Vanderbilt will appear on ESPN one more time this month when the Commodores open their promising football season Thursday night against No. 9 South Carolina in Nashville.
The Commodores have appeared on that and several other cable networks in recent days as second-year coach James Franklin continues to successfully market a program that hopes to make history this year by earning consecutive bowl trips. Yet no matter how many Nutty Buddy ice-cream cones Franklin can dish out around campus, nothing would ignite his Commodores more than a win over a top-10 foe.
“Nothing exists after South Carolina,” Franklin said. “Even our schedule posters just say ‘South Carolina.’ No other game exists. This is our Super Bowl. Next week we’ll get ready for the next opponent.”
Shock Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks, and who knows what Franklin will do for the cameras?
The 40-year-old Franklin pledged last year to do whatever it took to sell the Vanderbilt program, and he got off to a good start by posting a 6-6 regular season, earning an invitation to the Liberty Bowl and compiling a top-25 recruiting class this past February. He hasn’t stopped there.
On Aug. 8, Franklin decided to award a scholarship to junior walk-on fullback Marc Panu in front of the entire team in the McGugin Center auditorium. Awarding a scholarship or two during preseason camp is quite common, but the emotional scene was filmed and has been viewed nearly 400,000 times on YouTube.
“Even though I was tipped off, I still felt the chills when the whole thing played out,” said Brandon Barca, who works on Vandy’s communications staff and shot the scene. “I was trying keep myself from getting goose bumps so I could keep the camera steady. Coach Franklin has just brought so much energy and enthusiasm.
“People are talking about Vanderbilt in August, and that has not always been the case.”
Within a week, Franklin and Panu appeared on Fox & Friends, and footage of the scholarship offer was requested by ABC News and ESPN. It took the No. 1 spot on ESPN’s “Plays of the Day” nearly a week after an impromptu dance-off involving Vandy players and coaches in the same auditorium got the No. 10 spot.
Scoring two ESPN top-10 plays before a season even kicks off won’t translate to points on the scoreboard, but it keeps a program with a 248-457-20 record since World War II in conversations around the South and the country.
“Last year there was a dodgeball video that was huge, and he took the team bowling,” said Larry Leathers, the media relations director for Vanderbilt football. “He’s always wanting to capture the fun things around the program, and he’s aware that anything shot behind the scenes will result in a lot of people watching it.”
Said Barca: “There are some places where coaches are guarded and prefer not to provide cameras in every area, but he gives us all the access we want. He has been able to spread his message and maximize his message through the use of social media.”
YouTube, Twitter and various ESPN all-access platforms didn’t exist when an energetic Gerry DiNardo arrived at Vanderbilt in 1991 or when Spurrier got to Duke in 1987. Spurrier said his taking over the Blue Devils was a little different from what Franklin has encountered.
“We didn’t have a lot of big promotional gimmicks,” Spurrier said. “We just had a whole bunch of good players that could play and win. We threw the ball around and scored some points. If you can do that, that will do the marketing for you.”
Still, the visiting coach Thursday night is as impressed as anyone with what Franklin has accomplished in such a short period of time.
“You have to create some buzz and some hype, and they are doing that,” Spurrier said. “They want to play. They want to try to be competitive. They were very competitive last year and lost a bunch of close games, so let’s hope they don’t change their ways when we play.
“When you’re at Vandy and you go to a bowl, that’s like Duke going to a bowl. You remember the last time they went? They went once after I left.”
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...