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 rivals.com)