James Franklin says he loves a challenge.
Well, he’ll get one as Vanderbilt’s new head football coach. Franklin takes over a program that has managed only two winning seasons in the last 35 years.
He’s the third different Vanderbilt head football coach this year. Bobby Johnson retired in July, and Robbie Caldwell stepped down following this season. The Commodores have only won one SEC game in the last two seasons.
Johnson proved in 2008 that it is possible to win at Vanderbilt. The Commodores finished 7-6, which included their first bowl win since 1955.
Franklin, previously the assistant head coach and offensive coordinator at Maryland, has his visions set a lot higher than just winning sporadically. He wants to make Vanderbilt a consistent winner and a program that competes for championships.
Not only is he committed to doing that, but Franklin insists the university is, too.
We caught up this week with Franklin for a Q&A:
What is your plan for being able to bring in players capable of competing and winning in the SEC and still stay within Vanderbilt’s stringent academic standards?
James Franklin: Like anything in life, it’s a challenge. I’ve been facing challenges my whole life, and that’s what competitors do. I’m looking forward to selling what this place has to offer. There’s going to be a very specific group of people -- parents and young men -- that are going to be extremely attracted to what Vanderbilt has to offer, and that’s the opportunity to come to a world-class academic institution and play in the greatest college football conference in the world. You go out and sell the fact that you don’t have to choose. You can get a great educational experience. You can live in one of the top cities in the United States, and you can play big-time college football.
What’s it going to take to get the program to a level where it's a consistent winner?
JF: It goes back to the people. First of all, we have to put a great staff together, a group of people I have a history with and know I can trust explicitly. The staff is the first thing, bringing in a group of guys who are 100 percent truly excited to be at Vanderbilt. We have to have guys who are knowledgeable enough with X's and O's, and we’re going to have to take some calculated risks. We’re going to have to think outside the box. We’re going to have to be creative, and those are the type of people I’m going to be trying to attract to come here and work with me. We want highly intelligent people who are creative and want to be at Vanderbilt, and they have to be great recruiters.
You have an offensive background. Will you call your own plays or hire an offensive coordinator?
JF: No, I’m going to hire an offensive coordinator, a defensive coordinator and a special-teams coordinator. I will have influence on what we’re doing on the offensive side of the ball, but my job is to motivate this team. My job is to be the CEO of this organization that makes the tough decisions, and my job is also to build on my strengths, which is recruiting. I’m going to be the biggest ambassador for Vanderbilt football. I’m going to be one of the top recruiters, selling all the positives that we have at Vanderbilt University. That’s my role.
What kind of offense do you want to run?
JF: Our base is going to be what I’ve done in the past. People ask, ‘What kind of offense do you run?’ Well, we run a multiple offense. We’re going to do some spread things, some West Coast-based things. We’re going to do some option. We’re going to have all those things in our offense, and our decision is to figure out what the strengths are of our personnel we have now and what are the weaknesses. Then you figure out how we can build on our strengths and how we can hide our weaknesses. We’re going to do whatever we can to take advantage of the skills we have that particular year and not force-feed a scheme down this team’s throat that may not fit. We’re going to do whatever we need to win and play an exciting brand of football.
A lot of coaches have taken a pass on this job because of the obvious challenges. What about it appealed to you?
JF: When this opportunity came up, it was obvious to me right from the beginning that this was a special place and that we have an opportunity because of the people here and the commitment to excellence in everything we do that we could come here and do something that’s never been done before. Really, that’s what I’m about, facing challenges and taking them on. We want to win here at Vanderbilt and do it on a consistent basis, like all our other sports teams have done. They’ve shown that it can be done, and all the people on this campus who are decision-makers are in complete support of what we’re trying to do and are completely committed. That’s why I know we’re going to be successful.
Speaking of commitment, what kind of assurances have you received that Vanderbilt is going to spend the money to upgrade facilities and do the things necessary to get the program up to speed with everybody else in the SEC?
JF: I did my homework coming into this interview process. So I knew the averages in this conference of what people were paying their staff and facility-wise what everybody had. Those discussions started right away in the interview process. Everything I asked for, they were willing to do. That, to me, showed that they were serious. That’s all nice. All those things are well. But ever since I got the job and got on campus, everything I’ve asked for, the people here have bent over backward to make it happen. We’re going to do some things quickly to make a difference in these athletes’ lives and give them a chance to be successful. On top of that, we have some long-term plans as well. I can just tell you this: Everything we talked about in the interview process, they’re doing. Everything I’ve asked for since I arrived on campus now that I have a better feel for what we have and don’t have, they’ve done.
Are these things that were part of the deal when you agreed to take the job?
JF: They knew when they offered me the job that I’m aggressive and that I’m a go-getter and that I have a plan and I’m going to keep pushing and keep pushing. I’ve been pushing since I got on campus, and they haven’t said ‘no’ yet. We’re going to keep pushing the envelope and make sure we’re in tune and in alignment with what this university is about, but we’re going to push and going to push and strive to reach every one of our goals, and I’ve been completely satisfied with the commitment Vanderbilt has.
Were you aware at all when you were going through this process at Vanderbilt that Ralph Friedgen would be pushed out as head coach at Maryland?
JF: My focus is on Vanderbilt University. All my energy is going to be focused on Vanderbilt University and building one of the top programs in college football. That’s where my focus is. I had a tremendous experience at Maryland. They were very good to me and my family. There are a lot of things that are similar. Maryland had been to one bowl game in 16 years. We went to seven out of the last 10, and the expectations changed there. I’m hoping that’s the discussion we’re having here four or five years from now, and that is that it’s not just good enough to go to bowl games anymore. We need to be winning conference championships. We need to be playing in BCS bowls. That’s the problem I want to have four or five years from now. That’s how I answer that. My focus is on Vanderbilt. I had a tremendous experience at Maryland, but that was the past and this is the present.