Do you know who currently holds the longest active winning streak in the SEC? It is not Alabama, Georgia, LSU or even Florida. It is none other than the Vanderbilt Commodores.
It doesn’t seem like that long ago that Vanderbilt was the bottom feeder of the SEC. From 2000-2010 they had an overall record of 36 wins and 93 losses.
Moreover, their football struggles did not begin during the 2000 season. Vanderbilt began playing college football in 1890. However, prior to the hiring of Coach James Franklin, they had only played in a bowl game four times.
Coach Franklin had the Commodores competitive in his first season as head coach during the 2011 season. They finished the regular season 6-6, and Vanderbilt was selected to play in just their second bowl game since 1983. However, their overall record only told a small portion of the story.
For the first time in my lifetime, the Commodores were not a team you could just look over. Five of their losses on the season were only one touchdown away from being victories.
It was a good start, but it appears to be just the beginning for the Commodores. In 2012, Vanderbilt won nine games for the first time since 1915. Their nine-win season also included their longest win streak (7) since 1949. Perhaps their most impressive win was their 41-18 victory over their in-state rival, Tennessee.
Yes, things have changed in the state of Tennessee, and Coach Franklin is the reason why. Now it seems with every vacant head coaching position that comes open, Franklin’s name is mentioned. However, don’t look for him to leave Vanderbilt anytime soon. The Commodores realize what they have in Franklin, and he is content with building his legacy, much like Steve Spurrier did at Florida. Prior to Spurrier’s arrival, Florida had never won an SEC championship.
Before I write the rest of this article, I have a confession. I was not always a believer in Coach Franklin. I never doubted his ability to motivate his team or his impressive game time coaching ability. I was convinced that Franklin lacked the maturity to be a successful SEC coach.
As it turns out, I could not have been more wrong.
Coach Franklin’s outburst following the Georgia and Tennessee games was not a lack of maturity. Instead, it was the manifestation of his deep passion for his players and Vanderbilt University. Vanderbilt is not a stepping stone for Coach Franklin; it is home.
The success that the Commodores have had over the past two seasons is not going to be the end of the story. Of this, I am certain. My experience with Coach Franklin at the Franklin American Mortgage Company Music City Bowl has turned me into a believer, and it had nothing to do with Vanderbilt’s impressive 38-24 victory over North Carolina State on the field.
To win at Vanderbilt consistently, you have to be a different kind of football coach. You can’t be distant and moody like Nick Saban at Alabama, and you can’t even be corky and lovable like Les Miles at LSU. You have to be genuine and approachable like Coach Franklin.
I covered the Music City Bowl from the press box. However, I was able to have a special friend of mine in the press box with me. Along with covering SEC sports, I also pastor a church about an hour and 45 minutes away from Nashville.
There is a young man in my church by the name of Austin Borens, who was born with cerebral palsy. Because of this disease, he has had over 10 surgeries despite only being 11 years old. Austin will never be able to play college football but dreams of one day being the head football coach at Vanderbilt, his favorite school. I am convinced that this is a goal he might very well reach.
Over the past year, Austin has become like a family member to me. So, when the opportunity arose for me to be able to take him to the Music City Bowl with me, I was very excited. His face was lit with joy the whole game, as his beloved Commodores were dominant for four quarters.
After the game, we went on the field to watch the post-game celebration. Austin’s dad carried him on his shoulders, so he got a perfect view of the trophy presentation. Little did we know that this was just the beginning.
As the celebration was coming to an end, we were standing behind the Music City Bowl MVP Zac Stacy. It was at that moment that Coach Franklin walked past us to inform Stacy that it was time to return back to the locker room.
As coach Franklin was heading back to the locker room, he caught a glimpse of Austin. He had met Austin in a brief encounter a few months earlier. He came over to Austin and gave him a hug as if two best friends had been reunited. From there, we went to the press room for the post-game interview. After we got done, Austin and his father were ushered into the Vanderbilt locker room.
Once in the locker room, Coach Franklin began talking with Austin again. Coach Franklin then proceeded to introduce his children to Austin and have his star players take pictures with Austin and the Music City Bowl trophy.
The most impressive part of this event was that Coach Franklin had no idea I was a reporter. He had no idea that anyone was viewing his good deed. In other words, this was not a PR move. This was a man who loves and appreciates his fan base.
A great coach could come to Vanderbilt and win a handful of games and move on. A great coach who loves his University can come to Vanderbilt and build a genuine contender.
James Franklin is that man, and Vanderbilt and the SEC are better because he is here.