James Franklin has spent a lot of time and energy over the past year-and-a-half trying to change the perception of Vanderbilt football.
He has recruited fearlessly. He has talked endlessly. He has railed against officials and opposing coaches and anyone else he felt did not give all things black-and-gold the proper due.
It’s clear his players are convinced. Listen to them talk about the program or watch the way they played last season, and the differences are pretty easy to spot.
Whether or not the rest of the world feels the same remains to be seen. Actually, in the case of this week’s SEC Media Days, it remains to be heard.
The questions Franklin faces when he steps to the podium at 3:20 p.m. Tuesday will be particularly telling in regard to whether or not people think any differently about the Commodores.
Typically, that session is a study in social graces. Rather than simply ignore Vanderbilt’s coach, a few among the sizable panel of regional and national reporters politely grab the microphone and ask what it will take for the long-suffering program to become relevant and competitive in college football’s best conference.
It’s usually quick. It’s often repetitive. It’s also a little bit embarrassing given the undeniable indifference that exists toward the program and the man who is in charge of it.
Even in 2009, in the wake of the program’s most recent winning season and bowl victory, Bobby Johnson was finished well before the end of his allotted time in the spotlight. He faced no probing questions in regard to his roster or his schemes or his overall philosophy for success. Amid all the powerful programs and high-profile coaches, he and his team were treated like an afterthought.
The one notable exception occurred two years ago, of course, when in his lone appearance Robbie Caldwell stole the show with his down-home humor and humility. Then, though, the discussion centered on inseminating turkeys and had nothing to do with the wishbone offense or anything of the sort.
If the world at large really has started to think about Vanderbilt differently, it will show this week.
Reporters will have taken the time to learn the name Chase Garnham, and they will want to know what makes him the most likely candidate to replace Chris Marve at middle linebacker. They will delve into the specific talents of Jordan Matthews, Jonathan Krause and Chris Boyd and how their respective abilities blend to form a productive group of receivers. They will want to talk about Jordan Rodgers’ production against man-to-man defenses as opposed to how he performed against zone defenses.
In short, they will ask football questions. The kind of questions that Steve Spurrier and Nick Saban and Les Miles get year after year after year at this thing.
When Vanderbilt no longer is viewed as a curiosity but as actual competition for the rest of the conference, when people no longer need to ask who the best players are and instead want to know what makes them good, when the interest in the program is such that 10 minutes with Franklin feels as if it’s not near enough time, then he will know that things really have changed.
It’s possible that will be the case this year. More likely, though, it’s going to take more time. More effort. More winning.
It is easy to change schemes, to change uniforms, to change a stadium’s playing surface and so many other things as Franklin and Vanderbilt have done.
Changing peoples’ minds is a lot harder, and the only way to know what they really think is to hear what they have to say.
The questions Franklin hears this week will be telling.