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James Franklin has changed image, culture of Vanderbilt football

3:45 PM, Dec 13, 2012   |    comments
Vanderbilt Commodores head coach James Franklin celebrates a victory over the Tennessee Volunteers at Vanderbilt Stadium. The Commodores beat the Volunteers 41-18. Credit: Don McPeak-US Presswire
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By Josh Cooper The Tennessean

Before James Franklin first patrolled the sidelines at Dudley Field in 2011 as Vanderbilt University's new football coach, he made a crucial recruiting pitch -- to a group of fraternity brothers at the Kappa Sigma house.

Franklin, who Vanderbilt hired from Maryland on Dec. 17, 2010, walked into a chapter meeting shortly before the start of that initial season, looked at the brothers in their eyes and went into sell-mode.

"We need you guys to show up because we've been working our (tails) off," Franklin pleaded. "We need you guys to show up and support us."

After Franklin finished his speech, chapter president Michael Abraham said the coach answered questions from the star-struck frat boys.

"I think it has made a huge impact in terms of getting us involved and coming to the games," Abraham said. "Ever since he has been here I've been to five or six games. I think it has made a pretty big difference."

This was just one prong of Franklin's all-out press to change Vanderbilt football's losing image. On the football field, his players say he has worked them harder than they have ever practiced before. Off campus he has preached sustainable success to fans and recruits. And on campus, he has put in a major effort to rally the student body.

All of this has led to Commodores football results unseen in decades:

* An 8-4 record, the university's best football record in 30 years.

* Unprecedented back-to-back bowl appearances, including facing North Carolina State in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl on Dec. 31.

* Vanderbilt's three home sellouts this year are the most for the football program since 1996.

If there is a way to quantify this 'culture change' at Vanderbilt it starts at the top with Franklin.

"What we're doing and what we've done so far is nothing like the old Vanderbilt," Franklin said.

Same Old Vanderbilt?

Walk into a Commodores practice, a block away from Dudley Field off Natchez Trace, and it's quick to notice how Franklin, 40, has infused his program with new level of pride. A large star-crested 'V' is emblazoned on midfield. The yard markers on the football field's sidelines show the school's coloring. Before Franklin and his staff arrived, the John Rich Football Practice Complex was just a practice field with few symbols to its connection with Vanderbilt.

Now the entire weight room and its weight plates are also black and gold. When Franklin saw orange Gatorade machines in the facility, he had them changed to the school colors, too.

Franklin wanted school spirit so ingrained in his players that in August before his first year, he invited Dwayne Sagen, the director of the university's marching band to the football facilities to teach the players the Vanderbilt fight song "Dynamite." Sagen said he had never been asked to do this before.

"I said, 'coach no one knows the words to Dynamite.' And he said, 'I want my team to know the words to Dynamite. Every team has to be able to sing their fight song,'" Sagen said.

There used to be a fatalistic approach to Vanderbilt football. Whenever something positive happened, there was a sense that something wrong was around the corner. When former coach Bobby Johnson led the Commodores to a Music City Bowl victory in 2008 - the school's first bowl win since 1955 - it never seemed like the success would last. And it didn't, Vanderbilt went a combined 4-20 its next two seasons.

"I think the perception was, and it penetrated all the way down to the players, where at the end of the day, something is going to happen where we're going to find a way to lose the football game and it was pervasive," athletics director David Williams said. "We were standing there and you could almost feel it in the place, when we got the lead there's a minute and a half to go, what's going to go wrong?"

There was a laundry list of plays that led to Williams' theory, including:

* Fumbling away bowl eligibility late in games (Rodney Williams in 1999)

* Fake punts from deep in their own zone (former coach Woody Widenhofer's call that same year against Georgia).

From 2001-04, the Commodores had just eight wins. And as the rest of the Southeastern Conference laid the groundwork for its most successful run ever - six straight BCS championships - Vanderbilt continued to anchor the bottom of the group. The school's signature win of Johnson's tenure - besides the bowl game - was a 2005 victory at Tennessee, which ensured five wins that year, one less than bowl eligibility.

"It wasn't popular to be on the football team, it wasn't the cool thing," junior place kicker Carey Spear said.

On Franklin's first day of drills he made his players do 50 up-downs -- an exercise in which they had to drop their bodies to the ground and then jump back up. It would be the first step towards grueling offseason workouts that players credit toward their current success.

"Every five minutes we thought we would be done," offensive tackle Wesley Johnson said. But, with Franklin watching closely, the greuling exercise continued. "Any time anyone did anything minute, we'd have a small punishment."

The team saw the fruits of its labor in 2011 with commanding victories by over 20 points against Ole Miss and Kentucky and close losses to SEC powers Georgia, Arkansas and Florida. Vanderbilt also made the Liberty Bowl.

If there was any skepticism from that season, Franklin put it to rest this year. Vanderbilt's eight wins was the program's most since 1982. The Commodores' five games with over 40 points scored was their most since 1915. Vanderbilt's upcoming appearance in the Dec. 31 Music City Bowl will be the first time in the school's 121-year history that it made consecutive bowl games.

"If you can start to have success and build on that, then you can really do something," Franklin said.

School outreach

Franklin's office at the McGugin Center on Jess Neely Drive is about a 15-minute walk from main campus. In the past, football coaches rarely ventured over to the fraternities, or the Sarratt Student Center to rally support. But Franklin has made it his quest to ensure a full student section on Saturdays at Dudley Field.

He understood the importance of the Greek System in order to drum up loyalties. About 42 percent of Vanderbilt students are in fraternities or sororities. Fraternities often hold lengthy tailgate parties at their houses prior to games. Those parties often go through the first halves of football games and Franklin aimed to shorten them. .

"I can personally say that members of my fraternity have attended more games this season than in the past due to the personal relationships Franklin has made with Greek members," Alpha Epsilon Pi president Spencer Jennings said. "In addition, not only did he come to speak to us about supporting the team and the university as well, he genuinely was interested in hearing suggestions from Greek members on what he could do for us so that we would be more inclined to support the Commodores on game day."

In November, the week before Vanderbilt's 41-18 victory over Tennessee, Franklin went to Rand dining hall at Sarratt at lunchtime and talked to students. The game was scheduled during the Thanksgiving break. Franklin went into every crevice of the building, some of which he didn't know existed, asking students if he could talk to their parents so they could change their flights. The idea proved successful. The student section was full by kickoff.

"It was a surreal moment to have an SEC football coach call your parents," Vanderbilt Hustler editor-in-chief Eric Single said. "Things like that got around really quickly with Facebook statuses and word of mouth that he was around campus."

Even graduate students have taken notice. Many had gone to undergraduate schools with bigger football programs, but are embracing Franklin's enthusiasm at Vanderbilt.

"Some of my friends who did go (to Vanderbilt) for undergrad barely even mentioned going to the games. It wasn't that big a part of their undergrad as it was for me," said Amanda Harris, a fourth-year medical student who went to Michigan State for her undergraduate degree. "I definitely think now people are way more interested."

Partners in growth

Vanderbilt's commitment to Franklin and football mirrors its ambitions of being a top-tier national university, not a regional beacon. The university is enduring a period of building projects. New buildings are sprouting up all over campus. The College Halls construction on the intersection of 21st Ave. and West End Ave. is a $115 million project.

Also, Vanderbilt is looking to attract a higher quality of student. The latest US News & World Report ranked Vanderbilt 17th amongst national universities.

"I think Vanderbilt has become a national player both academically and socially and intellectually, and of course the football goes along with that," philosophy professor Lenn Goodman said.

Said history professor Thomas Schwartz, "It's become a much more national school in the last 10 years. The range of students are much broader and all of that is contributing, you might say, to also shaping a campus environment. Football is very important, but it's not the only thing going on."

"I think it's very clear there's a lot more interest in the program," Schwartz said. "He's had an impact on students that has been noticeable in their feelings about it."

Keeping it going

On Dec. 2, Vanderbilt gave Franklin a contract extension. Because Vanderbilt is a private institution, the unviersity does not release coach salaries.

Franklin also received a promise for more facility upgrades. A $31 million indoor practice field is currently under construction and is set to open no later than the summer of 2014.

Vanderbilt officials say that if Franklin decides to depart, he has shown the school it can compete at a level that at one point seemed almost impossible.

"If James were to leave today, we do know we can be better than what we were," Williams said. "It's sort of like, when you swim that far, you know you can do it. We now know we don't have to be celebratory when we're 6-6."

But the school believes it can push even higher. And for that, Vanderbilt understands it needs to have Franklin see the process through.

"We want to experience 12-0 and the BCS," Williams said. "For that to happen, you have to have him here, absolutely."

Reach Josh Cooper at 615-726-8917 or jcooper2@tennessean.com.

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