a month, Franklin and crew are expected to sign a 21-player recruiting class currently ranked 14th by Rivals.com. If Matthews decides to return for his senior season and not leave early for the NFL Draft, Vanderbilt will return 13 starters — including seven on offense — for the 2013 season.
The biggest vacancies will be at quarterback and running back, with Rodgers and Stacy gone. Rising senior Austyn Carta-Samuels and redshirt-freshman Patton Robinette will battle for signal calling duties while Wesley Tate and Brian Kimbrow will be the top two running backs. The Commodores also need to replace three starters on the defensive line, which should benefit from having rotated in reserves frequently.
In addition, waiting is a favorable non-conference schedule with Austin Peay, Massachusetts, UAB and Wake Forest — teams that combined for an 11-36 record this year. Kentucky and Tennessee both are in rebuilding years with first-year head coaches. Missouri just missed a bowl and the season opener against Ole Miss presents a formidable challenge. The toughest games on the schedule are four teams that could be ranked in the top 15 at the beginning of next year — Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Texas A&M.
The road to nine wins — or more — won’t be easy. But the path to relevancy didn’t look too welcoming either. That didn’t stop Franklin.
“We’ve been able to come here in two years and do something that I don’t think anybody said could be done,” Franklin said. “To me, we look at the future the same way. There is going to come a point where we’re going to start talking about things people think we have no business talking about. … This thing is [going to] keep going. With the support of David Williams and Chancellor [Nicholas] Zeppos and the community who is jumping on board right now, the sky is the limit. So get used to us.”