It drew more than one or two odd looks when your humble correspondent would say that the coach he was most interested in hearing from at SEC Media Days was. Really? The coach at Vanderbilt, a school almost certainly destined for yet another basement finished in the SEC East, over new Florida coach Will Muschamp or a flush-from-victory Steve Spurrier?
Really. Here was a man who had left a head-coach-in-waiting job at Maryland -- not a dream job, especially with the administrative chaos in College Park, but still better than the graveyard in Nashville -- and has already begun pulling off the kind of recruiting coups rarely seen in Vanderbilt's history. Would he hypnotize the collected SEC press corps or have some other, Svengali-like effect on the scribes who gathered in Hoover.
Maybe so. In his presentation, it was easy to see why Franklin has had success drawing young recruits to play for a perpetual also-ran. He stands straight and speaks with confidence. He is probably the most eloquent of the SEC coaches -- though when your competition is the tortured syntax of Les Miles and the aw-shucks humor of Steve Spurrier, that's not saying as much as it might seem. In short, Franklin seems like the perfect combination of the man you would want to play for and the man you would want your son to play for.
And he is almost stereotypical Vanderbilt. As opposed to coaches who seem visibly uncomfortable in their suits, Franklin looks he was born in one. He uses words like "differentiate" and calls other SEC schools "institutions" -- words you can't hear a Houston Nutt or even Dan Mullen saying.
"Everything that we needed as a team, Coach Franklin brought it," Chris Marve said, and it's hard to disagree.
Where Bobby Johnson seemed at times to chafe at questions about the challenges the Vanderbilt job posed, Franklin embraces them.
I think first of all we talk about big challenge, but bigger opportunity. You brought up Stanford. Four years ago Stanford was 1-11. You talk about the transition they were able to make. I also understand the conference that we play in with the last five national championships, the emphasis in this part of the country, the traditions. I understand all those things. yeah, it's a tremendous challenge.
So how in the world is Franklin drawing prospects away from schools that have actually, you know, won something in the last few decades? (Let's assume for the purpose of this discussion that the phrases "smile on my face" and "bagman" are not going to be used in relation to Vanderbilt in the next few years.) It's a pitch that is both ingenious and obvious, which makes you wonder whether Franklin is the first to use it, or if earlier Vanderbilt coaches used it and it just didn't work.
It essentially says that there's only one school in the country where you can play in the SEC, a major metro area and get a first-class education. That's Vanderbilt. Oh, and you can play early.
But the other thing that we're selling is an opportunity to differentiate yourself. You have an opportunity to come to a place like Vanderbilt -- you can name school X or school Y, that a lot of young men have gone there and won -- or you can come with me and my coaches and this program and you have a chance to build something with your own hands and differentiate yourself. You have a chance to build something, to be able to change the history, to be able to lay the foundation for the future.
The thing is, you can almost believe what Franklin is saying. It even sounds convincing to a cynical analyst who's seen a succession of Vanderbilt teams that ranged from mediocre to dreadful -- imagine what it must sound like to an 18-year-old trying to decide where he's going to go for college. Sure, you can go to Alabama and win -- but anyone as talented as you can do that.
Still, there's that education and standards thing. Franklin is not ignorant of the challenge.
I need young men to make decisions based on the long haul. Don't commit to the logo on the helmet, don't commit to the jerseys. Make the decision for the right reason, which is being able to get an education that's going to set you up for the long haul.
Can Franklin get enough high-caliber players to come to Vanderbilt to make the Commodores competitive? If his results so far are any indication -- taking into account all the caveats that you have to take into account when 17-year-olds are telling you what they're going to do in a year, before the Nick Sabans and Les Mileses of the world have made their final pitches -- the answer is a qualified yes.
But watching Franklin give his pitch to the reporters in Birmingham, it's a resounding "yes." The guy is just that easy to believe.