There’s no easy way to say goodbye.
Just over three years ago, James Franklin stepped onto Vanderbilt’s campus as a second option to Gus Malzahn. But still, the dynamic, young coach—little known outside of Maryland football circles—managed to do what no one had ever done at Vanderbilt.
Which is to say, win, essentially.
We’ve all heard it a million times, but it doesn’t make the transformation any less incredible: Franklin inherited an SEC doormat that went 2-10 two years in a row and won 24 games in three years.
He did it at a school that made four bowl games in the previous 107 years. At a school that hadn’t won nine games in a season since 1915—eighteen years before the formation of the SEC. At a school that doesn’t have winning football.
James Franklin put Vanderbilt on the college football map through tireless coaching and incredible salesmanship. Selling to recruits that this school was the place to be, selling to players that they were capable of great things, and selling to fans that this program was worth caring about. He did amazing things to Vanderbilt’s campus that many thought would never happen.
So why does it all feel so empty now that he’s gone?
It’s hard not to feel spurned now that Franklin left for Penn State after just three years. A large part of that is the things he said while at Vanderbilt.
His big pitch to recruits was always to build a new legacy instead of borrowing from someone else’s. That’s not possible at Penn State.
He said the only three conferences that matter in football are the AFC, NFC, and SEC. Those conferences do not include Penn State.
According to (former) Vanderbilt commit Mikale Wilbon, “he was telling me he wanted to make it into a dynasty there, like Nick Saban at Alabama, like Joe Paterno at Penn State.” For obvious reasons, it’s going to be hard to duplicate a dynasty at his new school.
He said that players who decommitted from Vanderbilt were not “men of honor” and “men of integrity.” Well he left in the middle of his own contract, and now he’s trying to take these men without honor and integrity with him to Penn State.
But that’s college football: full of rhetoric. Coaches want to sell their current program as best they can. Just look at how eerily/nauseatingly similar Franklin’s introductory press conferences were at Vanderbilt and Penn State.
I think what hurts most about Franklin leaving is that we now know Vanderbilt was always a stepping-stone. Once his star was big enough, he was going to leave, and he didn’t really mean it when he said he wanted to build a dynasty in Nashville. Vanderbilt reportedly offered him $50 million over 10 years compared to his $27 million, six-year deal at Penn State—even a larger paycheck wouldn’t help him stay.
It’s not upsetting that Franklin left, per se; it would be hard not to support him leaving to a top-five college job like Texas or USC, both of which were available this winter. But Penn State—a mid-tier Big 10 school mired in controversy and riddled by sanctions—seems like such a lateral move, even if he grew up in Pennsylvania.
Sure, once Penn State’s bowl ban and scholarship restrictions are lifted, it may become a good job again, but that’s years away, and there will be much better openings in the near future. Florida, or maybe even a Michigan or Georgia.
Vanderbilt fans will be bitter towards Franklin for all sorts of reasons, and the way he exited certainly didn’t help.
After not addressing whether he’d stay or not (to be fair, if he was never leaving, why would he interview at all?), he reportedly flirted with the Penn State job for a whole week before finally telling the team he was leaving on Saturday morning. Fans and players alike felt dragged along by his decision.
But really, the fact that Franklin’s exit elicited so much animosity shows how far Vanderbilt’s football program has come. If Bobby Johnson or Robbie Caldwell left for another job three and four years ago, no one would have batted an eye. On the other side of the coin, three or four years ago, it would’ve been crazy to think a Vanderbilt coach would have the clout to get hired at Penn State.
Vanderbilt, just like private schools such as Stanford and Northwestern, has always been a viable football school. It took James Franklin to show that.
Vanderbilt football will be just fine, even without the man who turned this program around at the helm. A football program is bigger than one man. This is the most talented group of student athletes West End has ever seen, and Vice Chancellor David Williams will hire a great head coach in the coming days.
The two names that come up the most in Williams’ search for a new head coach are Clemson’s offensive coordinator Chad Morris and Stanford’s defensive coordinator Derek Mason. Each would be a fantastic hire. Three years ago, though? They would have never considered Vanderbilt.
Four hours after Franklin announced to his players that he was leaving for Penn State, Williams held a press conference to talk about the search for a new head coach. In that short span of time, already 20-25 people reached out to him about the opening, including five who turned down Vanderbilt just three years ago.
And that is James Franklin’s legacy: Vanderbilt is finally on the college football map—no longer an SEC doormat—as a place where you can win and a place that demands respect nationally.