HOOVER, Ala. - If he came here truly expecting outrage, maybe James Franklin is still learning about how a Southeastern Conference head football coach is truly measured.
Maybe he arrived the SEC Media Days circus girded with his most gracious but stern “no comment at this time.” Surely he assumed he’d face the inevitable pelting of questions about Vanderbilt’s confirmed dismissal of four players at the center of a sexual assault investigation for an alleged on-campus incident.
Or maybe he knew it would go down like it did. It took five questions — all from national or non-Nashville / Tennessee reporters — before anyone broached the subject. In front of hundreds of alleged journalists in the “main room” of the Media Days circus, the following topics, in order, were apparently more important than pressing for a comment on the sexual assault investigation:
— The challenge of opening the season in conference play vs. Ole Miss, on ESPN, in primetime
— Potentially playing home games at LP Field instead of Commodore Stadium
— The disadvantage of playing a bowl game in your home town
— The pressure to win in the SEC versus other BCS conferences
— Why Franklin turned down other coaching jobs to stay at Vandy
When it finally happened, only Nashville reporters asked about the dismissals and only Nashville reporters followed up on Franklin’s emphatic non-response on the grounds of “an ongoing investigation.” Within two minutes another reporter asked if there was a “friendly on-campus” rivalry with the equally successful Vandy baseball program.
In other words, the rest of the nation of college football could care less. But did you hear the one about the college kid who slept through his alarm at the Manning Passing Academy? He won the Heisman — and more importantly, beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa last season — so for the last three days every terminally naïve columnist from Atlanta to Arkansas has opined upon the moral quandary that was Johnny Manziel’s fleeting weekend hangover.
More than a thousand sportswriter types beat their chests like grieving widows over Manziel’s garden variety teenage antics, yet the inarguably greater crime hanging over the Commodore football program was all but a momentary fart in the Wynfrey Hotel ballroom sandwiched between Paul Finebaum segments. Vanderbilt was worried enough to send their biggest gun — Beth Fortune, the university's vice chancellor for public affairs — along for her first (and last, she likely hopes) Media Days circus. She wasn't needed.
It’s understandable if you’re outraged by such a disproportionate response by the media, but if you’re angry in earnest, you don’t really understand the college football media: a potential Vanderbilt sex crime scandal didn’t figuratively rock Hoover because Vanderbilt football hasn’t literally rocked Alabama on the field.
It's the way of the South's great game: Win more and you'll be scorned more. For all of Franklin’s laying-of-hands upon one of Division 1 football’s most historically moribund brands, Vanderbilt is still 0-for-Forever against winning programs like Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, LSU and Florida. At no point in the 'Dores recent run has one of their wins come at the expense of one of the league's (and subsequently the nation's) Tiffany programs. It might not make any moral sense, but that’s the only explanation as to why Manziel’s boozy snooze button controversy is a bigger talking point
Had the ‘Dores featured a Heisman winner these last two years, ESPN would be interviewing Metro Nashville investigators and assigning Roger Cossack to handicap potential plea deals for the four players. If you don’t believe me, roll the words “Johnny Manziel gang bang” around your mind and you’ll actually hear the sound of Skip Bayless’ voice on “First Take.”
Franklin and his brand of eager bravado are still a novelty item to the overwhelming majority of the college sports media. This is not by virtue of their upstart win/loss totals, but rather who those wins — and in this case, more importantly the losses — came against.
Franklin finished his segment in the main ballroom Friday without a notable remark. Minutes later, in a separate session with internet and radio media, the sexual assault was never even addressed, and after Franklin was whisked away for one-on-one sessions with ESPN, now an official SEC partner and the least likely candidate at the entire junket to discomfort a sitting conference head coach with pesky questions about criminal investigations.
Maybe Franklin expected more of even shake from the assembled SEC media. More bumps and bruises from moralizing reporters. More genuine scorn. And, conversely, a chance for Franklin himself to make a stand and point to his record, to explain the program’s alleged strict conduct policies and the fact the players were dismissed outright.
Or maybe the man who’s come to understand the short shrift afforded to Vanderbilt football in every single other arena knew that until he started coaching wins over Gators and Bulldogs and Gamecocks, an alleged gang rape is bad, but it’s not sleepy-Heisman-winner bad.