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January 4, 2013

Five final thoughts

As the book closes on the 2012 football season, there is much to reflect upon. After starting out with a 2-4 record, head coach James Franklin proved he was up to the challenge of turning around what has been the lowest profile football program in the SEC. VU won nine games for the first time in almost a century -- including a seven win streak -- won four SEC road games, and went to back-to-back bowl games for the first time in school history.

So, in retrospect, here's five main topics that emerge as the final chapter of the 2012 football season.

1. Franklin is the man for this job

Going to the Liberty Bowl in Year 1 was an unexpected bonus for VU in Franklin's first year, but what he did in Year 2 was, quite honestly, jaw dropping for even the most cynical college sports fan. While it is easy to throw stones at the previous coaching regime, the fact of the matter is James Franklin has willed Vanderbilt's football program to success unlike any of his predecessors.

And by any, I mean any. Over the last decade, the SEC has established itself as the dominant football conference in the NCAA. Bobby Johnson brought all of the star players that Franklin rode to nine wins and back-to-back bowl games -- but there is no longer any doubt that it is Franklin's energy, focus and organization that has turned, and will continue to turn, the program around.

While Franklin has ruffled feathers among media for daring to believe VU was not predestined for football failure, he has at the same time ignited excitement and commitment among fans and boosters to be a part of what he continues to call "the greatest turnaround in college football history." Maybe Franklin is crazy, but he is crazy like a fox. He has the audacity of Gerry DiNardo, but mixes that with a genuine love of people and an innate understanding of how to make all the little things add up to one big, awesome picture.

Some naysayers have pointed out that Vanderbilt "only" beat the teams it should have beaten, and until the NC State game had not beaten a team with a winning record. Here's what I say to that:

The day that Vanderbilt should expect to beat Tennessee, Auburn, Missouri, Ole Miss, Wake Forest and NC State is a as good a proof of a turnaround as any I could imagine.

Furthermore, let me also point out that three of Vanderbilt's opponents would have gone to bowl games had they not lost to VU: Tennessee, Missouri and Wake Forest.

Who knows how far Vanderbilt can go under Franklin's leadership? If you'd have told me this VU team would start out 2-4 and go on to win nine games, I would have laughed you out of the room. If you'd have told me in August that VU would in effect draw 45,000 fans to a bowl game and physically dominate NC State, I simply would not have taken that bet. If you'd have said Boyd and Matthews would be the best receiving duo in the SEC, I'd have said, Prove it.

Franklin proved it.

There will always be those who relish taking take shots at Vanderbilt, who will never choose to put a winning context on VU football. But that is life in college athletics, and it is always going to be a part of Vanderbilt's place in the college football landscape.

But you'd have to be a former UT football coach to not admit that James Franklin has already done more to put VU football on a truly competitive platform than any coach since Steve Sloan. And considering where the SEC is today, there is simply no comparison to what Franklin -- and Vanderbilt's administration -- have done to put the Commodore football program on the map.

2. Vanderbilt's administration won't go away quietly

While Vanderbilt has a long way to go to catch up with the Floridas, LSUs, Tennessees and Georgias of the world, they have put their money where their SEC membership is in 2012. They got ahead of the curve -- twice -- and renegotiated Franklin's employment contract. Franklin, by most all accounts, is now among the best paid football coaches in college football, making (we believe) around $3 million a year. That contract has a significant buyout that will make it very difficult for another school to throw couch change at Franklin and see him walk out the door.

Perhaps just as important, assistants have generous enough compensation packages that they don't fell they have no choice but take what offers may come from other schools.

But hand in hand, VU also seems to have gotten the memo on facilities improvements. They renovated many of the day-to-day facilities, like locker rooms, that the players use. They put money into coaching offices, film study areas and public spaces in McGugin. And, most notably, they finally found a way to build an indoor practice facility.

And word is there is more to come. It seems pretty certain VU will build a new, state-of-the-art, strength and conditioning area/facility that will be on par with their SEC counterparts. And, there is word that the school will take an exhaustive look at the long term viability of Vanderbilt Stadium, and do whatever it takes to put the school's football playing facility on par with the stature Memorial Gym and Hawkins Field own in basketball and baseball.

3. Fans seem to be responding

Vanderbilt's season ticket package sales for 2012 were ahead of the previous season, and the school believes it can significantly better that total for 2013. Also of note, Vanderbilt sold more than 18,000 tickets to the Music City Bowl. Only Ole Miss sold more bowl tickets in the SEC than VU did this season.

But you cannot miss the street cred Franklin has gained when you walk around town. Used to be you couldn't even find Vanderbilt apparel in local department stores; During this year's bowl season, it's hard to find it in stock.

Franklin won't be satisfied with the new level of fan excitement. There were still many empty seats at some SEC home games, and LP Field appeared to be about 20,000 seats short of a sellout for the Music City Bowl. But it seems clear that Vandy fans are responding to the new momentum and are taking to the streets in support of the program.

4. Recruiting is on the rise

Rivals currently ranks Vanderbilt's 2013 recruiting class as No. 14 in the NCAA. That's currently ahead of South Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi State, Arkansas, Kentucky, Ole Miss and Auburn. And if that ranking holds true on National Signing Day, it would mark the most heralded VU class since Rivals started covering recruiting.

Headlining the class are 4-stars Nigel Bowden (LB) and Jonathan McCrary (QB), as well as one-time Florida commit Tre Bell (DB) and star Alabama running back Jonathan Ford. And like last year, all of Vanderbilt's commitments rank no lower than 3 stars on Rivals' rankings, a distinction no other SEC school could claim last year, and likely won't claim this year.

Franklin still has hopes of landing 5-star safety Leon McQuay III and 4-star Nashville Ensworth running back Corn Elder. Getting even one of those recruits might push Vanderbilt close to Top 10 in the nation. But even if those two don't fall into Franklin's corner, other elite prospects will be there for Franklin to grab at the end. Franklin started recruiting with a sprint, and has only furthered the distance between his program and many others thought to have immovable advantages.

5. Subscriptions follow football success

About six years ago, Chris Lee and I had a meeting with Rivals brass to review our site's current state. At that time, we were losing money, and nothing really seemed to push the needle all that dramatically in terms of new subscribers. We were told in that meeting that, in effect, we were doomed to be an also-ran among SEC communities and would never be a profitable venture in terms of dollars and cents.

In other words, be happy with having a website, and don't expect things to change.

At one point during that era, we attended an annual Rivals publishers conference and were literally laughed at by other site publishers when it was suggested from the stage that we might have some good ideas to boost interest and membership.

Well, those days are gone, and we believe for good. Our current membership is now double the total that Rivals then told us was our projected maximum market potential. And at this past summer's Rivals publishers conference, VandySports.com was actually recognized as one of the communities to watch for up-and-coming sites that had a relatively small potential market base.

Chris Lee now hosts a Saturday morning radio show on local sports/talk FM 102.5 The Game, Jesse Johnson is recognized as one of the best recruiting analysts in the Rivals network, and our game day photography is recognized as the state of the art throughout the online sports media.

Here's one fact that all Rivals sites know: Nothing pushes the subscription needle like a coaching search -- and especially a football coaching search. When VU had to replace Robbie Caldwell, we entered uncharted territory. Because of our many deep relationships throughout the VU community, we had access to the true story of what was happening that no other sports outlet could get. And as a result, our site traffic skyrocketed, and subscriptions followed.

And the great news is, we've kept almost all of those new members. Message Board traffic has settled into a new sort of normal, and premium content streams out as never before.

We realize, of course, that our total market potential is always going to be smaller than the other SEC communities, simply because VU is not its state's namesake public university. But VandySports.com is now entrenched as the de facto place to be for hard core Vandy fans, and is recognized among the Nashville media as the most prominent and credible source for insider VU athletics news -- especially as it relates to recruiting and game analysis.

This past year has not has not been easy. In fact, it has in many ways been the most difficult and unpredictable year we've ever had. But as the web has matured, and Rivals has settled in with Yahoo, VandySports.com can now proudly claim to be among the most surprising success stories in all of the Web sports world.

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