In one season, Vanderbilt Head Coach James Franklin became the only first-year coach in school history to guide the Commodores to a bowl game, surpassed the total wins achieved by the program in each of its previous two seasons and reeled in the best recruiting class in school history.
Through his successes, Franklin has sent a jolt of positive energy throughout Vanderbilt’s football program that has been buoyed by an infectious personality and unmatched passion for the Commodores.
It remains to be seen what his encore performance has in store, but if it is anything like year one, Vanderbilt fans will have a lot to cheer about in 2012.
Hired as the 27th head coach in school history on Dec. 17, 2010, Franklin guided the Commodores to an appearance in the 53rd AutoZone Liberty Bowl in 2011 and had the Commodores competing at a high level in the best college football conference in the nation.
The Commodores did not just compete; they sent shivers through the spines of many of their opponents by being outscored by a mere 27 points in their final five losses en route to earning a trip to a bowl game for just the fifth time in school history.
Vanderbilt’s drastic improvements can also be measured by statistics. The offensive and defensive ranks in conference play were the most improved of any Southeastern Conference team. Offensively, the unit scored more points than any Vanderbilt team in the previous 50 years. The progress was even more dramatic on the defensive end where the Commodores finished the season ranked 18th-nationally in total defense.
Just as Franklin has made an immediate impact on the football field, he has done the same in the Vanderbilt and Nashville community. Whether it is speaking before civic groups or helping move students into their dorms, Franklin has made a strong impact in the community by embracing each opportunity with the same passion he does a football game.
At the same time, Franklin has provided other members of the community with unforgettable behind-the-scenes experiences such as leading the team on the field or receiving a locker room tour. Franklin has also given the public never-before-seen access inside the program by allowing cameras and journalists into meeting rooms.
Franklin’s first season began with a convincing 45-14 victory over outmanned Elon. In the second game against Connecticut, the defending Big East Champions, a series of events late in the game set the tone for the season. Seeing a lack of energy with his team trailing 21-14 in the fourth quarter, an emotional Franklin rallied his squad, telling all that this Vanderbilt football team was different from the others. Within minutes, cornerback Casey Hayward returned an interception 50 yards for a touchdown, and Carey Spear capped the comeback with a 31-yard field goal to give the program its first big win in two full seasons. Vanderbilt would win its next two games to begin the season 3-0 before suffering two straight road losses.
The Commodores returned home to play eventual SEC East Champion Georgia in what turned out to be one of the most intense games of the season. Franklin’s reaction after a bitter 33-28 midseason defeat to the Bulldogs drew more admiration from Commodore fans.
“We’re going to compete with class,” Franklin said at the postgame press conference. “But we are not going to sit back and take stuff from anybody. Those days are long gone and never coming back. Ever!”
The Commodores seemed to take momentum from the Georgia disappointment. They had a chance to win all six games afterward, and outscored those opponents 193-117. Vanderbilt defeated Kentucky 38-8, the widest margin over an SEC team in 40 years, and thrashed Wake Forest 41-7 on the road to claim bowl eligibility. The Commodores’ last three losses in conference play came by a total of 14 points.
Vanderbilt’s six wins were two more than the 2009 and 2010 Commodore teams combined for. The team won five of its games at home, which were the most at Vanderbilt Stadium since the mid-1990s. The Commodores also outscored their opponents by 73 points, a remarkable 244-point improvement over the previous year. The point differential by the Commodores is the largest since 1974.
Several Vanderbilt players enjoyed tremendous seasons during Franklin’s first year on campus. Running back Zac Stacy put together the finest rushing season in Commodore history, setting a team single-season record of 1,193 yards. He also rushed for 14 touchdowns, the highest total in modern-day team history. Jordan Rodgers passed for 1,523 yards – the most ever by a first-year Vanderbilt quarterback – and tossed nine touchdowns, including at least one in the last six games. Sophomore Jordan Matthews blossomed as Rodgers’ top target, averaging 111 receiving yards during the final six regular season games. Another young receiver, Chris Boyd, topped all SEC freshmen with seven touchdown catches. Three linemen – Wesley Johnson, Ryan Seymour and Kyle Fischer – earned weekly honors from the SEC. On defense, Hayward, linebacker Chris Marve and defensive end Tim Fugger earned All-conference recognition.
As a result of his success, Vanderbilt’s administration committed to Franklin on a long-term basis following the regular season. Vanderbilt extended his contract with a pay raise and promised a series of program upgrades, including adding an indoor multipurpose facility, new Jumbotron, turf and meeting rooms.
Prior to accepting the Vanderbilt position, Franklin spent the last five seasons coordinating highly productive offensive units at top Division I programs. Most recently, Franklin served as offensive coordinator and assistant head coach at the University of Maryland.