James Franklin: Will He Leave a Lasting Legacy at Vanderbilt?
There was a time not too long ago when the Vanderbilt Commodores football program could end the career of any coach daring enough to take the job.
Such had been the case since the days of coach Dan McGugin, who managed to coach the Commodores for a time spanning the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt to Franklin Roosevelt with a 197–55–19 record and a .762 winning percentage.
For the better part of the next seven decades, the program saw one coach after another fail to duplicate anything even close to approaching the success of McGugin, and on the rare occasion a bright young coaching star did happen to make an impact, he more often than not skipped town at the first chance to leave Nashville.
By the time I arrived on campus as a wide-eyed freshman, I was informed that former NFL offensive coordinator Rod Dowhower would soon make the recently-departed Gerry DiNardo regret having bolted to LSU. Of course, such thinking was laughable, as Dowhower was fired after two seasons; meanwhile, DiNardo ended up being ousted down in Baton Rouge a few years after that and replaced by some guy named Nick Saban.
The moral of the story is that life is funny, and for the years I attended Vanderbilt, so were the Commodores. By my senior year, the affable Woody Widenhofer had established the 'Dores as a defensive team that could shutout the average SEC opponent for three quarters, but found itself exhausted at the end of games while covering the mistakes of an offense incapable of holding onto the football, let alone scoring any points.
By the time the Commodores hired Furman head coach Bobby Johnson in 2001, I simply could not believe anyone could make the program into anything more than a mediocre .500 team. For the first few years in Nashville, Johnson, like so many before him, held true to form, yet each time you saw him on the sideline or in a post-game interview, you were left with the impression that he was incapable of giving up.
It also didn't hurt that Jay Cutler turned out to be a pretty decent quarterback, but what impressed me most was how Johnson took that stroke of luck and continued to build the program even after Cutler graduated.
This is where so many lesser men would have either jumped ship or folded, but instead Johnson did the impossible—by finally making Vanderbilt a winner in 2008, by guiding the Commodores to their first bowl win since Eisenhower was president and earning for himself the SEC Coach of the Year award.
The following year, the wheels seemed to fall off, as the 'Dores dropped to 2-10. With Johnson in charge, it only seemed like a matter of time before he would help turn things around once again. Then, right before the start of the 2010 season, Johnson suddenly retired. At the time it came as a bit of a shock, but in retrospect one has to wonder if a decade in Nashville while "fighting the good fight" had simply burned him out.
At any rate, it seemed that with Johnson gone, the 'Dores would once more return to their rightful place in the cellar of the SEC East, doomed to an eternity of "moral victories" and drubbings at the hands of coaches Steve Spurrier, Nick Saban, Mark Richt and Les Miles.
Following a 2-10 campaign with the entertaining Robbie Caldwell in charge, the 'Dores decided to take a chance on a man who had been deemed the University of Maryland's head coach in-waiting only a little more than a year earlier.
James Franklin may not have been Vandy's first choice, but he turned out to be their best: leading the 'Dores to consecutive bowl berths in his first two seasons in Nashville, while also establishing the school as a legitimate contender on the recruiting scene. This is all the more significant when you consider that schools are jumping from one conference to another these days. It's reached a point where you have to wonder how non-elite programs like Vanderbilt will compete in the next several years.
So far so good with Franklin in charge, as the 'Dores' solid play this season has indirectly led to the dismissal of not one but now two coaches following the team's wins against Kentucky and Tennessee. On some level, it's hard to judge whether such actions should be taken as insult or compliment. I can only imagine that the conversations Derek Dooley and Joker Phillips had to endure before being fired included the statement, "How did you manage to get creamed by Vanderbilt?!?"
Joking aside, you have to figure Franklin's name will start to come up as potential replacements, either in the conference or beyond.
Could the instantaneous spoils of success lead Franklin to jump ship?
This winter will be a true test to see where James Franklin's allegiance truly lies.
For ages now, the Vanderbilt job has been a stepping stone for coaches to either get their feet wet as first-time head coaches or to move up from an even smaller school to get their first shot coaching in a major conference.
Ultimately, it's a thankless job in which you are either the victim of your own failures, or on the rarest of occasions, your own success—as no one has managed to sustain a winning record for more than a year or two for decades.
This vicious cycle has been unbroken since the days of Dan McGugin, but James Franklin has a rare opportunity to change that dynamic.
Will he do it?
That depends on his commitment to the university and their commitment to him.
In all likelihood, though, Franklin will probably leave Nashville for greener pastures at some point, as the question is no longer if but when—based on his impressive start with the Commodores.
Until that time comes, I suggest we enjoy every minute of this winning season and any others that follow because, quite frankly, it may be a long time before we see this kind of success again across consecutive seasons with any coach, let alone one in his first two seasons at Vandy.
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