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November 29, 2012

To keep Franklin, VU must execute its own plan

It has long been said that there are two certainties to life: death and taxes. But at Vanderbilt, there's a third: if a coach becomes successful, competing schools will come calling.

Every time a Vanderbilt coach does something significant, there's always rampant rumors that he or she is headed out of town for greener pastures -- and that is certainly the case again with coach James Franklin. Look around the Rivals network and review the coaching Hot Boards published at schools that are now shopping for a head football coach. The odds are excellent that Franklin's name will be on, or even at the top, of their list of candidates.

It comes with VU's territory. And it is by no means unique to football.

The Corbin plan

When Tim Corbin arrived at Vanderbilt as a so-called unproven assistant from Clemson, it was en vogue for media and opposing fan bases to proclaim he would never succeed at what was supposed to be the worst job in the Southeastern Conference. History was on their side, of course, because Vanderbilt had drawn up the rear of the nation's strongest baseball conference for the vast majority of the SEC's history.

Vanderbilt, though, was undeterred. The school did something different that time, something that other schools had done with success, but VU had never really tried. It invested in SEC-level facilities and resources, and it gave Corbin a financial reason to stick around for the long term.

Corbin turned down Auburn, despite the fact that the Tigers had just built a new state-of-the-art baseball field. Instead, Corbin got Vandy to build a better one.

Then LSU called, and rolled out the blueprints for Alex Box Stadium. Corbin went back to Vandy, and VU responded with a handful of face cards: a new indoor batting facility, and a computer-driven pitching facility.

And Vandy also responded with a contract that reflected not just how much it wanted Corbin to stay, but how much it believed he could continue to elevate the program if he did stay.

Even Nike couldn't pry Corbin away from Williams, Nashville, and the unique culture of VU.

The very program Corbin built was enough to keep him working within it. In the end, Corbin couldn't imagine letting anyone else run the program he built in his image.

That's a pretty smart strategy if you're Vanderbilt: hire leaders with know-how and integrity, ask them what they need to succeed, give it to them, and then force them to have to renege on the very plan they devised, executed and now are suitably paid to manage.

Franklin finds himself exactly where Corbin was heading into Year 3. Schools that never would have returned his phone call when he was an assistant at Maryland now want to treat him to steak dinners. Promises, praises and plaudits are being thrown at Franklin's feet as though he were Jesus Christ himself walking into town on Palm Sunday.

Of course, nothing sells message board hits more than rumors. They are flying like flapjacks at the Pancake Pantry. Franklin is gone. Franklin is begging for an offer. Even one local journalist called Franklin a liar on a local sports radio talk show.

In the end, no one can really know how this latest chapter in Vanderbilt's coaching story will end. But you can be assured it is by no means the last chapter in this book.

Contracts are key

Vanderbilt has done an awful lot right since the dark days of Chancellor Wyatt. Williams -- who teaches law at Vanderbilt -- with then chancellor Gordon Gee, has reworked every coach's contract in ways that many schools have now copied. They have long terms -- usually seven years -- that automatically roll over so long as the program reaches agreed-to goals. In other words, if coaches continue to do well, they are virtually guaranteed a de facto lifetime contract.

The new contracts also have significant, and in some cases prohibitive, buyouts that stretch well into seven figures. They also feature higher-than-industry-standard bonuses for a wide range of accomplishments, including academic performance, ticket sales, and of course post-season success.

They also include salaries that exceed almost all NCAA coaching packages -- both for head and assistant coaches. Franklin, still a relatively new and unproven head coach, has a higher salary than the one Derrick Dooley had at Tennessee. Kevin Stallings, Melanie Balcomb and Tim Corbin both are among the highest-paid head coaches in their respective sports.

And I'm not talking top 100. I'm talking top 20, and sometimes, top 10. In the NCAA.

As a private institution, VU does not release any information on their employment contracts. But VandySports.com believes Franklin makes around $3 million a year, plus incentives. In other words, Franklin makes twice as much one year than Fogler -- the two-time National Coach of the Year -- made during his entire Vanderbilt coaching tenure.

But perhaps even more important, Vanderbilt now doesn't just sit and wait for schools to force its hand to continue to fairly compensate success. VU gets, and remains, far ahead of the curve whenever a coach is feeling as if they deserve a little better deal than they currently have. Williams helped renegotiated Franklin's initial contract, is believed to be doing so again this year, and often re-upped agreements for other coaches without the pressure of an impending courtship from another school.

That strategy has worked. The last time Vanderbilt has lost a coach of a men's revenue-producing sport to another school was 19 years ago, when Eddie Fogler went to then-new SEC member South Carolina. Fogler made a paltry $250,000 salary, had no buyout, worked for an athletics director that had virtually no respect inside our outside the school, and a chancellor that did not support athletics in the least.

But at this level, it takes more than just high salaries to keep great coaches. Coaches and athletes don't want to just make a lot of money. They want to win. And when you're in the SEC the last thing you want is to have to sell a recruiting story that few will believe, and take media barbs that have no good answer.

Vanderbilt should follow its own advice

To avoid losing Franklin, Vanderbilt needs to learn from history -- its own history -- and follow its own advice.

When athletics director David Williams and chancellor Nick Zeppos stood at the podium to introduce Franklin as its new head coach, the two of them made a fairly unprecedented admission. They admitted they missed their chance to push the football program forward when the opportunity arrived back when the school had won the Music City Bowl.

That season included a 5-0 record, national ranking, and ESPN College Game Day. It could, and should, have given the school the PR firepower to take a big chunk out of the to-do list to get serious about competing long term in SEC football.

Vanderbilt, however, saw the opportunities and basically did almost nothing.

It added no significant new donors. It brought in few if any new sponsors. And, perhaps most importantly, it did the bare minimum in terms of facilities upgrades.

Sure, it made a lot of vague promises to then coach Bobby Johnson, but with no ready donors and fresh off of completing the baseball facilities, the willpower waned. Truth be told, this may have been part of the reason Johnson decided it was best if he bowed out and let someone else fight the battles. He just didn't have the desire to try to better a 2-10 record and fight city hall for facilities that would give him a chance to repeat or better his 6-5 season.

It's not that Vanderbilt didn't, or doesn't now, want to be at the highest level. But when you have done almost nothing for decades, when your competitors have spent money like it was water, the job ahead is daunting. Johnson, to his credit, knew he didn't have the energy to take it on and backed out.

Williams needed, and found, the next Tim Corbin

Williams knew his next coach could not just be a good tactician. He had to be a great coach, but he also had to be a tireless leader. Williams is known to have wanted Franklin even when the school was pursing a deal with Gus Malzahn, and stuck by him even when fans and media implied Franklin was not qualified and not prepared to take on the responsibilities.

Franklin has energized and aggravated fans for his take-no-prisoners approach -- mixed with a genuine love to mix with fans and make the program in his own image.

One might remember that Corbin was the same way when he arrived. And Corbin's Way is largely responsible for sending not one, but two, Tennessee baseball coaches to the unemployment line -- and about a half-dozen recruits to the Major Leagues (so far). Today, most Tennessee fans are resigned to the fact that Vanderbilt baseball is now virtually unstoppable. VU has figured out the formula, and now just keeps stirring it up year after year.

Football facilities have to be the priority

When Franklin arrived, he knew Vanderbilt's football stadium was aged beyond its time. But he was shocked to see the relative disrepair all across the football program. Broken locks on athletics lockers. Peeling paint on fences. Elevators that looked and operated as if they had been installed when Dudley Field was built. The list goes on.

So far, VU has done its part. It rebuilt the locker rooms to the level that Franklin is proud to show them to recruits. It have enhanced the office areas, so that current and potential student athletes are excited to spend time watching film and going over game plans. It tore out the grass playing field at Vanderbilt Stadium and installed state-of-the-art turf -- the best money can buy. It put in badly-needed new lights, making it not feel so dark and dingy for night games that are now the rule rather than the exception.

It also spiffed up the locker rooms just off the field at Dudley; they're not the Taj Mahal, but they're pretty nice.

Of course, there's also a spectacular new high-definition video board and a seating hill in the north end zone. For the first time, game day sort of feels like Game Day on West End Avenue.

And, of course, Vanderbilt and key boosters also rallied support to build an indoor practice facility that will be competitive with much larger Division 1 football programs.

Vanderbilt, it seems, is learning from its mistakes.

So far, so good -- but the next step is now here

Vanderbilt has gotten the first half of the equation right: it now likely won't lose a coach because another school simply has a seven figure bank account.

But that is not enough.

Had Vanderbilt not built and expanded Hawkins Field, a team clubhouse, indoor batting cages, and indoor pitching facility, no amount of money would have been enough to keep Corbin in Nashville. Though at times it certainly didn't feel that way to fans, Corbin wasn't trying to extort Vandy into paying him more money. He wanted to help pressure Vanderbilt to do what was in its own best interests. Build the program, so the program can eventually support itself.

All Franklin now wants is what Corbin got. And so far he, like Corbin, has proved he can deliver on his commitment so long as Vanderbilt continues to deliver on theirs.

Despite what many in the media want to believe, this is not territory Vanderbilt is unprepared to take. In fact, Vanderbilt would never have hired Franklin -- and then given him a new, more lucrative contract last year -- if it wasn't mentally and emotionally prepared to do its part on the other side. It is working way, way behind, but they are working. And by all indications, Vanderbilt soon will not only announce yet another new contract for Franklin, but even more significant facilities upgrades for the football program.

Of course, none of that will yet stop other schools from snooping on McGugin's doorstep. Schools where the football program often pays significant parts of the school's general fund will promise almost anything to a young coach that has integrity, can recruit true student athletes, knows his Xs and Os, and can win at the highest level.

But if Vanderbilt wants to survive in this battle of heavyweights, it has to be ready for the bell. It cannot be left scrambling for coins in the sofa, and dusting off old blueprints, when -- not if -- other schools come calling.

That's what it did with Stallings, Balcomb and Corbin. The game plan is proven to work. All it has to do is execute.


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