James Franklin (VM/Stan Jones)
It will be left to others to assess the behavior of Todd Grantham, James Franklin, and anyone else who had a central role in Saturday night’s postgame confrontation. The purpose of this particular column is to underscore one simple real-world reality: The stakes just got much higher for Vanderbilt University’s football program.
Four years ago, you will recall that Georgia players (who would stomp in the Florida Gators’ end zone two weeks later) acted up in the aftermath of a win over Vanderbilt by stomping on the Commodores’ midfield logo. On that night in Nashville, Bulldog coach Mark Richt told his team to handle itself with class, the act of a man trying to perform damage control. Now, another Georgia-VU game at Vanderbilt Stadium has been overshadowed by a postgame incident. This one has much more to say about the Commodores than about Georgia.
In 2007, Georgia owned a prominent place in the sport and felt it had something to lose. Vanderbilt was still toiling away in obscurity, so it was easy to ignore the place of coach Bobby Johnson’s team in the larger scheme of things. This time around, VU has begun to gain national notice under Franklin, the confident and energetic coach who is selling the program with a forthright confidence that has been missing in the past. Johnson, the man who delivered a winning season and a bowl bid to VU in 2008, gave much to the Vanderbilt program, but it would be hard to claim that he ever had a realistic chance of pushing the program beyond an eight-win ceiling. With Franklin, things already felt different when the recruits began signing on the dotted line and the mood on campus began to acquire a buzz that can’t be faked.
Yes, I had my doubts about Franklin on the day that he was hired (and I voiced them), but the former Maryland assistant quickly demolished many of the foremost doubts that hovered over his tenure. His ability to inject energy, belief and optimism into the Vanderbilt program obliterated the notion that Franklin represented an uninspired hire by the school’s administration. He’s not a fully-made coach or a sure-fire success in his profession, but Franklin’s first offseason turned heads throughout the United States, giving Vanderbilt the value and visibility that had been lacking even during the joyride of 2008. It was impossible to deny Franklin’s short-term impact on VU football, and everything that has transpired over the first half of a transitional season has only reinforced the belief that he’s going to improve the program.
Saturday night, however, the primary discussion ceased to surround the new vibe at Vanderbilt. It became a lot more serious, a lot more real. James Franklin’s tenure already carried a potent mixture of promise and risk, a combustible combination of potential and uncertainty, but his confrontation with Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, followed by his pointed postgame press conference, marks a moment of heightened drama. Much more than that, the Grantham standoff links Franklin with Vanderbilt University in a manner that can’t be overstated.
In his postgame presser, Franklin said that he’s tired of seeing Vanderbilt get kicked around, tired of taking punishment and abuse from other teams. He didn’t mince words: “We're also going to fight and I want to make sure everybody understands that,” Franklin said. “We are not going to sit back and take stuff from anybody. Anybody. No one. Those days are long gone and they are never coming back. Ever."
That’s the statement of a man who is going – pardon the cliché – “all in” for his current employer. That’s the statement of a man who is drawing a line in the sand with the full and unreserved intention of making Vanderbilt University a special place to play football. That’s the statement of a man who yearns, in his bones and marrow, to become a program that can subdue Georgia and Florida and South Carolina and Tennessee on the field. Franklin manifested a degree of emotional investment that can’t be faked or manufactured. He’s taken hold of the VU job and embraced the university with a passion that has rightly captured the attention of the college football community. Now, his identity as a Vanderbilt man runs far deeper, which is both perilous and yet terrifically exciting for Franklin. His tenure at Vanderbilt, already a highly-desired job, now takes on the aura of a calling, a great mission, a pursuit laced with an almost-spiritual aspect. Franklin might have entered this Georgia game as the best salesman the VU program ever could have hoped for. Now, after his staredown with Grantham, Franklin is more like a missionary, and necessarily so: The fate of his coaching career – the height he either attains or misses – is now inextricably linked with his performance in Nashville. Franklin has to amount to a success at Vanderbilt to become a success as a coach.
It has to be noted that roughly 17 hours after the Franklin-Grantham clash, Jim Harbaugh and Jim Schwartz locked verbal antlers in the aftermath of the San Francisco 49ers-Detroit Lions NFL game. You could say that both men behaved like little kids, and that neither one looked like a bigger, more impressive figure when their sorry episode ran its course. That might be true, and the same verdict might be applicable to Grantham-Franklin, but no matter what you might think about the behaviors of the principals involved, it’s clear that their reputations as coaches now occupy center stage. Harbaugh and Schwartz will receive 100 times more scrutiny after their juvenile handshake and the domino effect it created. Similarly, James Franklin has now risen to place of greater prominence in the Southeastern Conference. If he falls, he’ll feel the impact that much more as a result of this past weekend’s postgame scene. If he rises, he and the Vanderbilt football brand will look that much more attractive to recruits.
In the meantime, VU’s challenges remain a work in a progress, a project to be solved in three or four seasons. The things you saw on the field against Georgia have been happening for quite some time. The almost-but-not-yet-there aspect to the Dores’ five-point loss is something that’s become very familiar to Vandy fans over the decades. Franklin won’t solve those problems right away, but his ability to eventually transform the program is now an even more urgent task.
You might have entered Saturday night’s game thinking that James Franklin’s tenure had injected a considerable amount of excitement into Vanderbilt football and the everyday life of the program. Now, that statement – still true – owns so much more heft and meaning.
Thank you, Todd Grantham: Your incendiary act just made Vanderbilt’s head football coach that much more invested in his program, potentially creating the spark that will make seasons bright in Nashville.