As reports swirled Tuesday (...and Monday...and Sunday) about Vanderbilt's vacant position, James Franklin's name emerged, first as a candidate, then as a spurned coach, and finally as the latest head coach of the Commodores. Like many Vandy fans, my overwhelming reaction was one of apathy. How could it not be? Vanderbilt football went from headline-grabbing optimism to fanhood-crushing heartache in just a 24 hour span. Hiring the team's less-heralded second choice, despite being a reasonable, well thought-out decision, was still a disappointment for most of us.
However, that disappointment is fading into cautious optimism as the days wear on. Now that ESPN and USA Today are reporting it, it seems like Vandy's coaching search is over. And even despite all the drama that surrounds the decision, James Franklin may just be the right man for the job.
While he's not the high impact hire that Gus Malzahn would have been, his credentials still outweigh those of our last two coaches - Bobby Johnson and Robbie Caldwell. Franklin has been successful in developing quarterbacks and offenses throughout his 15 year career, and his triumphs have ranged from Division II to the NFL. He was the architect behind passing attacks from Idaho State to Green Bay before settling in to Maryland's offensive coordinator role. At almost every stop he's been responsible for high-octane offensive attacks.
His impact in three years as OC at Maryland has yielded positive results, even with a 2-10 albatross in his second season. He started his tenure with the Terrapins with four wins over ranked teams - including an out-of-conference shootout victory against California. He rebounded from 2009's mistakes by coordinating an offense that averaged over 30 points per game. His stock is as high as it has ever been after a surprising 8-4 season that included wins over Navy, North Carolina State, and Boston College.
Yes, there are negatives as well. An 18-19 overall record as OC. Two losses to Middle Tennessee State that are enough to make any Commodore fan cringe. The inability to take advantage of a weak ACC schedule and translate that into national rankings and media coverage. A lack of true high-impact signings despite having the label of a Top 25 recruiter. It's not all rainbows and sunshine when you're poaching an assistant from a mediocre-to-good ACC program.
However, the biggest reason behind my excitement for Franklin's arrival wears number 11 and missed this season thanks to a bum shoulder. Jordan Rodgers - junior college transfer and younger brother of Green Bay QB Aaron - still has two years of eligibility left and has got to be dying to get on the field next season. Rodgers, a 6'2" signal caller with a big arm, has now had a full year to adjust to SEC level practices and will be mentored by a coach who was responsible for grooming Kansas State's Josh Freeman and Maryland's Danny O'Brien. Freeman currently plays behind center for the 8-5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, while O'Brien was recently named the ACC Rookie of the Year in his first season at Maryland.
Rodgers, under the leadership of Franklin and (hopefully) Herb Hand, will be given every chance to succeed. If this staff can translate his athletic skills into quarterbacking ability against SEC defenses, he'll surpass Larry Smith on the depth chart and provide a dimension to Vandy's offense that hasn't existed since Chris Nickson surprised opponents in 2006. If he can even operate at an average level, he'll open up opportunities for this team's strong running game and give fans hope for a team that was essentially buried once opponents drew a double-digit lead.
The pilot light to get this offense cooking was as dim as it ever has been in 2010, but it still hasn't extinguished thanks to a few diamond-in-the-rough type players who are candidates for breakout years under the right staff. Franklin's experience developing wide receivers like Jordy Nelson and Darrius Heyward-Bey also bodes well for the team's anemic corps of wideouts. This team has a small cache of potential playmakers in Jordan Matthews, Jonathan Krause, and Brandon Barden. If Franklin can incorporate their talents and have them running at even 80 percent of their abilities this will be a whole new Vanderbilt squad.
This team's biggest problem since the departure of Jay Cutler has been an anemic offense. While former coordinator Bruce Fowler did an admirable job of turning low level recruits into a cohesive defensive unit that made the Commodores respectable, the team's offense hasn't produced a solid SEC player since Earl Bennett left Nashville. Not only will a transformed offense drive this team to compete in the south (alongside a promising young defensive squad), but they'll help generate buzz as well. What will fans be more likely to show up for - a defensive battle, or an offensive shootout? WIth Franklin and Hand on staff, Vandy is now better equipped to handle the latter. A competitive, high-powered Commodore team is what the university needs to bring fans back to Dudley Field.
James Franklin wasn't this team's first choice, but he's still a solid one. A coach with a proven record of developing offenses and his players is coming to a team that has been inept in both categories since 2007. He won't have the instant impact of Gus Malzahn, but that might just be a good thing. Without the burden of shifting an entire culture in two years or less, Franklin will have time to create his program without the fear of collapsing under the weight of expectations. The good news is that with a core of experienced players in place, this natural progression may take less time than we would expect.
Vanderbilt isn't getting the guy who will grab the headlines, but they are getting a coach who can bring this team's offense up to SEC levels. If Franklin can work with Herb Hand, they'll be able to develop a potent attack that will cause trouble for even the fastest team defenses in the southeast. While several questions still remain, James Franklin has emerged as a qualified leader for the Commodores. Time will tell if he can turn this squad around, but his history suggests he'll at least be able to bring this squad back to respectability.
It's not the best-case scenario, perhaps. But it's still a good one for Vanderbilt.
UPDATE: Wanted to add this insightful comment from user Booker Reese:
It’s worth noting that that Ron Prince was a disaster at K-State – the assistants hated him and several jumped ship or were tossed overboard during his tenure. So just surviving that experience might be a mild positive.