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January 16, 2013

Franklin anchors rising Vanderbilt program

MORE: Around the Southeast

Dallas Jackson is the National Columnist for Rivals.com. Email him your comments or story ideas to DallasJ@Yahoo-Inc.com and follow him on Twitter.
It is a stunning number, but in the last two offseasons there have been 53 head coaching changes among the 120 FBS football programs.

After his team posted its first nine-win season since 1915, won five SEC games for the first time since 1935 and went to back-to-back bowls for the first time in program history, it was no surprise that Vanderbilt's James Franklin was linked to several of those openings -- Penn State and North Carolina after the 2011 season and Arkansas, Auburn, N.C. State and Tennessee in November and December.

What surprised many is that Franklin passed up every opportunity to sign an extension with his current school. The ability of Vanderbilt to stay off the coaching carousel has made it the biggest winner amid all the changes.

"I am fiercely loyal," Franklin said. "Vanderbilt gave me an opportunity when others wouldn't.

"There is still a long way to go here, but I am committed to working on what we started and finishing the dream of what Vanderbilt can be."

What Vanderbilt has been is a historic doormat. Its football program has existed since 1890, and it has six trips to the postseason to show for it.

Franklin has started to change that. His 15-11 record during his first two seasons is the best since Dan McGugin's in 1904-05.

The 2012 season could become a turning point for the program. It scored 40 or more points five times for the first time since 1915, it defeated Kentucky by its widest margin since 1916, its seven-game winning streak was the longest since 1948, its four-game road winning streak was the longest since 1950, it beat Ole Miss in consecutive games for the first time since 1951, and it had its largest margin of victory over Tennessee since 1954.

Franklin said that not all of the positive results are directly tied to him; the players still have to perform.

"This isn't just a story about James Franklin," he said. "The coaches are working hard, and the kids have bought in. We are starting to see results, and that is because we are starting to get in more talent."

[ Y! Sports Radio: James Franklin joins Tim Brando ]

Kicker Carey Spear set a school record with 81 points. Zac Stacy became the first Commodore in history to rush for more than 3,000 yards in his career, totaling 3,148. Jordan Matthews set a single-season school record with 1,262 yards receiving.

All of the momentum is being seen in recruiting. Vanderbilt has the No. 15-ranked class in the country according to Rivals.com -- its highest mark since Rivals began tracking recruiting classes in 2002.

There were 27 head coaching changes this season on the college football carousel and plenty of rumors about coaches who were supposed to go elsewhere but stayed put.

Of the moves, there are a handful that stand out as the best of the year.

Here is our list of winners for the offseason moves, listed alphabetically.

Alabama, retained Nick Saban
While there was probably not much fire to the limited smoke about Saban and the Cleveland Browns job, his name was mentioned so he makes the list. Right now, the Crimson Tide is at the top of the totem pole for on-field and recruiting success, and it starts with Saban.

Arkansas, hired Bret Bielema
This hire came out of nowhere and stole headlines. Bielema led Wisconsin to three straight Rose Bowl appearances and a 68-24 record while in the Big Ten. Arkansas had a disaster of a season, and many speculated it wouldn't get a coach of this caliber.

Cincinnati, hired Tommy Tuberville
Just one day after losing Butch Jones to Tennessee -- a move that nearly made this list -- the Bearcats responded with a hire that many think was a step up in coaching acumen. Tuberville has made waves in recruiting since arriving, but ultimately this is a good move.

Colorado, hired Mike MacIntyre.
This was an under the radar hire for Colorado but one that shows plenty of positives. MacIntyre comes from San Jose State where he had to work with a non-existent recruiting budget and in a talent deficient NorCal market. If he is able to mine similar players out of equally limited in-state landscape this could be another notch in his rebuilding belt.

Kentucky, hired Mark Stoops
Kentucky clearly was the worst of the four open jobs in the SEC, but it may have maximized its hire by landing Stoops. The efforts in recruiting have been bolstered, and there may be more to come. If his on-field results stay true to history, this will be great, not good, for Kentucky.

Louisville, retained Charlie Strong
Strong was linked to many jobs but most hotly with Tennessee. The Cardinals are coming off of a Big East title and a Sugar Bowl victory over Florida. The team is moving to the ACC and has a quarterback who returns. Keeping Strong and the momentum going was paramount.

N.C. State, hired Dave Doeren
Tom O'Brien did not do a bad job at N.C. State; he simply didn't do the job he was hired to do in elevating the program. That is the expectation now placed on Doeren. Doeren is younger and runs a more exciting offense that should be conducive to keeping pace with North Carolina coach Larry Fedora on the recruiting front.

Notre Dame, retained Brian Kelly
Kelly had discussions with at least one NFL team but chose to come back to South Bend. Bridging the gap from the consistent success enjoyed under Lou Holtz to the promising future under Kelly has been hard for the Irish, and it may have been a season of one step forward, three steps back if Kelly had left.

Penn State, retained Bill O'Brien
This was a must for Penn State because it would have been a disaster if the team had to find another leader for the program. O'Brien interviewed for an NFL job but came back to campus and may have saved the recruiting class by doing so. The Nittany Lions may have proved to be a house of cards if he blew out of town.

Vanderbilt, retained James Franklin
The overall top move of the year may have been the Commodores keeping Franklin on campus. The rise of Vanderbilt has been duly credited to the arrival and personality of Franklin, and replacing his coaching and his energy could have been next to impossible despite the improvement of the football amenities.
National analyst Mike Farrell said the reputation Franklin built as a recruiter during his time at Maryland and Kansas State has proven to be accurate.

"It is remarkable what he has done there," Farrell said. "He has a history of strong recruiting efforts, but he is going in and getting guys out of Georgia, Florida and Virginia.

"I don't think I have ever heard as many kids mention Vanderbilt in the same sentences as Alabama, Notre Dame and some really powerhouse schools."

Three of the Commodores' top five commitments are from Georgia.

Ellenwood (Ga.) Cedar Grove quarterback Johnathon McCrary has been committed to the program since February. Macon (Ga.) Central linebacker Nigel Bowden joined the class in June -- three days after Alpharetta (Ga.) High receiver Carlos Burse.

All three have maintained loyalty to the 'Dores, and four-star McCrary has been the most high-profile commitment in spreading the positive message to other prospects at the Rivals100 Five-Star Challenge and the U.S. Army All-American Bowl.

In San Antonio this month, McCrary was playing the role of ambassador and recruiter.

"There are so many good things to say about the program right now," McCrary said. "It is exciting to be a part of this class, and I want to let other guys know what we plan on doing there."

Rivals.com Southeast analyst Woody Wommack said the effect is farther reaching and it is more than meets the eye.

"It is starting to become cool to be interested in Vanderbilt," Womack said. "Franklin has made it trendy, and that really can't be undervalued.

"There is a culture change happening in Nashville and in the region and maybe in the nation."

Franklin said it is a shift that he has felt in his personal dealings with players, coaches and the media.

"There are a lot more doors open to us now," he said. "Everything we do in this business is relationship based, and we are building more and better relationships.

"Whether it is relationships in recruiting or in the office or with my chancellor, athletic director and players, everything is relationship-based, and people are working to have better relationships with us."

Vanderbilt Vice Chancellor and athletic director David Williams has built quite a relationship with Franklin.

During the two years that Franklin has been with the school, he has been rewarded with three contract extensions. Vanderbilt is a private school, and terms of those deals have not been made public.

The university has invested in new turf, lighting and a Jumbotron at the stadium. It has used more than $30 million to renovate its football facility and has committed to more improvements.

Williams said at the press conference announcing the latest extension that the school will continue to stand behind Franklin.

"He has done a tremendous job, and we want to be sure that he has all the tools he needs to continue moving our football program forward," Williams said. "We are committed to having first-class facilities, and we both look forward to a bright future for Commodore football."

The tangible evidence that Vanderbilt has put in front of Franklin is what has kept his faith going forward.

"Everyone is holding the rope and pulling in the right direction," Franklin said. "I have had meetings with Chancellor (Nicholas) Zeppos and David Williams, and we are all in agreement with what is best for Vanderbilt and what is best for Vanderbilt football, and we are all committed to moving in the direction that meets with the goals of both of those entities.

"We still have a lot of work to do. We are 50 years and $250 million behind a lot of schools in the SEC in terms of facilities, tradition and history, and we will have to find some creative ways to make up that ground."

Farrell said the challenge is steep, even if Franklin has already overcome overwhelming odds.

"When he took that job, it may have been the most disadvantaged in the country," Farrell said. "There wasn't a stadium that holds 100,000 fans, there wasn't a tradition of winning, and there weren't excellent facilities in place. There really wasn't much other than the opportunity to be a head coach. To recruit, he had to sell hope and a promise, and he had to sell himself.

"There still aren't a lot of those other things, but now he can sell winning and that is often one of the most powerful tools in recruiting."

With the team's first winning regular season since 1982, Franklin has been using the success to court the next group of players to "Anchor Down" on the west end of Nashville.

"I don't have to ask anyone to take a leap of faith anymore," he said. "Our message hasn't changed in recruiting, but now we aren't selling something without evidence.

"There is no school in the country that can match what Vanderbilt can offer. Just the education alone is something that puts us in an elite group, and then being able to play in the best conference in America is hard to beat. When you are winning on the field, it makes that message more powerful and it differentiates you from a lot of other schools. To top it off, we have Nashville as a backdrop and that is, in my opinion, the best college city in the conference."

While Franklin has not had to adjust his words, Farrell said that many people have had to prepare to hear them clearly.

"It is really new to us," he said. "Vanderbilt has the upper hand against Tennessee and a lot of other teams in recruiting. They are going after better athletes and getting them.

"It is an interesting battle to watch from afar, but it still all hinges on how long James Franklin stays because it is a quick fall from grace."

Franklin said he understands the speculation that comes with success at Vanderbilt.

While he blocks it out, he hopes fans can as well, and he added that having a stadium full of Vanderbilt faithful would become a very powerful recruiting tool.

"We have heard that James-Franklin-and-his-staff-are-leaving talk, really since we got on campus, so it is not new," Franklin said. "I have seen coaches move on because they think it will be easier to win someplace else. I have seen them get frustrated that they build relationships with recruits only to have those kids go and choose a higher-profile school so that is what they did, but that is not what I am about or how I operate.

"Since we got here on Dec. 18 (2010), we have been growing together -- me as a coach and them as an alumni group and fan base. We need to keep doing that. They have seen my commitment to them, and I expect to see it returned in kind. I want to stay. I also want nine sellouts next year."

If Franklin accomplishes the goal of packing the house and continues to put a winning product on the field, he can expect to have his name floated in coaching rumors.

It is a good problem for Vanderbilt to have, and it is one that Franklin is ready to deal with.

"If we keep this up, the questions will keep coming," he said. "I would rather (take) questions about me leaving than questions about me being fired.

"The vibe right now is night and day from when we got here, and we want to keep pushing it forward. There is a buzz right now, and there is no reason we cannot keep that going right here at Vanderbilt."

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