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January 11, 2014

James Franklin flunks Vandy final

NASHVILLE, TN -- During James Franklin's mercurial three year stay as the CEO of Vanderbilt's football program, he made almost all the right moves.

So it is shocking and disarming to most that he so badly botched his final three weeks in Nashville.

Admittedly, there are not many good ways to leave a head coaching position. But the fact of the matter is, Franklin missed every one of them by a country mile.

It is ironic that on the day that Franklin appears to have verbally committed to sign a contract with Penn State, Bobby Petrino was re-signing with Louisville. That image of Bobby P in a neck brace goes down as one of the most iconic photos in the history of sports. Franklin doesn't have a neck brace, but somehow he managed to find a way to leave a school he made into a national power as The Most Hated Man in Town.

Up and quitting on the program you pledged to lead into the future would usually be enough to turn popular opinion against you. The way Franklin played out his end game lit up the very fans he'd drawn to support him.

Fans and even some of his Vanderbilt players took to Twitter like never before. The result was a head spinner: In a matter of about 24 hours, Franklin went from beloved savior to hated turncoat.

Thursday morning, Nashville's sports talk radio airwaves crackled with angry Vanderbilt fans, many who were the first to choose to go "all in" to support his mission. Some called him a liar and a fake. Others said he didn't know the meaning of the words he made famous, most notably the word commitment.

At VandySports.com, the largest Vanderbilt online fan community, members openly mocked Franklin. One message board thread was titled, Team Meeting Cliche Predictions, in which one site member quipped: "Going to be James Crocodile Tears Franklin at his finest, I'm sure." Another, "Take a shot [of alcohol] when he says I'm 1-0 in contract negotiations this week," a reference to Franklin answering all upcoming opponent questions with his stated goal of going 1-0 this week.

In another thread, a member conjectured what Franklin might say when he takes the podium to accept the PSU head coaching job:

"Being the Coach at [Penn State] has been my dream job going all the way back to when I didn't get the USC and Texas jobs 2 weeks ago. I'm really looking forward to the next 3 years here, or however long it takes me to either get fired or move onto either the Texas or USC jobs."

When the inevitable finally arrived this morning, thousands of Vandy fans showed their support of the players by lining the Star Walk, as the team arrived at McGugin for the inevitable announcement. Franklin never made himself available to the media or the fans. He snuck out a side door and off to the airport. At least one fan hurled a verbal expletive his way as he scampered from one room to another.

That has immediately spawned a hot new hashtag: #cowardlylion

Franklin always got what he wanted at Vandy, but it was never enough

To be sure, some of the greatest dramas in the history of sports have been played out by coaches and employers displaying the ugliness that comes when you combine big money with even bigger egos. And with Franklin, there has been plenty of both.

From Day 1, Vanderbilt's David Williams gave Franklin what he wanted: His first head coaching job, an (increasingly) obscene amount of money, and a laundry list of new facilities. In the end, it was not enough. And as the end game lingered on, it became increasingly clear that there was literally nothing Vanderbilt could do to convince Franklin to finish what he started.

But if you are shocked by the events of the last two weeks, consider who Williams hired. Franklin got the job because he proved he had a plan to get to the top. He had a self-published book that outlined every step, every detail. For a guy who preached the gospel of being "All In," Franklin lived it.

The guy truly believes he can do anything, and that's why he was successful at Vanderbilt. In his world, everything that happened was solely because of him.

But not everything can be solved with ego, bravado and smart planning. Franklin no doubt has now earned the hard way that when you preach all the time, what you practice at the hardest times is what lasts.

Not many men can hold up to that standard. Most men, in fact, fail. Franklin isn't used to failure, but he got a big fat F this week in the area of Integrity.

Compass Bowl cloak and dagger

While his Vandy players were basking in the glow of the Compass Bowl trophy, it's clear that Franklin was working overtime to turn his fame into new fortune somewhere else. There was an air of tension throughout the media in Birmingham, with journalists being told Vanderbilt's publicists that they were disallowed to ask Franklin about any potential job search.

Of course, all the cloak and dagger work did was pour gasoline on the fire. Rumors began to run rampant about secret interviews with Texas, the NFL's Texans, and yes Penn State. Every silent treatment response told you all you needed to know: It was becoming increasingly clear that Franklin was on the move, and it was not up I-65 to Nashville.

Now Franklin being named as a hot name on the coaching circuit is nothing new to Vandy fans. But the longer things played out, the more obvious it became that this was not business as usual.

For a coach who has never known how to stop talking, the silence coming from Franklin's Tweet-a-minute camp was deafening. Franklin literally disappeared from sight, with National Signing Day pounding ever closer.

To those who know what they are looking for, it became clear about two weeks ago that Franklin was gone. He was striking while his iron was as white hot as humanly possible. You can bet that's a chapter in his book. He executed it to perfection.

Too much time

Now, no one can really blame a young, upwardly mobile coach for taking an employment opportunity of several, if not several thousand, lifetimes. But to allow Williams and Vandy's boosters to run around with facilities plans with his name on them while he's planning his back door exit is just not the way you do these things.

Franklin told those at the AD that he was taking a family vacation to Destin. In reality, he ran to Florida to hide while he negotiated with the powers at PSU. Instead of looking forward to signing day, fans and players were watching flight tracking websites to follow the back-and-forth between Happy Valley and Panama City Beach. How quickly Franklin went from being All In, to Out the Door.

That is probably what Franklin's agent, Trace Armstrong, recommended, but it was a bad move that has come back to bite him inside the Vandy football program. Instead of dealing with Williams and Zeppos face to face, Franklin stuck to the comfortable control of the smart phone. Even as Penn State set up plans for their press conference, Franklin called around town, begging media people to believe he had not decided to go.

Whatever.

You don't go to that page of the Get Out of Town playbook unless you already know the outcome. Franklin knew his moving truck was already heading north. All he had to do was keep everyone in suspense for just a few more hours, until the very second the PSU Board of Trust gave their okay.

And once that happened, the press releases rolled out of the PSU AD. Including, of course, carefully worded quotes from Franklin that quite obviously had to have been written many days ago.

Vandy got a lot for their money out of Franklin, make no mistake about it. So did Vandy's fans. And this is how this game is played. But all deserved better than to be treated like chumps on his way out of town.

Cleaning up Franklin's mess

And the kids who came to VU almost solely because he promised he'd be here for them, what is their recourse? Three years is at least one year short of the commitment you demanded from them when you offered them "the opportunity of a lifetime."

Franklin convinced them that he was All In, and that they had to Anchor Down...or else. He even pulled the scholarship offer of Georgia linebacker Josh Dawson because he was looking around at other programs, and made a raucous display of it to boot. Today, it might appear Franklin owes Dawson an apology:

Dawson will spend more time at Georgia than Franklin did at Vanderbilt.

Franklin's VU recruits have the benefit of a world class education, and they will no doubt get the benefit of another world class coaching staff. But this is a jagged, bitter pill for many of those kids who drank his Kool Aid like it was life-giving water.

Hopefully, they will all take this as a tough but powerful life lesson, and learn from it. And, most importantly, show Franklin that they will be successful not just because of, but also without him. I have no doubt that will prove to be the case, but mostly because of the phenomenal support structure of Vanderbilt and the ongoing strong leadership of Williams.

Franklin should not be going out like this. He accomplished things at Vanderbilt that have changed the fabric of the program. He likely doubled the fan base, raised the bar in recruiting, and energized people as no VU coach has ever done.

The last time Franklin appeared at Memorial Gym just two weeks ago, he was lustily cheered like a conquering hero. If he showed up today at the Kentucky basketball game he'd be booed out of the gym.

If you preach and demand loyalty and integrity, you will be held to at least that standard. The final paragraph of his Vanderbilt chapter proves, Franklin did not meet it.

While Franklin is cashing fat checks in State College, a lot of his former staffers will be left to pick up the pieces back in Nashville. While Franklin is working his magic on potential new PSU recruits-some of them likely kids whom he was recruiting to Vanderbilt just days ago-Vanderbilt will be scrambling to salvage a recruiting class that is already seeing a backlash.

Three recruits have already reopened their recruitment. More may follow.

If Franklin ends up signing former Vandy commits to Penn State scholarships, it will leave a mark on his legacy that will never go away. Vandy fans and players will never forgive, never forget. Maybe he will do the right thing and tell them they need to stick with Vanderbilt. Time will tell.

It didn't have to end like this...but it did

Even as Penn State officials were announcing their press conference for Saturday, Vanderbilt was working overtime to keep Franklin in Nashville. Though it has not been confirmed, reports have circulated that VU offered Franklin a 10 year, $50 million contract to "Anchor Down" for the long haul.

Franklin, of course, declined. Which really tells you only one thing: It was not about the money.

Those of us who worked around him know why he bailed. Franklin wanted to work where there was already a built-in fan base with a vast stadium. He felt he was a big time coach, and big time coaches coach in big time arenas. To each his own.

But let's not forget something very important. At the end of this whole amazing drama (which is not really much different than the ones played out elsewhere), Vanderbilt comes out far ahead of where they started. The next Vandy coach will come in with a salary befitting an SEC football coach, with facilities that are finally getting closer to what they have to compete against. They also have proven that you can win at Vanderbilt, and win relatively big.

It is at least a little sad at how fast this fire burned out. Franklin could have probably played for an SEC title very soon, and with a four school playoff, even a national title game wasn't out of reach.

But that's his choice, and he made it. Franklin is gone. Life moves on.

Vanderbilt fans come out on the other side not only with a couple of nice bowl trophies, but a lot more wisdom. Twitter is red hot with VU fans boiling in anger, but that anger will subside. VU will hire a great coach and win a lot more games. History tells us most of the football players will remain, be successful, and graduate.

And Franklin will almost certainly be very successful at Penn State. He is a man with a plan, and has rare abilities to lead people where they have never before been.

It's just unfortunate that what may be the most successful and exciting part of Franklin's career ends with a thud. I think everyone, including Franklin, deserved better.


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