Honestly, it’s like they moved the campus over top of an Indian burial ground while we weren’t looking. Now Eric McClellan is not with the team, leaving Vandy basketball down to seven scholarship players. Couple that with the two walk-ons, and we no longer have enough live bodies to scrimmage 5-on-5. The real risk at this point is that guys will have to play so many minutes that injury starts to take a further toll, with long-term implications.
And that has almost gone unnoticed because of the drama around James Franklin.
Look, it’s an unalloyed good that Vanderbilt has a coach so highly thought of that he’s been explicitly named as a candidate for (deep breath) USC, Texas, Penn State, U of Washington, the Cleveland Browns, the Washington Redskins, possibly Louisville, possibly the Detroit Lions, and for all we know CEO of Microsoft (still vacant). Plainly he is now the hottest thing in coaching, not impeded by his ubiquitous presence on ESPN’s coverage of the last BCS championship game. Vice Chancellor David Williams (heretofore referred to as the Goldfather, in the formulation of one particularly smartass Vandy blogger) has been one thousand percent vindicated in his choice of three years ago – not to deny candidate number one’s credentials in getting Auburn from 3-9 to 1:30 from a national championship in one year. But if we can’t have Gus Malzahn, James Franklin is pretty good.
Consider the numbers: we finished 6-7 the first year (by virtue of losing the bowl game), but all but two of those losses were by a single score. The second year, we went 9-4 including a bowl win, 5 SEC wins, and our first home victory over Tennessee in 30 years in an utter blowout – our best overall record since 1915. This year, despite losing our starters at QB and punter, our top DB, and the best running back in school history, we racked 9-4 again. First back-to-back nine-win seasons ever. First back-to-back wins over Tennessee wince 1926, in an epic come-from-behind road victory led by a QB with a brace protecting a torn ACL. First win over Florida since 1988, in the Swamp (where it was the first win since 1945). First appearance on SEC on CBS in twenty years. First win on CBS in 30 years, another come-from-behind win over Georgia led by our then-third-string QB. A 24-point lead in the bowl game at halftime, blown completely by the end of the third and finished with 17 unanswered points. Vanderbilt has as many bowl wins since James Franklin arrived as they’d accumulated from 1890 to 2010.
And let’s not understate this. Since the establishment of the BCS in 1998, some of the teams that made it there include Purdue, Maryland, Georgia Tech, Utah, Pitt, Hawaii, Wake Forest, Baylor, UConn, Northern Illinois, Boise State, Central Florida, and of course Stanford, which clocked three Rose Bowls in that span. Look further back, and since 1986, Duke’s won an ACC title (under Steve Spurrier in 1990) and Cal’s won a share of the Pac-10 title (in 2006) and Tulane’s had a 12-0 season (in 1998) and Northwestern’s been to the Rose Bowl twice. That’s all in the 25 year span from 1986 to 2010.
And in that entire stretch of time, Vanderbilt’s best regular season record was 6-6. Once. They went to one bowl game, that very year in 2008, all of four miles away from campus in their same town, and won 16-14 in a game where their punter was MVP. Hell, they won a whopping five games twice in a four-year span from 1991-94, and it was a good enough record for LSU to poach away Gerry Dinardo as head coach.
Fans around the country can moan and weep and point at their collective futility over time, but no one – no one – enjoyed a longer stretch of uninterrupted despair in college football than the Vanderbilt Commodores. And it was that perennial basket case, that tire fire, that toxic waste dump of a program that James Franklin has delivered to back-to-back 9-win seasons with bowl victories and triumph over the archrival…in a span of three seasons.
And he’s only turning 42 years old on Groundhog Day. If you are an athletic director or general manager with a head coaching vacancy, and you don’t at least call down to Nashville and make an inquiry, you’re probably too stupid to be running a football program. Not to be chasing James Franklin would be an act of professional malpractice.
It’s really hit the Kubler-Ross stages in order, let’s face it:
1) DENIAL. “He’s not going anywhere. He’s got a contract. He’s made commitments to these players. It would fly in the face of his whole entire shtick if he left now. The NFL isn’t going to hire a guy with only three years’ head coaching experience, especially all in college.”
2) ANGER. “Fuck you for assuming we’re a stepping stone. Fuck you for assuming everybody’s dying to leave Vanderbilt for a real job. Fuck you for treating us like an afterthought when we’re out there kicking your ass on the field and in recruiting. Fuck you, fuck you, FUCK YOU.”
3) BARGAINING. “It’s got to be a leverage thing. If we commit to building a new stadium, if we get the Board of Trustees on board and break ground already, if we just prove that we’re serious about this and it’s not a flash in the pan the way they treated it when Steve Sloan was here or when we lucked into bowls in 1982 and 2008, he’ll stick around.”
4) DEPRESSION. “He’s gone. We are so fucked. The dream is dead. Normal service will now be restored. We can never have nice things. God hates Vanderbilt.”
…you know, the thing about Vanderbilt football, when you get to stage 5 it’s basically the same as stage 4.
The thing I’m worried about is this: even if he is coming back, the whole strung-out process, the trauma, the fans losing their minds every hour of every day…that’s the sort of thing that maybe you come back from, maybe you don’t. I worry that this is going to poison the fan base at a time when we need that fan base alive and active and fired up – and that the whole protracted saga is going to soak up and absorb and nullify any momentum from a triumphant weekend in Birmingham and another top-25 finish. It’s like calling off the engagement without ending the relationship – maybe you get back there, but maybe you don’t.
And the other problem is that we went through this last year. Not to the same extent, but we did go through it (and hell, we even went through a little of it after that first 6-7 year, because 6 wins at Vanderbilt is enough to make other folks come calling. Or was.) If he returns next year, and if McCrary or Carta-Samuels the Younger is a stud at QB, and if the young guns in the secondary come through, and if the senior-heavy offensive line can pave the way for a stable of talented running backs, and Vanderbilt somehow breaks through a down SEC to win 10 games and play on New Year’s Eve or New Years’ Day…how much louder is the clamoring going to get?
And make no mistake, no contract will ever stop the clamoring. ESPN’s got Franklin’s bags already packed for State College, once they unpacked them from Austin. Every other school has spent two years telling recruits “Don’t go to Vanderbilt because Franklin won’t be there for long.” If we’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop, that will affect casual fans, it will affect donors, it will create a cloud of doubt that will act as a drag on the program until the day James Franklin finally leaves and the rest of the world gets to bellow a triumphant “TOLD YOU SO” to a crushed fan base in black and gold. Or until Vanderbilt swoons back to five wins…and the same thing happens.
Honestly, there’s no solution. Franklin could come back, announce he’s going to leave Nashville only in a pine box, win a national championship, and people will be saying that now he’s sure to leave Vandy for a real program. And at no point has Franklin said a single thing that points to him leaving…but then, right now he hasn’t said anything that clearly points to him staying either. And because we’re Vanderbilt, we’re expecting the worst. We’re Charlie Brown lining up to kick the football, we’re Wile E. Coyote trusting that this shipment from Acme will finally be the one that gets the job done, we’re the eternal schlimazel of college football waiting for the soup to get spilled in our lap.
Maybe our lot in life will change. But it isn’t going to be this offseason.