Vanderbilt has never been considered a football power. In all honesty, the Commodores have rarely even been relevant; especially in the Southeastern Conference, where football is king and, with the possible exception of Kentucky basketball, everything else usually takes a back seat.
James Franklin changed things. Of course, Vandy didn’t win a conference championship or go to a BCS Bowl under Franklin, but when has it ever? Comparing Vanderbilt to a program like Alabama or LSU is an exercise in futility, not to mention unfair.
While Vanderbilt is a member of the SEC, it is there that comparisons to other schools in the conference must end. Unlike its conference brethren, Vanderbilt is not a public university. It is a private research university which enrolls around 12,000 students. In a 2011 U.S. News and World Report ranking of the top national universities, Vanderbilt ranked 17th, finishing ahead of such academic powerhouses as Notre Dame, Emory, and Georgetown. By contrast, the next highest SEC school in the rankings was the University of Florida, which ranked 49th.
What does this mean? It means that it is extremely difficult for Vanderbilt to compete in the SEC, especially at football, where many top recruits couldn’t even gain admission to the school. For many years the Commodores were the doormat of the SEC, often serving as other schools’ homecoming opponent. Prior to Franklin’s hiring, in more than 100 years of football, Vanderbilt had made exactly four bowl appearances, and spent most seasons playing for eleventh place in a twelve team conference.
In three years at Vanderbilt, Franklin compiled a record of 24-15. Now that may not seem like much to most football fans. But consider that in the ten seasons before his arrival, the Commodores average record was approximately 3-9. In those ten seasons, Vanderbilt avoided a losing record only once (6-6 in 2008). Franklin’s worst season was 6-6 (2011).
With wins over Georgia and Houston in 2013, and Ole Miss and North Carolina State in 2012, Franklin became the first Vanderbilt head coach since Steve Sloan in 1973-74 to beat multiple teams with winning records in back to back seasons. Franklin also became the first Vanderbilt coach to post back to back nine win seasons (9-4 in 2012 and 2013) and the first to secure three consecutive bowl invitations.
So the man is obviously a good coach. After leaving Maryland, where he was offensive coordinator under Ralph Friedgen, Franklin breathed life into a program that had rarely shown signs of it before. While all of this is great for the Commodores, there is a downside: success at Vanderbilt = offers for higher profile jobs.
Now Franklin has taken such a job. He was announced as the new head coach at Penn State on January 13. Coaching the Nittany Lions, who are still in the process of recovering from the fall out from the Jerry Sandusky scandal, presents a whole new set of challenges; a bowl ban and scholarship reductions, and recruiting difficulties because of these sanctions, to name a few. Franklin will attempt to continue the rebuilding job begun by Bill O’Brien, who left following the 2013 season to become the head coach of the Houston Texans of the NFL.
Where does Franklin’s departure leave Vanderbilt? While the last two seasons have been among the school’s best, it seems unlikely that another coach will duplicate Fanklin’s success; at least not immediately. Whoever ends up as the next head coach of the Commodores will certainly have some big shoes to fill. In fact, when it comes to football, they might be Vanderbilt’s biggest ever.