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January 7, 2014
It's time for Zeppos to call a Money Play
Every Vandy fan knows what those three letters stand for.
If you want the stare of death, say "SOV" to anyone in the Vanderbilt athletics department. If looks could kill, you'd die a thousand deaths.
Same. Old. Vandy.
For decades, it's been the curse of the past that poisons the future.
Coach after coach has tried in vain to change the perception that Vanderbilt is where promising young coaches go to die. Gerry DiNardo came the closest to changing things, and he slipped out the back door to LSU after receiving one of the un-holiest butt whippings cross-state rival Tennessee had ever levied on a VU football team.
After DiNardo's departure came season after season of promises with little to show for it. Vanderbilt officials would go through coaching searches and trot out its latest, greatest answer. Fans would rally, albeit fewer every year. And the results were almost always the same.
Same. Old. Vandy.
Coaches would come and go, bleed on the sidelines for wins, and eventually admit that, while in theory it may be possible to have a Southeastern Conference-level football program, it just wasn't possible in reality. Because the best and worst thing about Vandy football is that it plays in the best college football league in America.
In the arms race, Vandy would get better, but so would everyone else.
There have always been smart people working over on West End. It would be terribly unfair to paint everyone with the same broad brush of indifference. It cared. It just lacked the willpower and political capital to do what it would take to be competitive in the SEC.
Enter James Franklin.
His name is synonymous with willpower. No one who has ever set foot on that campus has had the audacity, optimism, and yes, some would say arrogance, he possesses in every cell of his being. The man does not use the word "no." It is never impossible.
If you mistake Franklin's drama as schtick, you simply do not understand the man. It isn't a schtick if it is fake. It ain't fake if you can get it done.
Franklin talks about "Money Plays". Some call them trick plays. He calls them plays that work for big yardage. Franklin knows that when people talk about trick plays it is a bit of my slap in the face. He doesn't care. He'd run the Statue of Liberty play every single down if it works.
Right now, Franklin is calling a Money Play, and he's betting the game on it. Franklin wants a stadium fitting of an SEC football program, and he's wanting Vanderbilt to make an iron-clad commitment to it.
Vanderbilt's football iron is red hot
Franklin is perhaps the hottest coaching name in the business. He spent yesterday on ESPN's national championship pre-game shows, talking pigskin with Nick Saban and Lou Holtz. And Franklin did so as Vanderbilt's football coach. He wore a black and gold tie, a Vanderbilt lapel pin and even flashed the VU hand sign for the cameras.
He has also been the star of the coaching search circuit. Texas was interested. He may be Penn State's top choice. If that doesn't come through, make no mistake, there will be others. According to ESPN, he is interviewing with the Washington Redskins this week.
Many fans are wondering what the heck he is doing. Is he just stringing VU along only to make it look like chumps?
Let's just say what we believe to be true: Franklin does not want to leave Vanderbilt. At least not yet. It's his program. He's relished being the underdog and succeeding in spite of everything. He doesn't want to see someone else come in and screw it up. He wants to see his kids win games and go to the NFL.
But he wants to push the ball another full length forward with the program. He wants championships, and not just SEC East championships. That sounds crazy, but Franklin, who admittedly has always been a little crazy himself, has already made crazy things happen: VU has just finished in the Top 25 two-straight years. In order to do more of the impossible, he's using every ounce of his energy and ability to push Vandy to do what it should have done decades ago: make the stadium a lot nicer. Not Alabama or Texas A&M-level, but at least make it to the point where he doesn't have to explain the stadium away to recruits who visit on game days.
Honestly, is that too much to ask?
When Franklin was introduced as VU's coach, chancellor Nick Zeppos proudly and brazenly stated he would build Franklin "a rocket ship" if he needed it. So where is that confidence and commitment now? Fans who have put their money where Zeppos's mouth is demand to know.
Word around the school is that Vanderbilt is committed to continuing to do whatever it takes to be successful. And it is moving as fast as it can.
For Franklin, that appears to not be fast enough. Word is that Franklin wants Vanderbilt to put its promises in writing. He wants to know exactly when a significant stadium renovation will begin, and end.
Corbin proved what is possible with world class facilities
Vanderbilt crossed this road 10 years ago when baseball coach Tim Corbin cajoled, coerced and yes, some would say threatened Vanderbilt into building what is now considered one of the nicest collections of baseball facilities in the NCAA. Corbin said he'd contend for national championships if that happened. It was expensive and difficult, but can anybody deny it's one of the best things VU athletics has ever done?
If Vanderbilt is willing to walk the plank and just bet that Franklin won't saw it off, that could be a catastrophic bet. Franklin, if anything, is a brinksman. He will land a helicopter in the end zone of a football field if it will help him land a star recruit. Does anyone truly believe he wouldn't go elsewhere if he doesn't get what he wants?
If not now, when?
There's no doubt that Franklin seizes every moment, every time, to push the issue with his employers. He's pushed for, and gotten, an incredible amount of things in a short time, and even with that, patience is still not his strong suit.
In that context, anyone can understand how Vanderbilt can love James Franklin and yet feel exasperated with him at the same time, wondering if it will ever make him happy.
But making it about "what Franklin wants" is missing the point and unfair to Franklin. He's the caretaker of the program and he's looking out for its best interest, just as Corbin did. He knows better than anyone that Vanderbilt history dictates you'd better strike where the iron is hot.
And in its pep talks to fans, Vanderbilt officials have made grand statements about being a world-class university, and how that includes all parts of the university. Ask anyone on the planet if Vanderbilt Stadium looks like an world-class facility. Not one would say yes.
Mr. Zeppos, that includes the 35,000 fans who traveled to Birmingham to support your university's football program, and the thousands more who might join them for future games if you're serious about this thing.
So why can't Vanderbilt, by all accounts one of the richest universities on the planet, not do what literally dozens of other schools with far less money and far lesser conferences have recently done, and create something nice? Like Houston. TCU. Cal. Baylor. Boise State. Wake Forest. Rutgers. Texas Tech. That's not close to being a complete list, but you get the point.
Fans want to know why some of the smartest minds on earth cannot make the most obvious commitment to the future.
And If not now, when?
When Franklin was introduced as head coach, Zeppos and then-vice chancellor David Williams admitted that they blew it when Bobby Johnson won the Music City Bowl. In retrospect they realized that they had missed the first, best opportunity to make a big leap forward. They did nothing to raise more funds or find new boosters with deep pockets. To research how to build facilities Johnson, or really any coach, needed to compete at this level.
They talked the talk. They did not walk the walk.
To be fair, Vanderbilt has poured millions into the football program since Franklin arrived, and much of that money is going to Franklin's salary. By some accounts, Franklin is paid more than only a dozen or so college football coaches. It built a terrific new indoor practice facility. It added a video board in the end zone. It is doubling the size of the training facility, and appears to be ramping up a football clubhouse on par with the one the baseball program enjoys.
Those, to be sure, are huge signs that VU knows what do to and is willing to do it.
None of those things come cheap. But they are all necessary pieces to the puzzle.
But they don't address the elephant in their living room. They know it. The fans know it. The recruits definitely know it. From the second he walked on campus, Franklin knew it, too.
In the end, Franklin is only voicing what the fans have been saying for decades
Franklin is doing what the fans want. He is demanding change and accepting nothing less.
Change will demand an amazing risk on Vanderbilt's part. It seems to have the will, but it says it doesn't have the the magic wand to create the cash. That might fly at Tennessee State, but at a school with one of the biggest endowments of any college in America, it falls on deaf ears with fans. Houston, Wake Forest and Baylor found a way. Vanderbilt, which comes from a much, much better starting point, must also.
As expensive as this is, the bigger price may be watching Franklin leave and seeing VU football slip back into irrelevance. See the quarter-century that followed VU's previous bowl appearance in Birmingham. Vanderbilt lost tens of thousands of fans in that period. Some died, others got sick of it all and abandoned VU.
Not until Franklin got here did Vanderbilt make any significant progress on building that fan base back. The school is at grave risk of losing those who have now flocked to the church that is James Franklin. And once they go, they won't come back.
If VU chooses to not take this opportunity sitting right in front of them -- an opportunity that makes Bobby Johnson's post-Music City Bowl opportunity pale in comparison -- how will Zeppos ever again be able to tell fans he will do whatever it takes to win? And if so, how can Zeppos look the next set of coaching candidates in the eye and convince them that Vanderbilt is the place to be?
Zeppos's predecessor, Gordon Gee, had his faults. But Gee also started the process to get Vanderbilt to where it it is now. He always led from the front. It is now Zeppos's time to do the same and take the burden of leadership off Franklin. That's the way Gee would have done it.
If Franklin ends up leaving and succeeds elsewhere, Zeppos will always have to face the question: how did he let Franklin leave over something so obvious as a football stadium in need of desperate repair? Why did he miss the opportunity to do something historic?
The game is on the line. It's time for Zeppos to call a Money Play.