I want to thank Vanderbilt Coach James Franklin, the former Maryland head coach-in-waiting, for giving me two days of behind-the-scenes access into his program. In just one year, Franklin has changed the culture at Vanderbilt, which is a victory in Saturday’s Liberty Bowl away from its second winning season since 1982.
Here is the link to the feature story I wrote on Franklin.
But there is more to share on Franklin. Regarding his time at Maryland, Franklin said he remains appreciative and grateful for the opportunity. He called the University of Maryland “home.” Recruiting was not just recruiting for Franklin here. It was interacting with friends throughout the high school coaching ranks.
Leaving Maryland for Vanderbilt last December was not easy for Franklin because he had built close relationships with many parents and players, some of whom committed to Maryland primarily to play for him.
“What was hard for me is, I don’t think people realize when I left where the program was. And then when I came back it was in two completely different places. I worked so hard to help to turn that program back around. When you recruit the way I recruit and you sell kids to come to be a part of what you are trying to build, and it was obviously magnified especially the last year the last year and a half, not only was I selling a kid to be a part of Maryland but I was selling them to be a part of my future as well.
“It’s hard knowing what I was saying and doing in those homes and those kids come and I have to walk away. I felt I let them down. I feel like I let them down in a lot of ways because I know those parents and those kids and not only did they commit to Maryland, but they committed to me. So that’s hard. That was really, really hard.
“I wish them nothing but the best. I want to see them have all kinds of success. I had a tremendous experience there. It didn’t work out. They decided to go in a different direction, which I completely understand. And I am appreciative of the time I had there.”
Franklin said he can also talk more freely now as head coach at Vanderbilt. His final year at Maryland was particularly challenging in that respect because Coach Ralph Friedgen had no interest in retiring and new Athletic Director Kevin Anderson had given no indication that he wanted Franklin as the eventual head coach. And Franklin had to make sure what he was saying to reporters was consistent with the message was from the school and program.
“Well, now my message is the message of the organization. You’re asking me questions. I don’t have to sit here and think, ‘Okay let me make sure what I am saying is in alignment with other people.’ ”
Franklin called this past year the most rewarding and at times the most frustrating of his career because of all the obstacles he has faced in his first year as Vanderbilt’s head coach. One of the biggest was perception. Franklin was an outsider who took over a program that people had penciled in every season to finish at the bottom of the SEC standings.
“There has been so much negativity here associated with the football program. If you asked people outside here in the coaching circles of the world, this is the toughest job in college football. Not just because of the history, but because of the conference we play in. When we got here, that’s what everyone wanted to focus on. What you can’t do. Why you are not going to. They want to talk about past experiences.
“They hired this coach who in this part of the country people had never heard of. It wasn’t like I was a sexy name. I knew the most important thing we could do was change the culture. Starting with changing the perception within before I could affect the perception outside the program. How the players see themselves? How the administration sees the players? How the campus sees us?
“I wanted to start with our locker room, how the kids saw themselves. I hired a staff that number one was excited about coming to Vanderbilt and that wanted to be with me. I didn’t want anybody on staff who wanted to come but in the back of his mind didn’t really think he could do it here because the last 20 years he has heard what a tough job it was. Same thing with administrative staff, secretaries, janitors, trainers.
“Whoever was going to come in contact with my players would have the same consistent positive message and constantly bombard them with the same positive message to counteract all the negativity they got when they got when they left the building.”
Franklin encountered condescension and negativity at SEC gatherings.
“I noticed when I went to the SEC meetings, the questions I got were different from everybody else’s. Underhand compliments. It was not people being overtly negative, it was the subtle the way they would talk to you. I would not allow anyone to talk to our kids or about our program like that. I was not going to allow other people to define who and what we could be.
Franklin was angry with how he and his program was received, but “I was okay with that. Throughout my whole profession, no one has given me anything, had to earn it. I’m a guy who has had a chip on my shoulder my whole career anyway trying to prove people wrong.
“That’s why it’s important they hire like someone like me. You hire someone who is a sexy hire from a bigger school and they are used to having the best players, the best facilities, they are going to have a hard time. If you get a guy who is a blue-collar guy who has worked for everything he has . . . one of the biggest mistakes coaches make is focusing on what you don’t have and not what you don’t have. It’s not that you don’t recognize those things and work to try to change them.
“I spent a lot of time out talking about who and what we would be. I had to get people excited about what we were doing and sell, sell, sell, but also don’t set up false expectations and be realistic about it. I talked about winning the SEC championship and the national championship. People were like, does this guy realize what he is getting himself into, this naïve coach that they hired from Maryland. That was the vibe.”
Franklin characterized the perception of Vanderbilt like this:
“We’re this school before the season that people check off. That’s your role and that’s your space in this conference and how dare you do anything to better your situation or your life. Just stay where you are supposed to be. And all we have done since we have been on campus is fight for our kids and fight for our program. Sometimes people took that as cockiness or arrogance or naïve. Just me sticking up for our kids and not allowing people to talk to us the way they thought it was appropriate to talk to us.”