By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
COOPER, Iowa, Dec. 27, 2013 – Football, the way we’re doing it now at my alma mater Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., is just more fun than at many other schools. There were a lot of years when we couldn’t say that — actually there were decades — but we can truthfully say it now. Let me share a few examples.
Early the morning after my alma mater Vanderbilt University accepted a football bowl bid to play the University of Houston in the Jan. 4 “BBVA Compass Bowl,” head coach James Franklin posted a message on Twitter asking all alumni and fans to travel to Birmingham, Ala., to cheer for our Commodores. I replied to his tweet this way: “We’re coming from Iowa, Coach!” He doesn’t know me at all, but seconds later, I had a direct message back from him: “Thanks, brother.”
In post-game press conferences, the 41-year-old Franklin often has his daughters Shola, 7, and Addy, 6, sitting right next to him as he answers reporters’ questions. The little girls sometimes are wearing “eye black” under their eyes, just like the big football players do. The coach will turn to one or both, and ask whether they’re in agreement with some point he’s just made. They always say yes.
Vanderbilt usually plays arch-rival Tennessee on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. Naturally many Vandy students schedule their trips home for that Thursday or Friday, as soon as their pre-holiday classes are completed. The last two years, Coach Franklin has showed up in the dining halls early that week, personally asking students to stay on campus, attend the game and root for the team. Several students have told him their parents have already made travel arrangements for them. He hands them his cell phone, tells them to call their parents right then, and he personally asks Mom or Dad to approve their student staying for the game. They all say yes.
You probably know Vanderbilt plays in the Southeastern Conference, arguably the toughest football league in college football. How can a team from a small private school like Vandy compete against such great teams from huge public universities like Alabama, Auburn, South Carolina, LSU, Georgia, Florida, Arkansas, the Mississippi schools, Kentucky, Tennessee and now Texas A&M and Missouri?
“We talk about six seconds at a time,” Franklin said in an interview with the “Football Scoop” Internet site. “We constantly take the VU sign, which is a peace sign with your thumb out, and we do two of them in the air which equals six. The average college football play lasts six seconds, so give me everything you’ve got six seconds at a time. We don’t talk about 60 minutes, we don’t talk about quarters, we don’t talk about halves. We say, ‘Be great for six seconds at a time!’ ”
Vanderbilt head football coach James Franklin (left) and the university’s Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos, flashing the “VU” hand sign — and if you put two of hand signs together you’ve got six digits, and that “six” means something special at Vandy. (Photo from Vanderbilt University Athletics, used here with permission.)
Franklin has even changed the way we sing our fight song, “Dynamite.” A key line used to be, “but win or lose, the fates will choose…” He re-wrote it to be, “but win or lose, it’s ours to choose…”
And he has given us a new charge to shout: “Anchor down!” (The Offenburger granddaughters have recently changed it to “Anchor down, baby!”)
It all might sound like so much bluster, but it’s working.
Vanderbilt is 8-4 this year, 23-15 in Franklin’s three years, and we’re going to a third straight bowl game. The stat we alumni probably all like best – we’ve beaten the Tennessee Volunteers two years in a row, the first time we’ve done that since 1925 and ’26. And last year’s 9-4 record was the most wins in a season since 1915.
To help convince you all – especially you neutral fans – to root for my Vanderbilt Commodores, we’re going to do several more columns on this site previewing the BBVA Compass Bowl in coming days. One will have us learning more about historic Birmingham, the bowl tradition there and iconic Legion Field where it will be played – site of some huge college football moments over the decades. Another story will update you about the Vanderbilt team, and we’ll also see what we can find out about the Houston Cougars, who are also 8-4 this season (and who seem to enjoy referring to themselves as “the Coogs” – can you imagine that?).
Already on our site, we have re-published one of my favorite stories from two years ago, about the Iowa roots of Vanderbilt’s Hall of Fame coach Dan McGugin. From 1904 to 1934, McGugin made Vandy a football juggernaut, one of the top two or three programs in the nation, alongside the likes of mighty Michigan, Texas and Yale. He was born and raised in the little southern Iowa town of Tingley, pop. 180, which had no football at all. You can read that story now by clicking here.
It is of note that Franklin’s record for his first three years at Vanderbilt almost matches McGugin’s in his first three seasons.
Vanderbilt is paying Franklin a fabulous salary and investing heavily in equipment and facilities to enable the football upgrade. When Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos hired him away from the University of Maryland, where Franklin had been a highly successful offensive coordinator, Zeppos said that Vanderbilt is now “all in” with support for the football program. “I told James if he needs a rocket to go to the moon to get a player – get the rocket,” Zeppos said then.
It has all worked so well that James Franklin is now recognized nationally as one of the bright young stars in the college football coaching ranks. And that means Vandy fans start worrying every time one of the head coaching jobs opens of the nation’s best-known programs. Will they try to woo away our coach? We’re now worried about Texas doing that. And if Penn State would lose their coach to the NFL, would they come after Franklin, who is a native Pennsylvanian?
This season, Franklin may have done his best coaching yet at Vanderbilt, and he did so in a way that is not really reflected in the won-loss record or a bowl invitation. He did an amazing of just keeping the Vanderbilt football ship sailing this fall. Last summer, four young Vanderbilt players – none of whom had played in a game yet – were charged with raping a female Vanderbilt student in a dorm room after she’d passed out in drunkenness. The four were kicked off the team and out of school, and the criminal cases against them are just beginning to move through the court system in Nashville. A fifth player, who was slated to be a starting receiver, pleaded guilty to attempting to cover up the crime; he was kicked off the team, although he was allowed to continue as a Vanderbilt student.
It was a shocking, awful development which made many loyal Vanderbilt alumni and fans start wondering if such criminal thuggery is what we can expect with a stronger football program at our university. Of course, Franklin and his bosses in the administration have been unable to speak fully and openly about the violence, since it is still being prosecuted. But the teaching they have done as a result of it – with the team and with the entire university community – has been commendable.
Most of us now seem reassured that the “change in culture” Franklin sought and has achieved for football, indeed has no tolerance for criminal activity or softened academic expectations.
Vanderbilt is going to win, the coach says, by being Vanderbilt – by out-working opponents and out-smarting them. Six seconds at a time.
You can write the columnist at chuck@Offenburger.com or can comment using the handy form below here.