August 12, 2013

Franklin facing biggest test yet

NASHVILLE, TN -- For decades, Vanderbilt fans wondered what it might be like to have its favorite football team become a 24/7 media darling. Now, many may wish they had never found out.

As three year head football coach James Franklin welcomed what many estimated to be the largest fan attendance in school history to the program's annual Dore Jam party, just down Broadway three of its (former) own were being locked behind bars. What many had feared as the worst case scenario appears to be playing out: Brandon Vandenburg, Corey Batey, Top McKenzie and Brandon Banks have been officially indicted for allegedly raping an unconscious 21-year-old VU student in a Vanderbilt dorm room. All were also charged with two counts of aggravated sexual battery.

According to police records, the alleged acts occurred at Vandenburg's Gillette House dorm room on June 23. All four have been formerly charged with four counts of aggravated rape. Vandenburg has also been accused of not only taking a photograph from the crime scene, he has also been charged with Photoshopping the photo.

Batey, the only one of the four who lives in Tennessee, turned himself in to police on Friday. McKenzie, from Woodville, MS, did the same Saturday morning, and according to reports Vandenburg-who lives in Indio, CA-did so early this morning at Nashville International Airport. Banks, from Brandywine, MD, reportedly turned himself in this morning.

There had been hopeful speculation that the long silence between the four's dismissal from Vanderbilt and formal Nashville Metro Police action might infer that the entire incident might have been overblown. Now, reality is setting in.

This isn't going away any time soon. And it doesn't look good for any of the four.

For his part, Franklin-no doubt with copious assistance from VU's legal and PR teams-has played this one by the book and so far appears to have successfully distanced himself from the incident. Franklin was actually on vacation with his family at Seaside, FL during the week the alleged rapes occurred. No one has gone so far as to suggest this happened because of a lack of discipline or leadership on his part.

But the reality is, while this story is entering its latter stages in Nashville, it's going to be front page news every time Franklin first stands in front of a microphone on an SEC road trip. And opposing media won't know or care about the back story of how strict and stern Franklin is with his team regarding conduct on and off the field. They're going to go with the easy story, true or not:

Vanderbilt has indeed hit the big time of college football. In every sense of the meaning.

The entire scenario came to light entirely by happenstance. VU had become concerned about rising theft within its dormitories, and had upped its surveillance with around-the-clock video recording of its dorm's semi-public areas. As a part of its heightened security routines, a Vanderbilt staffer was reviewing one of dozens of dorm video tapes, and saw something that looked very out of the ordinary.

He/she saw an unconscious girl being carried into a male student's dorm room, with three other males in tow. Apparently, the video was so compelling that no one who reviewed it, including Franklin, had any doubt what had been recorded. Quick questioning of the four student athletes confirmed the worst, and the school acted quickly.

Instead of working overtime to sweep it under the rug-as no doubt many of not most big time football programs would (and have) done-VU did the opposite. It immediately alerted the Nashville police department. The rest, as they say, is history.

So far, it seems that while Vanderbilt has handled this as well as they possibly could. Even VU's most strident media critics have found nothing that would indicate the school hasn't done precisely what they should have done to bring justice to those involved.

VU fans feel it most

For as long as Vanderbilt has been the only academic-minded private school in the SEC, Commodore fans have proudly proclaimed its students to be different from the rest. While there is little doubt VU's athletics culture has an entirely different agenda than that of most Division 1 members, the fact is, when you get 150 or so teenaged boys together in one place, some bad things are going to happen.

As every parent knows, no matter how hard to try to get kids to listen and take responsibility for their actions, kids will be kids. Some will get it. Some will not.

Fortunately, these sorts of incidents don't seem to happen very often at Vanderbilt. Much of that has to do with the fact that VU is easily the smallest campus in the SEC. With fewer heads to count, and most living on campus, it's much easier to keep things in line.

Easier, but not easy. Anyone who knows Coach Franklin (and his assistants) understands how heart-broken he is at what has happened. Since that first day he stood in front of a microphone on West End, he has proclaimed that things were going to change in Vanderbilt football, that it would become just as successful as every other area of VU. No matter how you slice it, this is a set-back of massive proportions.

Not so much because of the impact it has in the media. The fact of the matter is, Vanderbilt will never be the cat's meow of the big time press. Even if Vanderbilt had a spotless student conduct record and went undefeated in the SEC, most of the media would find the grey lining around the silver cloud. It just comes with VU's territory.

But this has been a blow to the bow of his fast-advancing Black and Gold battleship because it strikes at the heart of the kind of loyalty and trust that he has begged for from Vanderbilt fans. Of course it was naive even for VU fans to believe their school had no dirty laundry. But there is no way to put a Vandy-happy spin on what happened on June 23. Many Vanderbilt fans are rightfully shocked, embarrassed and angry.

So far, Vandy fans don't seem to be angry with Franklin. That's because Franklin has always proclaimed that this was Vanderbilt's football program, and not his, and he felt wholly responsible for everything that happened within it. Franklin (when he has had the rare ability to suggest a comment on the subject) has never pointed a finger anywhere but in the mirror. Franklin leads from the front. People trust him. And he knows that trust comes with a cost.

Many in the media have suggested that the reason Franklin looks so good so far is because he is being well-coached by his VU legal council. But that sells Franklin far too short. He knows better than anyone how sensitive this is, and how potentially damaging it could be to his turnaround crusade.

What happens next?

No one can know what might happen in court. Grand Jury's almost never dismiss cases of this nature without a trial. One or all four could be found innocent-though at this stage that is extremely unlikely. Five other Vanderbilt football players have been subpoenaed to testify in the trial(s), including starting quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels. Nothing seems to indicate that any of the five have been accused of having played a part in the alleged incident, only of having the ability to confirm details in court. If Franklin gets his way, and no doubt he will, all will tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but.

Going forward, if there is any good thing that can come from his, it's that VU can show how to best handle these sorts of situations. That extends to the VU football players who are friends with Vandenburg, Banks, McKenzie and Batey. It certainly includes those who will be required to testify against them.

The best Vanderbilt can do going forward is to use this as an example of how seemingly simple campus stuff can turn into a life-altering disaster of nuclear proportions. Things can change fast, and the ramifications can be awesome. Imagine being the parent of any of these five kids and getting "that call." As a parent, that's the nightmare from which you never awake.

We can all hope that as VU football gains more of the spotlight, this will be the last time Franklin has to spend as much time in legal briefings as he does in the film room. It'll be the biggest test of his young career. But if he treats this as he has the seemingly insurmountable hurdles he's crossing on the football field, he'll pass this one, too.

It just won't be easy.

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