Mark Wiedmer: Vandy sees even better days ahead

Mark Wiedmer: Vandy sees even better days ahead

August 3rd, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

NASHVILLE - Vanderbilt senior defensive tackle Rob Lohr was as underwhelmed as almost everyone else when VU chose James Franklin to be its 27th football coach.

"I don't know that I'd say we were shocked," Lohr recalled Thursday afternoon. "But most of us had never heard of him."

And what does he think of the former Maryland assistant now, after last season's six wins delivered the Commodores their fifth bowl berth ever?

"He has an aura around him," Lohr said. "Coach backs up his talk. What he says works."

As Vanderbilt prepares to welcome South Carolina to the Music City for its Aug. 30 season opener on ESPN, it has worked so well that the 'Dores just landed their best recruiting class ever.

It has worked so well that last year's offense averaged almost 10 more points a game than the previous year and last season's defense surrendered nearly 10 points fewer than a year earlier.

It has worked so well that the school has spent millions on everything from remodeling the athletic department complex to putting in a new field, lights and Jumbotron at Vanderbilt Stadium to shiny new black uniforms and helmets.

"Uniforms are huge in recruiting," said senior quarterback Jordan Rodgers, whose older brother Aaron is a pretty fair QB for the Green Bay Packers. "People want to be a part of change when it's moving in the right direction. People want to be a part of what's hot. That's a huge part of recruiting, and these uniforms are hot."

It's not just the unis, however.

Walker May grew up in Birmingham, where you're either for Alabama or Auburn. Not both. One or the other. And no one else.

Now a defensive co-captain for the Commodores, he won't say which of those two schools he cheered for growing up.

"Coach's orders," he said with a smile.

But when he was home earlier this summer he said that after those two schools, "Everybody's rooting for us. Everybody thinks we can be even better this year."

To return to last season, to Vanderbilt's 3-0 start, to four of its six SEC losses coming by a total of 19 points is to wonder why someone didn't snap up Franklin a few years earlier.

The 40-year-old East Stroudsburg University grad had been a huge success as an assistant at Maryland and Kansas State as well as spending one year in the NFL with the Packers.

His mantra, "Play smart every six seconds," is sure to trickle down to every high school program in the country during the next season or two.

His comments after a tense loss to Georgia last October that included a brief postgame brawl already are the stuff of legend in Vandyland.

"We're going to compete with class," said a fiery Franklin. "But we are not going to sit back and take stuff from anybody. Those days are long gone and never coming back. Ever!"

To that end, linebacker Archibald Barnes - who picked off two passes at Tennessee last season, including one for a 100-yard touchdown - said, "We played SEC-quality football every game last season. That wasn't always the case around here."

A single stat: In 2010, Vanderbilt gave up 182 more points in SEC games than it scored. In 2011, it gave up 17 more than it scored.

Nor does Franklin - whose contract VU smartly fattened this past winter - seem worried about his ability to improve on a stunning start.

"There's a buzz about Vanderbilt football," he said. "It's completely different walking into high schools now. We've had recruits come visit us on their own all summer."

And befitting Vanderbilt, Franklin strongly embraces what makes his university special within the win-addicted SEC.

"We're giving kids an opportunity to get a world-class education, which is what this is supposed to be all about," he said.

"It's an opportunity to play in the best football conference in America. It's an opportunity to live in a great town. Other schools sell the NFL, and that's fine. But you know what the NFL stands for? Not For Long. The NFL's fine and we hope our players have a chance to go there, but we're also selling a degree that can have a positive impact on your life for the next 50 years."

Said offensive lineman Ryan Seymour of that passion: "That's what's made us so much better so fast. He doesn't believe in excuses. He doesn't take no for an answer."

But should that success continue to grow, the question all Commodores fans soon will begin nervously asking themselves is whether Franklin's definition of NFL also stands for his time at VU.