Commodores embrace the Franklin way

James Franklin is off to a strong start in trying to change Vanderbilt's image within the SEC. Jeremy Brevard/US Presswire

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- James Franklin isn’t apologizing, not in the least bit.

He’s not celebrating, either.

It took him all of one season to steer Vanderbilt to only its fifth bowl appearance in school history, and that was on the heels of back-to-back 2-10 seasons.

And since his arrival in Nashville in December of 2010, he hasn’t been shy when it comes to stirring the pot, or perhaps better stated from the Vanderbilt side of things, making sure the days of treating the Commodores as a second-class citizen in the SEC were never coming back … ever.

Those were Franklin’s words last October after he and Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham went nose-to-nose on the field following the Bulldogs’ hard-fought 33-28 victory over the Commodores.

Both coaches felt like they were sticking up for their players.

In Franklin’s mind, it was about time somebody stuck up for the Commodores -- period.

“Everything I do is calculated, but that’s also who I am. I’m a fighter,” Franklin said. “You’re talking about a blue-collar guy who’s worked his way up the ladder for everything he’s got. I understand that respect and all those things are earned. I do. But what I noticed right when I got here, and I don’t think people meant it, was that people talked down to us.

“It was almost as if, ‘This is where you’re supposed to be. You’ve always been there. How dare you try to improve your place? This is where you’re supposed to be?’ I think people were used to being able to put Vanderbilt in the “W” column before the season started, and how dare we try to fight back?”

Franklin was fighting back the moment he took what many consider to be one of the hardest jobs in all of college football. He still bristles when he hears about the supposed ceiling on Vanderbilt football and is so focused on making Vanderbilt a destination stop for top recruits that he frowns on his players even mentioning that they grew up a fan of somebody other than the Commodores.

“Between what we’ve done on the field and what we’ve done in recruiting, our pool has changed,” said Franklin, who signed the highest-rated class in Vanderbilt history this past February.

“The first year we got here, there were only certain kids willing to listen to us. Then after this first season and what we did on the field, there were a lot more kids interested. Now, it’s on a whole different level.

“We’ve taken steps, but we still have a long ways to go.”

Franklin is hell-bent to get there, and he doesn’t mind stepping on a few toes along the way.

"We're going to fight for each other, and that's something Coach (Franklin) brought to this program that we needed," said senior running back Zac Stacy, the SEC's leading returning rusher.

Franklin also has a renewed commitment, really an unprecedented commitment, from the Vanderbilt administration to make football a priority at one of America’s most prestigious universities.

Already, renovations are underway at the McGugin Center that will include a new locker room, team meeting rooms and a 140-seat theatre-style classroom. Vanderbilt Stadium is also being spruced up and will get new playing turf as well as a JumboTron.

And by 2014, a new indoor practice facility will be in place on campus.

Franklin had all of these improvements written into his new contract, which was announced last December.

And speaking of commitment, Franklin’s new deal, according to sources, is paying him right around $2.5 million per year.

So the head football coach at Vanderbilt is making more than the head football coach at Tennessee. Derek Dooley is set to earn just over $2 million in 2012.

“The important thing is that the commitment is in place here, and everybody is on board,” Franklin said.

There’s also an energy and a charisma surrounding the program that Franklin has worked tirelessly to create. The Vanderbilt players say they feed off Franklin’s intensity and the way he’s gone to bat for them.

“Any man who will fight for you like that, you’re going to give your all to have his back, especially when he’s willing to put himself in the crosshairs for the team,” senior cornerback Trey Wilson said. “We can look to that and say, ‘That’s somebody I can go out there and give my all for.’”

Don’t expect much to change during Franklin’s second tour through the league.

“People might get upset or frustrated or taken aback, but I’m like, ‘We’re just doing what everybody else in this league has been doing for a long time. You just don’t expect it from us,’” Franklin said. “A lot of it’s my personality, but it’s magnified because people aren’t used to that at Vanderbilt.”

They’re also not used to the Commodores taking the SEC’s big boys to the wire, either. Their losses to Georgia, Arkansas, Florida and Tennessee last season were by a combined 19 points, and the loss to the Vols came in overtime.

“That’s the next step, making sure we finish those games,” Wilson said. “Going to a bowl was just one of our goals, so there’s no complacency. We have the underdog mentality. Nobody wants to give us the respect we feel like we deserve, so we go out there and do whatever we have to do to take it.”

That lack of respect was never more apparent than the Tennessee game last season. Following the Vols’ 27-21 overtime win in Knoxville, a video surfaced of Dooley telling his players while they celebrated in the locker room, “The one thing Tennessee always does is kick the (expletive) out of Vanderbilt.”

At the time, Franklin said it was a wound that he would leave open and wouldn’t heal any time soon.

Well, it’s obvious that it still hasn’t healed, although Franklin warns that placing too much importance on one game in the SEC is foolish.

“There are situations that happen that are personal,” Franklin conceded. “I really don’t want it to be personal, because what happens is that your team and your coaches can sense that this game is more important than another, and the most important game for us is the next game on the schedule.

“Now, do things happen that get your juices flowing and make it a little personal? Yes. We don’t talk about those things a whole lot, but it’s more symbolic that our team understands that we’re not going to let other people define who and what we’re going to be.”