HOOVER, Ala. — For decades, poor ol’ Vanderbilt has usually been the doormat of the Southeastern Conference, hindered by its meager fan base and high academic standards.
New coach James Franklin isn’t feeling sorry for his program.
“I really believe there’s very few schools that are going to be able to compete with us when it comes to recruiting because we have an opportunity to offer things that very few schools can,” Franklin said.
Those confident words were part of the 39-year-old’s first address at SEC Media Days on Friday, and the first-year coach hammered home that Vanderbilt has several recruiting advantages if it uses them properly. Franklin also said his team has several good players, but “we just don’t have enough of them.”
Of course, that’s been the problem at Vanderbilt for years. The Commodores have played in only one bowl game (2008) since 1982, and the tough nature of the SEC has held the program down in the bottom half of the Eastern Division.
But other good academic schools — like Stanford — have had recent football success and quarterback Larry Smith doesn’t see why the Commodores can’t do the same thing.
“Other schools have top athletes and now I think coach Franklin’s going out and getting those same guys,” Smith said. “He’s selling that you can come to Vanderbilt and win.’
For all of Franklin’s considerable confidence, the rebuilding project won’t be easy. The Commodores have finished with a 2-10 record in each of the past two seasons and have several holes to fill on both sides of the ball.
Vanderbilt’s biggest challenge is on offense, which is Franklin’s expertise. He spent the last three seasons as Maryland’s offensive coordinator and has a reputation as a good quarterback mentor.
Now Franklin will try to right an offense that averaged 16.9 points per game last season, easily last in the SEC, and struggled mightily in the passing game. Though all 11 offensive starters return, Franklin has made it clear that all starting spots are open.
“Our job is to create the most competitive environment we possibly can at every position,” Franklin said.
The defense is led by linebacker Chris Marve and defensive back Casey Hayward. Marve, a fifth-year senior, brings a wealth of experience and his 306 career tackles are currently the most in the SEC. He also is one of the links back to 2008, when the Commodores won seven games and played in the Music City Bowl.
Marve said the transition to Franklin’s philosophies has been a smooth one.
“It wasn’t difficult at all,” Marve said. “I feel like if a guy buys into the program and buys into the coaches and what they want from us, then we’re all going to play harder ... Coach Franklin had my respect from the moment I met him and shook his hand.”
While Franklin is trying to change the product on the field, his most important job might be selling his vision for the program to fans around Nashville, who have often shown tepid support. In a market that has the NFL’s Tennessee Titans and NHL’s Nashville Predators, the Commodores are often an afterthought.
“Those things aren’t going to change, so let’s embrace them and use them to our strengths,” Franklin said. “We have to make sure our piece of the pie is the best tasting, most delicious piece of the pie.”