James Franklin isn’t much into history.
He respects it and understands its importance. But when it comes to his Vanderbilt football team, he’s not too keen on delving into what’s happened in the past.
The only thing he’s less interested in is what lies ahead, which is why getting Franklin to even acknowledge that the Commodores are on their way to a second straight bowl appearance for the first time in school history is a lost cause.
“For us, it’s always going to be about this week and getting better as a football team,” Franklin said. “I know some in the media don’t really buy that, but that’s our approach. We don’t even have any schedules up in our building. That’s because each game stands on its own. We’re going to do everything in our power to be 1-0 this week.”
This isn’t just any week, either. This is Tennessee week, and while Franklin has done his best to downplay it publicly, nobody in the Vanderbilt camp has forgotten about the video that surfaced last season of the Vols’ celebration in the locker room following their 27-21 victory over the Commodores in overtime.
Tennessee coach Derek Dooley boasted to his team, “The one thing Tennessee always does is kick the [expletive] out of Vandy.”
At the time, a grim-faced Franklin said he would discuss those comments as much as anybody wanted to discuss them when the Tennessee game rolled around this season.
But he wasn’t biting earlier this week and maintained that he made that video off limits to his players.
“I’ve matured dramatically since that day. As you guys know, we have one of the best hospitals in the United States, so that wound has healed,” quipped Franklin, adding that the Commodores didn’t need any extra motivation to be ready for this game.
Perhaps so, but beating Tennessee would be another significant step in this program’s maturation. The Commodores last beat the Vols in Nashville in 1982 and have only beaten them twice in the last 30 meetings overall.
Plus, a win over Tennessee would give Vanderbilt (6-4, 4-4) five SEC wins. The last time the Commodores won five SEC games was 1935, which was the SEC’s third year of existence. Georgia Tech, Sewanee and Tulane were league members at the time.
“After every game, I go over the different firsts with the team and some of the things we’ve accomplished,” Franklin said. “But we plan on getting to a point with our program where we move past all of these firsts and there’s a culture of winning here at Vanderbilt that everyone expects.
“That’s why all the talk about making it to a bowl game doesn’t really register with me. Our goals are to win a national championship and an SEC championship. We’re not going to limit ourselves by settling for anything less.”
Franklin is the first to admit that the Commodores still have a long way to go if they’re ever going to make some real noise in the upper half of the SEC. They didn’t beat a team that finished the season a year ago with a winning record, and none of their four SEC wins this season have come over a team with a winning record.
But outside the blowout loss to Georgia earlier this season, Vanderbilt has been right there with a chance to win every game it’s played going back to the Alabama game last Oct. 8.
The other thing to keep in mind is where the program was when Franklin arrived. The Commodores won one SEC game in the 2009 and 2010 seasons combined and four games overall. All seven of their SEC losses in 2010 were by at least 14 points and four were by 24 points or more.
Bobby Johnson had done a terrific job of making the program competitive, but it fell off dramatically after the Commodores won seven games in 2008, including the Music City Bowl.
Franklin’s greatest contribution has been the edge he’s brought to the program. This is a bunch, as the old (and grammatically flawed) saying goes, that don’t take squat from nobody.
Franklin’s a very polished speaker and can be equally engaging, but he can also be in your face breathing fire in a split second. His intensity and passion have already boiled over more than a few times, and he doesn’t apologize, ever, for sticking up for his kids or his program.
Does he come across as borderline over the top at times? Several around the league would say absolutely.
But the reality is that Franklin has been exactly what Vanderbilt needed. He’s brought an air of confidence, swagger and belief to the program, and he operates that way whether he’s on the road recruiting or down 23-6 to Ole Miss in the third quarter on the road.
The other thing that’s so impressive about what Franklin has done is the way he’s embraced Vanderbilt’s stringent admission standards and still managed to recruit at a level that the Commodores have never previously sniffed.
They were 17th nationally in the latest recruiting rankings by ESPN.com with nine four-star commitments and have beaten Eastern Division rivals Georgia and South Carolina for players.
Player development also hasn’t been too shabby.
Vanderbilt lost its three most productive players last season on defense, including middle linebacker Chris Marve, who’d been the guts of that defense for three seasons.
But other players have emerged this season and assumed bigger roles, and there’s been very little drop-off. Vanderbilt is fourth this week in the SEC in scoring defense and fifth in total defense. That’s after finishing in the top 20 nationally in total defense a year ago.
“It’s like a fistfight, and that’s the way we look at it around here,” Franklin said. “We come in at 5 in the morning and leave at 11 at night, and we’re focused totally on being a championship program.
“Any excuses that might have been out there in the past when it comes to winning at Vanderbilt are just that -- in the past. Our kids and our coaches have risen above that, and we’re not going to accept anything less.”