One hundred twenty-two years of football. Two bowl wins.
Going into the 2011 season, James Franklin had a lot to overcome.
Franklin took over as Vanderbilt’s head coach after spending three seasons as the offensive coordinator at Maryland, inheriting a team that had finished 2-10 in back-to-back seasons.
To make a difference there, Franklin knew he would have to do more than just recruit. A simple change in schemes or personnel wouldn’t pull an entire program out of a century-long marriage with mediocrity.
He had to change the culture around Vanderbilt football, one player, one fan and one game at a time. The team’s past, and his challenge ahead, was both exciting and daunting for the first-time head coach.
“I knew enough of (the history) to understand what we were getting ourselves into,” Franklin said Wednesday during the Southeastern Conference's weekly teleconference. “I think there’s a fine line to that. I think if you know too much, it becomes a negative and you start to believe some of these challenges and obstacles are too difficult to overcome.”
After arriving in Nashville, Franklin didn’t hesitate to alert the masses to the beginning of a new, brighter era in Vanderbilt football. He personally reached out to the community, urging a city that had never truly embraced the Commodores to throw their support behind his team.
His message was clear: Vanderbilt isn’t looking backwards, dwelling on decades of losses and disinterest.
This is a new day.
“I think when he first came in he had a vision. He had a direction, and he’s taken steps as the months and as the year has gone by to make sure we’re getting more excitement around our program,” starting quarterback Jordan Rodgers said at the SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala., in mid July.
“He’s gone to fraternity houses, sorority houses; he’s gone to places in the public, pushing our vision – pushing what we’re going to be.”
For many of the incumbent players who had been with the team under previous coaches Bobby Johnson (2002-09) and Robbie Caldwell (2010), the sudden jolt of enthusiasm came as a shock.
“When we first met him, we thought he was crazy,” defensive back Trey Wilson said at the SEC Media Days. “He came in, started to implement all this change, and we were kind of like, ‘Man, he’s trying to do too much.’”
But, a change did come – albeit a gradual one. Vanderbilt finished 6-7 last season, playing in a bowl game for just the fifth time. The Commodores lost to the Cincinnati Bearcats in the Liberty Bowl, 31-24.
After starting the 2012 season 1-3, it’s clear that Franklin’s work is far from finished. As he attempts to lift the Commodores into SEC legitimacy, he can look around the country and see examples of once-losing programs that found a way to build a consistent winner.
Missouri, Vanderbilt’s next opponent, is one such example.
“I have great respect for Coach Pinkel and his staff and what they’ve been able to do over the long term. Really build it the right way. You don’t really see a spike over one or two years. They built it the right way and have been able to be very consistent,” Franklin said. “I have a lot of respect for him and that program and that community.”
At Vanderbilt, Franklin faces an uphill battle. But he didn’t take the job thinking that everything would come easy. With a team that has experienced one winning season since 1982, conference championships aren’t going to appear overnight.
Despite a few roadblocks, though, he still sees a brighter future ahead. Missouri, a team once saddled with a similar losing tradition, is the next obstacle standing in the way of Vanderbilt's new beginning.
“The energy with our players is great, our chemistry is as good as it’s ever been, and the kids are really excited to go play at Missouri, a place where most of our team has never been before,” Franklin said. “So we’re looking forward to it.”