NASHVILLE — Thirteen rows of Vanderbilt football players filled a cramped meeting room with their eyes focused on James Franklin, who was standing in front delivering a PowerPoint presentation.
“How we end the season, that’s the taste you’re going to have in your mouth until next year, or for the rest of your life,” the 39-year-old coach bellowed. “Understand me?”
Franklin figured to be the head coach at Maryland now — not Vanderbilt — after being named the Terrapins’ head coach-in-waiting in February 2009. But with no guarantee of ever being the Maryland head coach after the arrival of a new athletic director, the Terrapins’ former offensive coordinator last December accepted what may be the toughest job in major college football.
During his first year, Franklin has been so passionate on the field that he threw himself into practice without pads and cried multiple times in front of his players. He has been so relentless in promoting his program that he visited every fraternity house and made impromptu telephone calls to sports-talk radio shows.
In the team meeting, Franklin used the PowerPoint presentation to break down the strengths of his team’s opponent on Saturday, Cincinnati (9-3), and to set the tone for practice by underscoring what is at stake in what will be just the fifth bowl game in program history.
“Liberty Bowl!” Franklin announced, allowing players to absorb the words before continuing.
“Rings? Big difference between being bowl participants and bowl champions. How do you want to look down on that ring the rest of your life?”
“Champions!” his players hollered in unison.
Franklin was not finished.
“Be one of only three teams ever — ever! — in Vanderbilt history — 121 years of playing football — to call yourself [expletive] bowl champions! Got me?
“Let’s prepare our [butts] off. Any questions?”
At Maryland, Franklin sold players not only on playing for the Terrapins but also on eventually playing for him. He was expected to take over the program from longtime Coach Ralph Friedgen no later than after the 2011 season, but as the 2010 season progressed, two roadblocks emerged:
Friedgen had no interest in retiring anytime soon, certainly not after a 9-4 season and his second ACC coach of the year award. And new Athletic Director Kevin Anderson had given no indication that Franklin would be named the head coach whenever Friedgen did depart, even though Franklin was due to receive $1 million if he wasn’t named Maryland’s head coach by January 2012.
“It was a hard situation,” Franklin said about the circumstances that final season.
The Vanderbilt job — which Franklin accepted in December 2010, shortly before Friedgen was fired after 10 seasons — offered a fresh start and security for his family. But it was a difficult move for Franklin, who felt he let down the players who committed to play for him, just as it was difficult for many of the Maryland players themselves, including quarterback Danny O’Brien, who helped clean out Franklin’s office the day he left.
“People understood it because it didn’t look like I was going to be in the future,” Franklin said. “To turn down an opportunity to be a head coach to wait for an opportunity that might not happen, I think it was a no-brainer to everybody. It was hard to swallow and hard to manage. But Danny and all those kids, they understand that it’s part of the business. Although maybe some didn’t want me to leave, they also knew I had to take care of my family and look for our best interests.”
Interest was low in a Vanderbilt team that had had just one winning season since 1982, so selling the program became a second job.
Franklin spoke to the Black Student Union and student government organizations. He visited all the fraternities and sororities three times. He jokes that he blows up balloons at birthday parties.
And during a recent recruiting trip in Memphis, all Franklin heard on local radio were concerns about Justin Fuente, who was hired as coach at Memphis in early December. So Franklin called into the station, defended Fuente and then got the hosts to start talking Vanderbilt football.
“When I decided to take this job,” Franklin said, “I knew I was going to have to wear more hats than any other head coach in the country.”
Franklin’s recruiting pitch is simple: He does not take no for an answer. He took all the perceived negatives — the overwhelming competition of the Southeastern Conference, the lack of Vanderbilt tradition, the stringent academic standards — and flipped them into positives. If you’re intelligent, talented and want playing time right away, where else would you rather go?
Franklin said Vanderbilt has never had a top-50 recruiting class. This year’s class is currently ranked near the top 20 by most recruiting services.
“Huge can’t describe what his vision is for this place,” said Dwight Galt, the team’s director of performance enhancement who followed Franklin to Vanderbilt from Maryland.
Turning the Commodores into a winner on the field was a daunting challenge, especially in a conference that will produce a Bowl Championship Series champion for the sixth straight year next month.
But Franklin quickly won over his players. He insisted that the team’s nine seniors — not himself — be pictured on the media guide. He was so passionate that he cried in front of his players before they even played a game. He was so intense that, without pads, he played scout-team quarterback in one practice, throwing an interception and leveling a blocker.
“He is a psycho,” said football chief of staff Jemal Griffin, another Maryland transplant. “A positive psycho.”
The season was laden with achievements. In the national statistical rankings, Vanderbilt improved at least 30 spots in 13 categories. But the most defining moment occurred after a taut 33-28 loss to Georgia on Oct. 15.
In the locker room, many Vanderbilt players wept. With his voice choked with emotion, the first thing Franklin did when he entered the room was tell them he loved them. By the time he was finished speaking, “those guys would die for him,” Galt said.
Then, in his postgame news conference, Franklin addressed the heated conversation he had with Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham as the teams were leaving the field.
“We are not going to sit back and take stuff from anybody. Anybody. No one. Those days are long gone and they are never coming back. Ever,” Franklin said.
When the players returned home and watched the video of the news conference, the eight-minute clip resonated. Said Jordan Rodgers, Vanderbilt’s starting quarterback and younger brother of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, “How much he is willing to back us up no matter what the outcome is, that is something you see, you finish watching it and you’re like, ‘We’re going to fight for his guy, he’s fighting for us with the media, he’s fighting for us with everything around the school.’ ”
But Franklin does not shy away from cracking down, when needed. For instance, in one team meeting, Franklin was unhappy at the mess players left in the locker room, whose renovation was accelerated after Franklin was hired.
“You guys appreciate the locker room?” he asked players.
“Yes, sir,” players said.
“We had a recruit in here last night that wanted to see the locker room and it was a [expletive] mess,” Franklin said. “There was [expletive] everywhere. It did not look like a locker room that you guys take pride in. . . . I am expecting the leadership council to get that fixed. That was embarrassing to me. As hard as we worked to get that locker room, I would expect that you guys would appreciate it and not take it for granted. You guys understand what I am saying?
“Yes, sir,” players said.
While discussing his philosophy over lunch, Franklin said that whether he is critiquing conduct or tackling, it is imperative that he criticizes the performance and not the performer.
“If these kids know that we care about them, and know that we love them and they feel the same about us, they won’t go into the community and embarrass us, they’ll wake up in the morning and go to class and they will play harder for us on the field,” Franklin said. “We will maximize our talent. You can be tough on a kid, you can correct a kid, if he knows you truly care about him. If they feel it’s just a business and not about relationships, that’s where you have problems.”
Through the obstacles, success is starting to pay dividends. Franklin received a new contract this month with a substantial raise, in part to fend off potential suitors. An indoor practice facility could be finished by 2013. Stadium renovations are in order. And construction is beginning on a 140-seat theater-style football classroom.
Appreciation is also coming. In an Atlanta Marriott on a recent recruiting trip, Franklin said hello to a University of Florida coach. The coach simply told him, “What you did this season was the best coaching job I have ever seen.”
And on a busy afternoon last week, Franklin walked a visitor into his office to show off one of his favorite keepsakes: a three-inch-thick binder filled with hundreds of e-mails from fans.
“Isn’t this unbelievable?” he said of the Christmas gift he received from a fan.
There’s Hawaii resident Jordan Winston, who wrote that the Vanderbilt culture is changing so much “you can feel it all the way out here in the middle of the Pacific.”
There’s Kim from Memphis, who waxed nostalgic about begging her overworked father to take her to the Commodores’ 1982 appearance in the Hall of Fame Classic bowl game. This year, she will be at the Liberty Bowl.
And there’s Mike Mason, a self-described “Six Decades” Commodore who paid the ultimate compliment. His choice for the name of his soon-to-be-born grandson: Franklin.