By TERESA M. WALKER, AP Sports Writer
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) _ James Franklin looks at Vanderbilt and sees opportunity in a program long considered the SEC’s football doormat.
The first-time head coach knows he has a challenge ahead of him.
The Commodores have had one winning season since 1982, and the bowl victory in 2008 was their first in 53 years. The 39-year-old Franklin sees trying to turn the Vanderbilt Commodores into a competitive program as the chance to do something that’s never really been done before.
“Is it a challenge? Yeah, but when you want to do anything great in life or maybe do something that hasn’t been done before, you’re going to have to take some risks and take some chances,” Franklin said.
There may be no bigger risk in college football than taking the Vanderbilt job. Stanford, Northwestern and even Wake Forest are similar private universities that found the right coaches to turn losses into bowl games. But the Commodores seem to chew through coaches. Franklin is Vanderbilt’s sixth new head coach since 1991 and third in as many seasons.
Raheem Morris, head coach of the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, talked with Franklin when he was preparing to interview for the job last December.
“I told him: `Hey, there’s going to be no handbook for you.’ I said, just do it your way and believe in it and it’ll work. And he’s absolutely gone out there and done a marvelous job of getting that team to believe,” Morris said.
The challenge isn’t that different from what Franklin’s already done in his own life.
A Pennsylvania native, he learned his love of sports from his father and his nonstop work ethic from his mother. A psychology major who turned to coaching to pay for his master’s degree, Franklin fell in love with the profession and put together a career plan that took him from his first job as a defensive backs coach at his alma mater, Division II East Stroudsburg, to the mighty SEC.
Franklin’s resume is stocked with stints at James Madison, Washington State where he earned that master’s degree, Maryland, Kansas State and back to Maryland. He also spent a year coaching wide receivers with the NFL’s Green Bay Packers in 2005 and had NFL minority internships at Miami (1998), Philadelphia (1999) and Minnesota (2008).
“With me not playing major college football and not having some of those connections, I felt like I needed to take some risks,” Franklin said. “I needed to be willing to take some jobs. For me, it was always about taking the best opportunity I thought was going to help me five years down the road.”
The toughest was working at Division II Kutztown as a restricted earnings assistant in 1995 making only $1,200. Franklin rented a room, filled soda machines on campus and even worked as a bartender on Sundays. Friends he went to college with already had nice jobs and asked him why he was slogging away when he could be earning big money.
“I just wanted to chase this dream,” Franklin said. “That’s one of the problems I think we have right now in this society. Everybody wants immediate gratification. When you hear people saying 10, 15 years down the road, yeah I’m making good money but I don’t love what I’m doing. If you sacrifice, you have a chance to do both things. I really believe if you do what you love and you have a passion for it, the money will come at some point.”
That work ethic comes from his mother. A native of England, she found herself raising two young children after a divorce.
“My mom came to this country, then ended up in a situation where she was pretty much on her own raising me and my sister and how hard she worked and how much she worked and how much she sacrificed for us,” Franklin said.
That drive has been on full display since Franklin hit campus. Franklin, who had been tabbed as Ralph Friedgen’s eventual successor in February 2009, brought four coaches with him from Maryland. He landed Vanderbilt’s highest-rated recruiting class in years and pitched his vision for the Commodores at basketball games, across campus to students, in town to boosters. He also held student tryouts after visiting dorms and fraternity row.
He sleeps about five hours a night and said he knew coming to Vanderbilt he’d have more jobs than most coaches. It’s why he encourages his coaches’ families to visit them at work. Franklin even brought his youngest daughter to a news conference Monday, saying it’s important players see their coaches as men placing a high priority on family.
Morris considers Franklin a great student of football and one of the better teachers he’s been around. Franklin helped tutor Josh Freeman at Kansas State, and Freeman became a first-round draft pick by Tampa Bay in 2009. Morris, who became friends with Franklin in 2006 when both were at Kansas State, cautions that Franklin will have his growing pains as all first-time head coaches do.
“You take over a program in the SEC or you’re going into the National Football League, you’re going to start young and draft your guys or you’ve got to go recruit your guys. It may take a little bit of time, but he will be successful,” Morris said.
Franklin already has convinced his Commodores that he is the right coach at the right time.
“I believe God sent him here for us especially for the Vanderbilt football program, and I believe we’re going to do some
great things with him,” sophomore wide receiver Jordan Matthews said.
Managing those expectations in this building project might be Franklin’s biggest challenge. He won his opener over Elon 45-14, and Big East champ Connecticut (1-0) visits Saturday night.
Franklin said he knows the honeymoon period will end soon.
“We understand what we’ve signed up for,” Franklin said.
AP Sports Writer Fred Goodall in Tampa, Fla., contributed to this report.
Follow Teresa M. Walker on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/teresamwalker
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)