Vanderbilt Football: Life as a stepping stone

NCAA Football: Compass Bowl-Vanderbilt vs Houston

This past Friday, Vanderbilt University hired the 27th football coach in program history, Derek Mason. Mason comes to Nashville with some big shoes to fill. He takes the reigns from James Franklin, a coach who has virtually transformed the Vanderbilt football program over the course of three whirlwind seasons.

Franklin has left an indelible stamp on the Vanderbilt program. He’s responsible for fully half of Vanderbilt’s all-time bowl wins, and he’s had the Commodores flirting with the top 25 for two solid years now. Franklin took a modest program at Vanderbilt and instantly made them somewhat relevant in the mighty SEC. At the same time, he prodded the school into taking steps towards becoming a top-flight program, including renovations to practice facilities and a new commitment to recruiting.

Franklin was a revelation to Vanderbilt fans. And ultimately that’s why those same fans now find themselves cursing the man they once praised. Since Franklin made the jump for Penn State, he’s faced heavy fire in the Tennessee press for raiding students he recruited to Vanderbilt.

When I first read one of these pieces I was perplexed. Here was a Tennessee newspaper laying in to James Franklin. At first blush this feels like a problem for Franklin. But does Franklin really need to care what the Tennessee press thinks of him? He is… you know… leaving. He no longer really needs to care what the people of Tennessee thought of him.

It occurred to me that no dedicated college football fan would actually get mad at a coach raiding a recruiting class. Recruiting is a cutthroat game; these teams compete for the best players just as hard as they compete on the field. And it must be acknowledged that, in today’s game, plenty of athletes play more for their coach than for the university funding the operation. Colleges recognize this, and that’s why they’re willing to shell out big money to get and keep good coaches who attract good players.

Before long, I figured out what was really going on. Vanderbilt fans who are upset at Franklin’s departure are upset for one simple reason: Franklin has outgrown Vanderbilt. Vandy fans are upset right now in the same way a parent gets upset as they drive their firstborn off to college. Of course, you always knew this day would come. But seeing it on the horizon doesn’t make it any easier.

Vanderbilt fans have known since he arrived that Franklin’s career was never going to peak at Vanderbilt. Franklin was too good of a coach, and Vandy would never be able to attract the level of talent that Franklin needed to compete with the best.1 Franklin was a man with great potential. Vanderbilt wasn’t his ultimate destiny, they were just a stepping stone.

With Franklin’s departure, the powers that be at Vanderbilt have a chance to decide what they want to happen next to their program. Let’s look at Mason’s resume: He’s just north of 40, he’s worked in the NFL and at the top of the college game, but this is his first head coaching job. To me, Mason looks a bit like Franklin 2.0 for Vanderbilt. He’ll have some early success and the fans will love him for it. But they’ll also get nervous. Nervous because they know now that at any moment those hard-fought SEC wins might suddenly transform into lines on a resume. An application for a better job.

1. Despite the boost Franklin’s presence brought to recruiting, the coach only once wrangled a top-20 recruiting class and never brought home a five star player. (per 

  • Bill Acree

    You are wrong, Mr. King. Vandy will win compete for national championships and the winners amongst us expect and realize that. Include amongst those champions Derek Mason and the last few years’ players at Vanderbilt. Also count the outstanding players at Vandy that preceded them that any team in the nation would have loved to have had as their teammate.

  • SECDore

    Lol. If you think Franklin’s career is going to peak at PSU, you will be sorely mistaken, IMHO. Can’t wait to see a coach that has barely ever beaten a ranked opponent compete for championships in the Big Ten.

    • Objective Observer

      Ohio State, Michigan

  • Vandy Junior

    Again to point out that you believe Vanderbilt fans are upset because Franklin outgrew Vanderbilt, this is not the case. He moved to a school historically better than Vanderbilt but similar in recent years. We are upset because he did not use us as a stepping stone to an Alabama, or a Texas, or a much more high profile team. To us it seems like the step was minimal if there at all. We are hurt because of the way he conducted himself after leaving, (if you look at the introductory press conferences for both schools his speeches are almost identical). There were multiple insults to injury that made us upset, Franklin said that those who decommit from Vanderbilt have no honor, he has 5 decommits already, he said Vanderibilt was a destination not a stepping stone (a lie), and he drew out the process which caused uncertainty which led to many decommitments from recruits not going to Penn State.

    All that being said we look forward to what Derek Mason (a coach with an arguably better record albeit as a defensive coordinator) can do for our future.

  • gurulikedrucker

    You wrote that “Vanderbilt fans who are upset at Franklin’s departure are upset for one simple reason: Franklin has outgrown Vanderbilt. Vandy fans are upset right now in the same way a parent gets upset as they drive their firstborn off to college.”
    I disagree. Most Vandy fans (that I know) understood and accepted Franklin’s decision to move-on. Have a conversation with a few Vandy fans and you will find this out… You will also find out that most Vandy fans are upset at Franklin’s decision to take advantage of the uncertainty (that he created) at Vanderbilt by immediately cherry picking from Vanderbilt’s recruiting class. Franklin didn’t even give Vandy a week to initiate a coaching search and to stabilize the program. Franklin would have you believe that these recruits didn’t sign-up to play for Vandy, as much as they signed-up to play for him. If he truly believed that these recruits were 100% committed to him and not Vandy, he would have given Vandy a little breathing room before he started raiding the recruiting class.

    • Objective Observer

      The other side of this story has not been mentioned. James Franklin was frustrated and depressed when he applied for the Vanderbilt job as a result of his Maryland experience. He and his family loved Nashville, especially his children and his wife, all of whom had a lot of close friends. So Coach decided to do Penn State in lieu of building the Stanford of the South. That is his choice-but Derek Mason seems to realize the unique place that Vanderbilt is and I predict he will be successful.