Vandy perception changes on recruiting trail

The sound of the late-night text message rattling James Franklin’s cell phone around might have sent former Vanderbilt coaches into an immediate panic.

On the eve of national signing day, communication so close to the midnight hour can sometimes signal something horrific, especially for a school like Vanderbilt, trying like crazy to keep each precious recruit it has committed, especially the big ones.

And this one was a big one -- the biggest.

As Vanderbilt’s first-year coach reached for his phone and read the name attached to the message, panic never entered his body. He never contemplated losing this one. Franklin calmly smiled and replied.

The text was from top athlete Brian Kimbrow (Memphis, Tenn./East) and the message was clear: He was more than happy with his decision. He just felt the need to tell Franklin one last time.

That’s all Franklin ever expected from the ESPNU 150 prospect.

“It was like that all along,” Franklin said of his conversations with Kimbrow throughout the recruiting process.

But that isn’t the norm at Vanderbilt. Scratch that. That wasn't the norm at Vanderbilt.

After all the losing season and jokes, Franklin has made Vanderbilt’s football program more respectable after just one year as the Commodores’ coach. It showed in the 6-7 2011 season and the first bowl appearance since 2008. It also showed in close losses to Arkansas, Florida, Georgia and Tennessee.

He got things started with a successful 2011 season, but pushed ahead with his recruiting efforts.

“We still have a lot of progress to make,” Franklin said, “but if you look at the class that was signed the year before we got here and the class we were able to scramble around and sign last year, with only having a couple of months, then what we were able to do this year, the progress we’ve been able to make is dramatic.”

That progress became obvious with how aggressive Franklin and his staff were on the recruiting trail, how they held their own with bigger SEC teams and how committed Kimbrow was.

See, Kimbrow had his pick of schools with offers from Arkansas, Auburn, Miami and USC. As offers continued to roll in for Kimbrow, who committed to Vandy last July and rushed for 1,969 yards with 21 touchdowns and produced 2,186 all-purpose yards as a senior, he made sure to keep Franklin aware. Every offer meant another reassuring phone call to Franklin that Kimbrow wasn’t headed anywhere but Vanderbilt.

“A lot of highly recruited guys like him are entitled, and he’s really appreciative of what Vanderbilt’s going to be able to do for him both on and off the field,” Franklin said.

That progress continued to show in how Vanderbilt was received by high school coaches and prospects. Gone were the thoughts that the Commodores were mere SEC cellar dwellers. Right away, high school coaches found new respect in how Franklin was running Vanderbilt. That only increased with how well the Commodores played in both wins and losses.

Franklin said people started to see that Vanderbilt was beginning to offer kids not just a world-class education but a chance to play real competitive football in the SEC.

With that, the buzz spread. People actually recognized him away from campus, as he could feel the buzz from people in the grocery store, in airports and, most importantly, in high schools.

There was a new appreciation and pride in Vanderbilt football, he said, and that was appealing to so many athletes who wouldn’t have considered Vandy in the past.

“People expect to get good recruits (at Vanderbilt now),” Franklin said. “People expect to win games and I don’t know if that was ever the case before.”

The buzz generated fast and helped Vanderbilt secure a handful of prospects early. As others saw that Vanderbilt wasn’t losing commitments, their interest increased. It helped Vanderbilt get a legitimate two-to-three deep at most positions and secure players at positions of need, like “six of the top offensive linemen in the country” as Franklin puts it, and the four linebackers he couldn’t get in his first class.

It got Kimbrow and top prospects such as four-star defensive end Stephen Weatherly, who isn’t just a talented pass-rusher but a scholar (he traveled around the country on a high school robotics team). There’s also Darreon Herring (Stone Mountain, Ga./Stephenson), one of the top linebackers in the Southeast.

Sure, there were losses, like losing two key recruits on and right before signing day to SEC rivals, but Franklin doesn’t dwell on what he doesn’t have. He’s excited about what he has.

And what he has is pretty good.

“Every coach is happy with their class, but Franklin should be very happy with his class,” ESPN recruiting analyst Corey Long said. “They have upgrades at a lot of positions.

“[Franklin] showed that he’s definitely here to stay as far as recruiting. He showed that he’s going to compete on the field and in recruiting.

“Now they are going to be a tough team with athletes, not just with guile and determination.”