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Wednesday, July 23, 2008
Auburn, SEC fans paying high price for Franklin's book

By Pat Forde
ESPN.com

In terms of writing quality, Tony Franklin's "Fourth Down and Life to Go" ranks closer to comic books than, say, "The Great Gatsby."

But what the 7-year-old pedestrian prose of the new Auburn offensive coordinator lacks in literary merit, it more than overcomes in desirability.

Tony Franklin
Tony Franklin's book was far from a classic, but that didn't stop Auburn fans from buying it.

You don't see F. Scott Fitzgerald's work going for $295 on the Internet, do you? That's the asking price on one book-selling site for Franklin's tome detailing his four years as an assistant coach at scandal-scarred Kentucky from 1997 to 2000.

If that seems a little pricey, shop around. You can get "Fourth Down and Life to Go" for the low, low asking price of $174.50 from Google checkout, $169 on eBay and $80 from Alibris.

The original list price when the book was published in 2001: $19.95.

Why in the name of Shug Jordan is the market demanding a 400 percent markup for a book that falls, ahem, well short of a classic?

It's out of print, which automatically ratchets up the cost -- but normally not to this insane degree. What has helped drive up the price of this work is the commingling of two powerful forces in college football:

1. The cult of the coordinator.
2. The endearing lunacy of Southeastern Conference football fans.

Offensive and defensive coordinators are the Zen masters of modern football. The more complex the game gets, the more we hear about the mystic abilities of the guys calling the plays and formations.

The most popular college coordinators now earn multiyear contracts worth up to a half-million dollars per year. And when they change jobs, fans expect miracles to follow.

Norm Chow will save UCLA's offense. Will Muschamp will give Texas a championship defense. And Tony Franklin, whose words are suddenly of immense value, will change the very identity of Auburn football.

Some Zen masters have their own radio shows. All have become Saturday TV stars. The cameras find them routinely, whether on the sidelines or in the booth. It would be an absolute drunkfest if you played a drinking game tied to camera shots of coordinators wildly signaling plays by hand or furtively calling them into their headsets while covering their mouths with play sheets.

(The cover-the-mouth thing makes you wonder whether these guys are wildly paranoid, or whether in the Spygate Era opposing coaches are reading lips. And if that's now a valuable skill, do coaches put it on their résumés? Able to lip-read from 40 yards away.

Within this milieu of celebrity schemeheads, Franklin holds a special status.

For one thing, he's been hired away from Troy at no small expense to jazz up the traditionally hidebound Auburn offense. He's the Next Big Thing at a school craving to score points like the Floridas and Georgias of the SEC. In a state where football is a full-time obsession, a new offensive coordinator outranks a new president.

For another, Franklin has relentlessly and effectively marketed himself as a guru of the no-huddle spread offense, willing to share its secrets with anyone who will listen. For a price.

So that's why Auburn fans are driving the cost of Franklin's book into the stratosphere. Because he has a way with X's and O's, not because he has a way with words.

Tommy Tuberville
Coach Tommy Tuberville hopes Franklin's system will rejuvenate the Tigers' offense this season.

"We call Tony the 'cult leader,'" joked his new boss, Tommy Tuberville. "We're going to get him a crown and a robe."

Until he arrived at Auburn and brainwashed the fan base, Franklin's followers were almost all high school coaches. They came from across the country -- but especially from Texas, Alabama and his home state of Kentucky -- to learn the intricacies of the Tony Franklin System, as it was called.

Franklin's pitch: In a three-day camp, he could teach your team the spread offense and equip it with everything it needed to rewrite the record books -- from the playbook to the terminology to the quarterback wristbands. Franklin built a cottage industry out of The System. It was either that or starve.

"It was desperation," Franklin said. "I was broke and trying to survive. A lot of great things happen out of desperation."

Fact is, Franklin was unofficially blackballed from college coaching after writing his book about the rule-breaking and backbiting that undermined the Hal Mumme era at Kentucky. College coaches talk a lot about integrity, but the one thing they most prize are staffers who keep secrets. Franklin wouldn't do that, and it kept him out of college coaching for years. He wound up filing for bankruptcy.

It was then that he created The System and pitched it like a multilevel marketing scheme. Eventually it caught on, and then Franklin caught on with Larry Blakeney at Troy. It was the break he needed.

Blakeney let Franklin run his side business while coordinating the Trojans' offense. In his day job, Franklin created the No. 16 overall offense last year in Division I-A, an up-tempo unit that outperformed Auburn's offense against three common opponents.

Against Arkansas, Florida and Georgia, Troy averaged 30.3 points per game. Against those same three teams, Auburn averaged 16.3. That's why Al Borges and his West Coast offense were out, and Tony Franklin and his no-huddle spread are in.

Actually, Franklin came to Auburn just in time to install a skeleton version of the spread before the Tigers' Chick-fil-A Bowl game against Clemson. After nine days of practice, it worked well enough for Auburn to win 23-20.

Tuberville said his team averaged 56 plays per game last year, then reeled off 93 in the bowl game. This bold reinvention of an offense that has been conservative for generations has touched off wild-eyed optimism for 2008.

"After being here 10 years, we were just kind of hitting our head against the wall in recent years when it came to getting skill players," Tuberville said. "We had to find a way to score a few more points. If we were ever going to get over the hump and find a way to win championships, we'd have to change things up a little on offense."

After being here 10 years, we were just kind of hitting our head against the wall in recent years when it came to getting skill players. We had to find a way to score a few more points.

-- Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville

Franklin has had to change things up, as well. Per SEC rules, he had to forsake his ownership of The System enterprise, selling it to a partner. But he's still in demand as a speaker -- and as an author.

Now all he has to do is score points at a championship rate.

"I've gotten a taste of it with my business in Texas and in Alabama," Franklin said. "They're very serious about it in both states. On the high school level in Texas, if you have a bad season, they'll fire you in the middle of the school year.

"The difference in Alabama? If you have a bad season, they'll kill you."

That would be the downside of the cult of the coordinator.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.