Zemek: Give Franklin Time
Looking from the outside last December, I found it hard to see how James Franklin – an assistant at a Maryland program not going anywhere – would change the internal subculture of the Vanderbilt football program. After Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn snubbed the Commodores, I openly expressed my doubts and dissatisfactions with the prevailing situation in Nashville, writing that Franklin would likely fail in the attempt to transform the Good Ship Commodore into a different and dynamic football force.
My frustration at the time was not connected to a belief that Vanderbilt played the coaching-search game poorly (it didn't); what cut deep was Malzahn's public courtship, followed by his change of heart after sleeping on the decision to come to VU. It was hard to shake the sense that Vanderbilt was not going to be taken seriously, that it was not going to be properly understood by its next leader. I wrote in that week before Christmas that a coach should want to prove himself at Vanderbilt. A man who fancies himself as capable and talented should want to test his skills at a place where winning isn't taken for granted.
Just over eight months later, it's impossible for me to not be impressed.
Yes, games are still waiting to be won. An impact greater than the 2008 season is still waiting to be made. Dan McGugin's virtually untouchable VU legacy is waiting to at least be breathed upon by a coach who can claim the same zip code (though not the mountaintop mansion McGugin established in his legendary career). Yet, for everything that has yet to be done, it's rather clear that Franklin "gets it" with respect to Vanderbilt football. His sales pitch to recruit mirrors the way he thinks about the VU program: Challenges are great. Challenges demand and reveal excellence. Challenges are what elite student-athletes should crave with a fierce and lasting passion.
Yes. Yes. Yes. That is the song that should be sung in Music City, USA, when college football is the matter at hand.
Bobby Johnson sang wholesome songs without profanity, building enough character in the locker room to forge a bowl-winning season three years ago. Now, though, that song is in the process of being built into a more full-bodied composition with multiple tones, layers, and many sweet stanzas of personality. Franklin might not have changed (with a past-tense "D") the subculture, but he's certainly on his way. Fire up the pot of alphabet soup; word-eating could commence a lot sooner than I ever thought.
Now, about this 2011 season, let's get something straight after praising Franklin for what he's done on the recruiting trail: Don't expect all the pieces to come together this season. Heck, don't expect all the pieces to come together in 2012. Let's keep the short-term expectations modest even while elevating long-term expectations for what VU football should become.
One of the emergent trends in the business of college football coaching over the past few years is that the three-year turnaround – long held as the metric for progress when evaluating new coaches – is morphing into a two-year turnaround. It's not a standard which pervades the entirety of the Football Bowl Subdivision, but it is spreading. Urban Meyer is the man most responsible for making two years seem to be the "normal" turnaround time at a program. Pete Carroll had USC in the Orange Bowl in year two of his reign in Los Angeles. Gene Chizik has also become a part of this dynamic. Chip Kelly needed only one year to elevate Oregon to the top perch in the Pac-10 (now Pac-12). Brady Hoke whipped San Diego State into shape in two seasons and found himself the new head coach at Michigan shortly thereafter. That's just a sampling of the two-year transformers who have hit the heights in college football over the past decade. It's easy to join the crowd and acquire the belief that if it works at Florida, USC, Auburn, Oregon, and even San Diego State, it should work for Vanderbilt.
Yes, challenges should motivate the Commodore football program to see if each player and coach can do the impossible, the highly improbable, or the unexpected. There's nothing wrong with trying to go above and beyond. However, a word of caution must be spoken, and it is simply this: Don't confuse an appropriately ravenous appetite for success with an insistent demand on immediate results.
The goal is to make Vanderbilt as competitive as other big-name programs, placing the Commodores in a context defined by parity, not poverty; legitimacy, not losing. However, while success is partly rooted in the refusal to accept anything less than the very best, another source of success is found in a clear-eyed wisdom which sees reality for what it is. Knowing what Vanderbilt football must become – and it seems James Franklin understands this – must also include the realization that VU is not in that place at the moment. This will be a rough uphill climb in the next few years; gains won't come without a price and respect will need to be cultivated the year after a winning season. Vanderbilt produced one really good year under Bobby Johnson, but the true mark of a program that's arrived is its ability to back up one success story with another one the following autumn. A few more quality recruiting classes, combined with the full development and ripening of this freshman class, will be needed to merely begin an era of authentic and accumulated excellence.
Yes, this job is worthy of gifted and energetic men – coaches and players alike – who love to conquer challenges, but in the same breath, that's precisely why it's not a quick-fix situation. It's why VU football can't succumb to the two-year turnaround mentality. I doubted Franklin last December. I'm not really doubting him now. It doesn't matter, though, in the end. What counts is that the new sheriff in town deserves the time needed to make a full attempt at changing the direction of the program. The fact that the program basically lost the 2010 season on July 14 of that year (when Johnson abruptly stepped down with the best of intentions but not the sharpest chess-playing acuity) should only give Franklin that much more leeway and leverage as he begins his head coaching career.
What will we see in the coming three months? Who knows? Just plant this mantra in your mind: Give James Franklin time. He has certainly given his energies to Vanderbilt, not only in accepting the job after Gus Malzahn spurned the Dores, but by then attacking this position with the relish and resolve any fan base should want from its head coach.
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