In the past, when the season ended, Vanderbilt football went dormant. Not often did the Commodores pop into the news in the offseason and make national headlines.
Thus, this past offseason was another sign of change under second-year head coach James Franklin. Vanderbilt was a conversation piece — not always for the best reasons — beyond West End and outside of Tennessee.
And several months and another football season later, Franklin, a coach/salesman/politician/CEO all rolled into one, still has the Southeastern Conference and college football world abuzz.
After an impressive first season, the 40-year-old exceeded expectations. The Commodores overcame a slow start and strung together a torrid finish, winning six in a row to reach their second straight bowl for the first time in program history. The nine wins — the last coming New Year's Eve in the Music City Bowl — tied the single-season school record and is the most since 1915.
“If you go back to when we hired James the word we were using was a CEO of football,” athletics director David Williams said earlier this month when announcing a contract extension for Franklin. “We needed somebody to come in here and help us understand what we needed to do. James has been really great on that. He is as much as [Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos] or myself basically setting the landscape of what we need to be a quality program, what we need to be a championship program. … This is a real big difference than what Vanderbilt has ever done.”
Franklin kept the Commodores relevant last February by compiling what many believe is the best recruiting class in school history. But he immediately irked some people later that day when he said recruits who de-committed from Vanderbilt were not men of honor or integrity. It was seen as hypocritical considering he snagged a four-star prospect, Maryville quarterback Patton Robinette, who had committed to North Carolina.
Two weeks later, Maryland accused Franklin, the Terps offensive coordinator from 2008-10, of improper contact with quarterback Danny O’Brien, who intended to transfer.
His biggest gaffe came over the summer when he infamously said in a radio interview he doesn’t hire an assistant coach until he sees his wife.
“If she looks the part and she’s a D1 recruit, then you got a chance to get hired,” he said. Franklin spent the next few news cycles backtracking and generally regretting what he said was an attempt at humor.
Of course the best way to mute controversial comments is by winning.
That was hard to come by early as the Commodores dropped three of their first four and lost some momentum from last year. But after the heavy slate of ranked opponents was over, Vanderbilt feasted on inferior competition and won a program-best five SEC games.
The six-game winning streak matched the longest in 47 years and included a monumental win over Tennessee. A capacity crowd of 40,350 marked the season’s third sellout — the most since 1996.
Vanderbilt Stadium showed off new features, including artificial turf, a bigger jumbotron and hillside seating behind one of the end zones. And it won’t stop there. Along with an indoor practice facility, which is expected to be completed by January 2014, Williams said there will be more renovations to the McGugin athletic complex and the football stadium.
“We’re growing together,” Franklin said. “We’re growing together every single day, every single season through discussions, through conversations. I think that is something that is exciting for all of us. We sell the recruits and the players on the dream of what Vanderbilt can be. Every day we are working to getting closer to that.”