With reports that James Franklin has been offered the Penn State job now all over the web, the question becomes: “If he leaves, can Vanderbilt find another winner?”
Honest answer? It won’t be easy. But that’s the case with every other program in the country, too. Every hire is a roll of the dice. And while there are no guarantees Vandy AD David Williams could find another winner, there’s nothing to say the man couldn’t roll another seven or eleven, either.
Franklin and Williams have made the Vanderbilt football job a better gig. First, many believe the school is paying Franklin more than the $3 million guesstimate that’s so often kicked about. You can be sure a school handing out those kind of greenbacks can find someone willing to take them.
Second, Franklin has demanded improved facilities and an increased recruiting budget. VU has answered on the recruiting budget and most of Franklin’s facility demands have been or are being addressed as well. So if he goes, his replacement won’t have to argue for things like an indoor practice facility. Vandy’s now got a brand new one.
In general, there exists a commitment to football at Vanderbilt. And that goes deeper than cash. Many around the league believe the school has eased its entrance requirements for football players (though no one with a VU mortar board is likely to admit that). Whether it has or hasn’t, Franklin has still proven that a good recruiter can lure 3- and 4-star recruits to Vanderbilt. And that might be Franklin’s biggest gift to the school. He’s provided a blueprint for the next guy.
Whoever replaces Franklin will know which buttons to push on the recruiting trail. He’ll know that a “50-year plan” and a world-class education will sell to a lot of mamas and papas. He’ll be able to tell recruits — as Franklin has — that they can a) play in the best NFL preparatory conference in the nation, b) win games and go to bowl games, c) get a diploma from one of the most respected institutions of higher-learning in the US, and d) they can do it all while living in one of the nation’s most vibrant cities, filled with museums and libraries and concert halls. No other SEC school can boast that combination. No other SEC school can even come close to that, in fact. And while we doubt many of Franklin’s recruits have hit town, unpacked, and headed straight for a museum, that doesn’t mean parents haven’t liked that pitch.
Franklin has also shown that winning isn’t impossible at the West End school. He’s benefited from what have turned out to be pretty easy non-conference schedules, yes, but in this day and age you can go 2-6 or 3-5 in the SEC and still reach one of the 30+ bowl games now in existence. Ask Dan Mullen.
And what better time for a new coach to enter the SEC East? Missouri just went from 2-6 in the East to division champs. Florida’s coach is on a red-hot seat. South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier will soon turn 69 and he — like Franklin at VU — is just about the only coach to have success at his school in the past 100 years. There are no guarantees Carolina’s program will continue to excel post-Spurrier. Tennessee is likely to be mediocre again as Butch Jones tries to re-stock the Vols’ roster. And Kentucky is still at the bottom with Mark Stoops having to basically start from scratch. Who knows if/when Tennessee or Kentucky ever find stability?
Granted, last year’s jump by Mizzou suggests that our views now might not mesh with what actually occurs over the next couple of seasons… but on paper, the East is the place to be if you want to make three million bones a year and coach in the SEC.
But there is one problem. Whoever replaces Franklin will have to replace an extremely popular coach. If he does something out of step with his predecessor’s work he’ll probably hear a few, “Franklin didn’t do it like that” comments from the cheap seats. (That’s ironic because if Franklin takes the Penn State job he’ll definitely be told how he differs from Joe Paterno.)
Franklin did more than just go 6-6, too. The last two seasons he’s gone 9-4. He’s won his bowl games. He’s won two in a row against in-state rival Tennessee. While it’s possible Franklin could continue along on that same path, history suggests otherwise. At some point even Franklin would face a rebuilding year. If Franklin jets and a new guy arrives in time for a 6-6 campaign, he’ll be judged against his predecessor’s 9-4 campaigns.
And what if Franklin has squeezed the absolute maximum from the Commodore program? Coaches are cocky fellows. Most of them believe that they can win anywhere in the country. But good coaches also tend to have shrewd agents. Agents who’ll say, “Why not pass on Vanderbilt for the time being… let someone else prove that they can keep that ball rolling.”
So despite all of the positives of the Franklin era to date — and there’s no guarantee his run is ending — Vanderbilt will still face some obstacles in grabbing another coach. For that reason, the school will probably once again have to find an up-and-comer. They just won’t have to go grab an assistant with no Southern ties who no one in the SEC region knows a thing about. (Although Williams showed last time that that kind of hire sure can work.)
Post-Franklin, the Dores should be able to lure in a fiery, young D-I coach from a school outside the five power conferences that are set to dominate the College Football Playoff era. In other words, a somewhat proven up-and-comer who wants to play with the big boys. That shows how far Franklin, Williams and Vanderbilt brass have taken the job in just three short years. Why the last time Vandy was able to lure in a head coach from another Division I school was in 1985 when Watson Brown — a middle Tennessee native and VU alum — climbed on board from Rice.
Would it be easy to replace Franklin? No. It’s never easy for any school to replace a winner (check Alabama’s track record post-Bryant and then post-Stallings). But that doesn’t mean the Vanderbilt job isn’t a more attractive job than its been at any point since Dan McGugin stepped down in 1934. It is. And Franklin has already proven a man can win at Vandy.
So if Franklin does leave for his home state of Pennsylvania, there shouldn’t be too much handwringing in the Music City. Vanderbilt now has something provable to sell. That — and three-plus million bucks per year — should create the best pool of job candidates Vandy has seen in football’s modern era.