Vanderbilt won nine games last season for the first time in nearly 100 years, won a bowl game for only the third time in school history and secured its first-ever final ranking in the top 25 polls.
It was truly a breakthrough season for a program that has been the SEC’s version of a tackling dummy for much of the league’s 80-year existence.
But if we’ve learned anything about third-year Vanderbilt coach James Franklin, it’s that he’s not easily satisfied, nor is he easily discouraged.
As good a job as he did a year ago, he may have done an even better one this season, and that goes for his entire coaching staff.
The Commodores (5-4, 2-4 SEC) are one win away from locking up their third straight postseason appearance. They get Kentucky at home on Saturday and then travel to Tennessee on Nov. 23 and come back home to face Wake Forest on Nov. 30.
Suddenly, an eight- or even nine-win season isn’t out of the realm, which would have been difficult to envision back in September.
A rape investigation has hovered over the program since August when four players were charged with raping an unconscious woman in a campus dormitory and subsequently dismissed from the team. None of the four had ever played a down for the Commodores, but it’s the kind of nasty stain that doesn’t go away.
What’s more, a fifth player, junior receiver Chris Boyd, was dismissed from the team in September after pleading guilty to helping cover up the alleged rape. Boyd was one of the Commodores’ best players.
Rumors, innuendo and wild speculation have circulated throughout Nashville ever since, creating the kind of environment that could have easily torn apart a football team.
And when you throw in the bitter last-minute home loss to Ole Miss to open the season, not to mention blowout losses to Missouri and Texas A&M, it’s a wonder the Commodores didn’t crumble somewhere along the way.
But here they are, coming off their first win over Florida in Gainesville since 1945 and demonstrating the kind of in-your-face, iron-clad toughness that has defined this program under Franklin.
“The chemistry we have and the foundation we’ve built here is based on relationships,” said Franklin, who can’t and won’t talk specifically about the rape case.
“Let’s be honest. Sure, there has been stuff this year we’ve been dealing with. But when I got here, it couldn’t have been more negative. They’ve been dealing with that negativity and the outside perception here for a long time.
“But what we’ve done is persevere and stick to our plan throughout. The assistant coaches have taken that approach, and the players have taken that approach. I’m proud of their resiliency, and I’m proud of the fact that we’ve gotten better as the year has gone on. Each year, we’ve gotten better, and that’s a testament to the assistant coaches and the players.”
It’s also a testament to the guy in charge.
Franklin has scoffed at all of the things he was told couldn’t be done at Vanderbilt. That’s why he makes it a point to note whenever the Commodores mark off their latest first.
Their wins over Florida and Georgia this season were their first over the two traditional powers in the same season in school history. Franklin has now beaten everybody in the Eastern Division but South Carolina.
Even more impressively, Vanderbilt has won its last six games in the month of November, which is significant. In the past, the Commodores were so beaten down physically and so lacking in depth that it was all they could do to even make it to November.
In fact, in the decade prior to Franklin’s arrival, the Commodores were just 3-32 in November.
“Everybody talks about change, but change isn’t easy,” Franklin said. “That’s why I’m so proud of these kids and how hard they’ve worked. They’ve been willing to sacrifice things the common man doesn’t want to in order to get to where they want to go.”
While Franklin has been the rock that’s held it together for the Commodores this season, he’s leaned on a few people himself, notably Vanderbilt athletic director David Williams, Vanderbilt strength coach Dwight Galt, as well as Franklin’s wife, Fumi, and their two daughters, Shola and Addy.
“My girls come by the office every day, and I encourage the whole staff to do that,” Franklin said. “That’s one of the things that has been great, because they run around and say hi to all of their aunts and uncles here.”
Franklin’s wife and daughters were there to meet the team bus when it arrived back at campus last Saturday following the historic win at the Swamp.
“There’s no substitute for being able to come home to that support system every night,” he said.
In some ways, this has been one of the most challenging seasons of Franklin’s coaching career. In other ways, it’s been one of the most rewarding.
He remains deeply troubled by the rape charges that have rocked his program. Again, that’s not something that just goes away and has far-reaching ramifications over and above just football.
“This season’s not over. We’ve still got a long way to go,” said Franklin, whose team has also been plagued by injuries to starting quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels and starting linebacker Chase Garnham.
“We’ve had a wide range of emotions and experiences this year. But through it all, the guys haven’t wavered in their belief, and the assistant coaches have been awesome. The continuity on our staff has helped. Everybody understands how we handle situations, how we persevere and work through things because we’ve all been through it together.”