A trying offseason for Vandy, Franklin
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin has finally found time to rest. Seated in his organized, nearly glass-enclosed office, almost 13 hours after starting his day, his battery can finally recharge.
He's slouched, speaking with a slower and lower voice. The SEC's Energizer Bunny has nearly stopped.
For the first time during a day that began well before 6 a.m., Franklin has time to reflect. Non-football-related thoughts zip through his mind, as a reporter who followed him for an entire day asks him about the controversy swirling around his program.
Usually tight-lipped about matters not pertaining to X's and O's, Franklin relinquishes his guard. The ongoing investigation concerning four former players, who allegedly raped an unconscious 21-year-old coed at a campus dorm on June 23, has left Franklin and the entire Vanderbilt and Nashville community disgusted. The players have been dismissed, and a fifth, junior wide receiver Chris Boyd, has been suspended from the team after he was indicted earlier this month for allegedly giving one of the defendants advice on how to cover up the crime.
"I'm a very prideful guy and I've invested my life into this," Franklin said. "This is a lifestyle for me. It's not a job, it's not a career -- my wife, my kids, the whole package. Whenever something doesn't go well for Vanderbilt University, for Vanderbilt football and for this community, it literally breaks my heart, and that's not an overstatement of how I feel because this is personal. This is very, very personal to me."
Franklin doesn't downplay the severity of the allegations that have rocked Vanderbilt, but he refuses to dive deeper into the subject. For one, it's an ongoing legal matter that is beyond his control.
This is a coach and a program that have experienced seemingly improbable success in the last two seasons, a byproduct of Franklin's attention to detail and indefatigable work ethic. Vanderbilt was 2-10 in 2010 prior to Franklin's arrival. In 2012, the Commodores won nine games for the first time in nearly 100 years.
But the stain of negative headlines has fixed in on Franklin's program this offseason. To combat the recent influx of attention, Franklin has instructed his staff and his players to maintain their focus on the process he's instilled in Nashville. He understands that he has a job to do for the players still on his roster. He still beats the sun -- and all of his assistants -- to work each day. On a recent morning, he greeted every employee, player, and coach from various Commodores sports teams as they passed by, and shouted words of encouragement to Vandy's women's soccer team as players got their morning conditioning in.
Equipped with his daily half cup of coffee (loaded with french vanilla creamer and sugar) Franklin tackles each day and demands that everyone around him take the same attitude.
"I wouldn't have it any other way," said Jemal Griffin, who serves as the team's chief of staff and has been with Franklin since his days at Maryland.
None of his coaches would, either. They might not have the charisma or energy that Franklin possesses during his daily rush through the football facility before 6 a.m., but his engine keeps them going. That's why a 7 a.m. meeting on the final day of fall camp feels so energized.
Franklin's attention to detail was evident upon his arrival in December 2010, specifically his obsession for uniformity in and around the football complex. He had the Commodores gold-and-black color scheme smother the athletic facilities, put up elaborate Vandy-themed graphics in the football offices (inspired by the movie "300") and had inspirational words, like "compete" and "sacrifice," splashed all around Vandy's outdoor practice fields and video towers.
So it came as no surprise when he barked at a staffer in the middle of his meeting for not having a pole on the grounds painted correctly. "Are they going to paint that?" he asked. "They didn't paint that."
A video producer was next to hear from Franklin, after not having continuous film of the team's rapid-fire drill ready, followed by a comical and sarcastic back-and-forth with offensive line coach Herb Hand about running an overtime drill during practice.
It isn't until an assistant brings up the sloppy special teams play from the previous day that Franklin erupts.
"We're not being detailed enough," he snapped. "We're not active enough. We're not flying around. You gotta f---ing coach. You have to pay attention to detail always when you're around here."
Vanderbilt is facing preseason expectations previously unheard of in Nashville, and Franklin is the catalyst for that. But he also must guard against the monster he's created.
Players aren't allowed to talk about the past or future. There wasn't a bowl game last year. No starters return. The next game is the only one on the schedule.
"The way he's been able to get that across to them is that it's the same constant message from everyone in the program," Griffin said.
But no castle is impenetrable. Cracks are inevitable.
To combat cracks, Franklin constantly shows players the negatives of certain actions. Every morning, he searches the Internet for articles with athletes making poor decisions. He then displays them on a PowerPoint at team meetings to "bombard" players with the message of living right.
"Can't talk to them about it enough," Franklin said.
Now Vanderbilt has its own negative headlines to deal with. The severity of the situation is obvious, but Franklin makes it clear that the actions of a few shouldn't represent his entire team.
"Anybody associated with our program, anybody who has spent legitimate time with our guys, they know this is not who we are," he said. "They know this is not who we represent. It hasn't been in the past, it isn't in the present, and it won't be in the future. This is not who we are or what we represent. Anybody who has spent quality time with our team or around our program knows that."
Players seem unfazed. Some admit they were shocked by the initial news, but not until Franklin gathered the team for a sit-down did they start to regain their focus. Details of the meeting weren't revealed, but the message was to stay together and use football as an outlet.
"This is your sanctuary," an assistant said. "When we step on this field, nothing else matters."
That was obvious when players laughed and joked with each other and coaches during the final day of camp. "Earth, Wind & Fire" blared from the locker room before a walk-through, as Franklin demanded hugs or barked at players struggling to smile for him.
Assistants teased and trash-talked players as they passed during a simulated "Star Walk" that precedes all home games. Franklin even directed traffic and slapped the hands of everyone who walked by on the way to Vanderbilt Stadium.
That attitude has helped this team deal with all the distractions flying its way. It has players "programed" and "brainwashed" to put improvement and its opponent in Thursday night's season-opener, Ole Miss, at the forefront. Everything else roams the periphery.
The peripherals currently have Vandy surrounded by expectations and a stained image. Expectations can be drowned out, while coaches assure the stain can be cleaned.
"The players that are on our roster are good people -- people that I feel very comfortable around," defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said.
"They're good people, who are good students and good football players and people I very much trust around my family."
As the Commodores finished their final day of camp, you could sense a new form of excitement. Players were relieved to end camp, but it meant even more when they realized the season was that much closer when the day ended with a simple "Beat Ole Miss."
The message is loud and clear.
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