James Franklin will do whatever it takes to change people’s opinions about Vanderbilt football, even if that means blowing up balloons at child’s birthday party.
The second-year head coach took over a Vanderbilt program that has long had the reputation of bottom-dweller in the SEC and an automatic win in the conference schedule. In his first year, he led the Commodores to a 6-7 record and a berth in the Liberty Bowl, but he wants more in 2012.
“There’s a buzz about Vanderbilt football that there hasn’t been in a long time,” he said at SEC Media Days. “The sky’s the limit for us, I truly believe that.”
Franklin said he didn’t turn down a single speaking engagement this offseason in hopes of giving him and the Vanderbilt name as much exposure as possible, including attending the birthday party. He said last year, when he walked in to SEC Media Days, nobody knew who he was and he wanted to change that.
He’s been hot on the recruiting trail this offseason, currently holding the No. 21 class in the country, according to 247 Sports. Franklin said there is a lot to sell with Vanderbilt, including a top-notch education, as well as the opportunity to play against the toughest competition in the country.
“We have too much to sell. If you truly respect a world-class education, there’s very few schools can compete with us. I know what Vanderbilt can do for your son for the next 40 or 50 years of his life,” Franklin said. “We have the support of the administration, and we have resources. And when you have those things, you have a chance to be successful.”
This year, the Commodores return eight starters on offense, including Jordan Rodgers, brother of Super Bowl champion Aaron Rodgers, who enjoyed a successful season in 2011 as the starting quarterback. But Franklin said his improvement is “night and day” from the end of the season to now, and his quarterback echoes his sentiments about building a winning culture on West End in Nashville.
“People need to realize we’re not the same old Vanderbilt,” Rodgers said. “We’re not going to be a one-year wonder. We’re going to be confident. We’re not going to be the kind of team that people are going to glance over on the schedule. We have a goal in mind, and we’re working towards it.”
Their schedule wastes no time kicking into high gear, as Vanderbilt will host South Carolina on Thursday, Aug. 30 to kick off the college football season. Franklin said he likes having the early challenge because it keeps his players focused through the offseason, rather than playing an out-of-conference schedule full of likely victories.
“It’s an opportunity for Vanderbilt to be on national television and get that kind of exposure,” he said. “We’re excited about it, we really are.”
Whether or not the Commodores can maintain the success of 2011 remains to be seen, but Franklin has done everything in his power to change the way fans, media and potential recruits look at his program. It’s a process that takes time and sometimes starts in one little kid’s backyard.
“When you take the Vanderbilt job, you have to understand that it’s going to be about so much more than the Xs and Os and fundamentals,” Franklin said. “You’re going to have to wear a lot more hats than just a baseball hat and a whistle.”