NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Chris Marve’s first impression of his new coach wasn’t necessarily on the money.
Marve, Vanderbilt’s All-SEC linebacker, rode to the airport back in December with vice chancellor of university affairs and athletics David Williams to pick up James Franklin the day he was introduced as the Commodores’ head coach.
“He was so mild-mannered, almost laid back,” Marve recalled. “But when we got on the field this spring, it’s like he flipped a switch. He was on top of you every minute and every practice and didn’t let up.
“I was like, ‘This is the same guy?’ There’s an energy about him, an enthusiasm and the kind of charisma this program hasn’t had. The guys on this team responded, too, because nobody wants to go back to where we’ve been the last two years.”
Not that anybody at Vanderbilt needs to be reminded, but that would be 2-10 each of the past two seasons with only one SEC victory along the way.
That’s after the Commodores manufactured their first winning season in 26 years in 2008, which was capped by their first bowl victory in 53 years.
Bobby Johnson had proved that you could indeed win at Vanderbilt in this era, albeit for one season, but Johnson abruptly resigned just prior to the 2010 season.
Franklin, 39, is determined to prove you can win at Vanderbilt and continue winning.
It’s a daunting challenge, maybe the toughest job in all of college football when you consider Vanderbilt’s stringent academic requirements and the strength of the SEC, which has produced the last five national champions.
Franklin doesn’t flinch.
After all, Stanford has found a way to make it work in the Pac-10, and Northwestern has had its moments in the Big Ten.
“The reality is that you can take what they’ve done at Stanford and you can take what they’ve done at Northwestern, and you can take general philosophies and plans,” Franklin said. “But you better have a plan that’s specific to that institution you’re at, and Vanderbilt is a very unique institution. A lot of people say, ‘You’re in the SEC,’ and compare that to the Big Ten or compare it to the Pac-10,’ and people look at that as a negative. I look at it as a positive.
“We have a chance to attract student-athletes from all over the country who can say they have a chance to get a world-class education and play in the greatest football conference in America. So if you’re really as good as you think you are and you’re a guy who doesn’t want to settle in life and wants the best of everything, Vanderbilt’s the choice for you.
“You can spin it anyway you want. I’m an optimist, so I spin it from a positive perspective.”
One thing Franklin isn’t spinning is how much the Commodores need to upgrade their speed and depth at all positions if they’re going to compete in the SEC.
The lack of depth and experience in the offensive line is particularly frightening, but the Commodores do have 20 of their 22 starters from a year ago returning.
So it’s not like Franklin is inheriting a group of guys who’ve never played in this league.
They just haven’t won in this league, at least not on a consistent basis. But as senior defensive end Tim Fugger points out, there’s still a nucleus of players remaining -- quarterback Larry Smith, cornerback Casey Hayward, safety Sean Richardson, defensive tackle T.J. Greenstone, Marve and Fugger -- who were around for that 2008 season when the Commodores broke through to finish 7-6.
The trick is regaining that confidence and keeping it this time.
“The year we went to the Music City Bowl, we got all the way to No. 13 in the rankings and our confidence was really high,” Fugger said. “But then we hit a skid and kind of felt like it was the same old Vanderbilt and here we go again.
“It was the same way these past two seasons, but Coach Franklin and his staff have brought in so much energy and we’ve been working so hard that I think that confidence is finally coming back. You could see it in the way we practiced this spring. Practices have been a lot more competitive, and it’s been a real fun experience watching the turnaround.”
Franklin, previously the offensive coordinator at Maryland, realizes that he’s hardly the first new head coach to show up at Vanderbilt proclaiming that he has a vision to take the Commodores places in football they’ve never been in this league.
And down deep, Franklin doesn’t mind that there are so many doubters.
“To me, this is no different than the rest of my career,” he said. “You don’t get from East Stroudsburg, a Division II school in Pennsylvania, to being a head coach in the SEC by always taking the safe choice. We have a chance to do something really, really special, a way to differentiate ourselves.”
As far as what has or hasn’t been done in the past at Vanderbilt, Franklin offers a confident shrug.
“We want to study our history and have respect for our history,” Franklin said. “I have tremendous respect for the coaches that came before me here, but I also have the mentality that that part of Vanderbilt football -- although we respect it and appreciate the former players that have been here -- that’s done. That’s over. All the negative memories we’ve had in the past are gone.
“It’s a new day, and because of this administration’s support, we’re able to do things that are going to allow us to get where we want to go.”