James Franklin had been the Vanderbilt football coach for a couple of days in December of 2010 when he gathered his new team together for a pre-Christmas vacation message.
"The first thing I told them was to really enjoy Christmas with their friends and family because it was the last time they'd be home for Christmas for a long time," Franklin told a standing-room-only crowd at the Chattanooga Quarterback Club luncheon Monday.
"Then I told them that when they were home and a little cousin came up to them and wanted to play checkers, that they were to beat his [behind]. I wanted our guys to understand that we compete as hard as we can in everything."
The crowd laughed. Franklin laughed, too. At least a little bit.
But the message was clear. So has been the improvement in a program that had gone 2-10 each of the two seasons before Franklin arrived from Maryland, where he had been the Terrapins' offensive coordinator.
Now two years into one of the most remarkable building (not rebuilding, building) jobs in NCAA history, Franklin's Commodores are yet to go home for Christmas, having improbably reached bowl games both years.
Even more impressive, when the 2013 college football season begins, Vanderbilt will have the longest winning streak in the Southeastern Conference. It has won seven straight games, including 38-24 over North Carolina State in the Liberty Bowl.
"Our staff is genuine," Franklin said. "We don't try to be something we're not. The only difference in what we're doing now and what's happened in the past is relationships and trust.
"You can be hard on people if you love them hard as well. Our team knows that [the coaches] always have their backs."
One other thing that's different, refreshingly so, is Frankin's combativeness. There was an altercation with Georgia's players and coaches at the end of their game in Nashville his first season. He ruffled a few more feathers last spring when he said he wouldn't hire an assistant who didn't have an attractive wife.
Then came Franklin's Twitter message last month when it became apparent that running back prospect Jalen Hurd was committing to Tennessee.
"If u want 2 settle in life this probably isn't the place 4 u anyway!" Franklin tweeted.
A couple of weeks later, when grilled on a Nashville talk show, Franklin added, "For a lot of families, and for kids who are mature and are not going to make a decision based on the helmets, the size of the stadium or the weight room -- and those things are nice -- but they're not going to get you a job 20, 30 years from now. That's what we're trying to educate kids and families on: Make a decision based on the big picture ..."
The SEC's football factories don't need to sell academics, of course. Most of their stadiums are at least twice the size of the Commodores' 40,000-seat home. They sell the notion that three or four years representing Big State U will open enough career doors down the road.
They also sell the spectacle and splendor of SEC Saturday afternoons, as well as an easier path to the NFL, which Franklin argues is short for "Not For Long," mindful that the average pro football career is less than three seasons.
But Franklin also knows that Vanderbilt can't be for everyone. Not when the average ACT score is 34 (out of 36) for incoming freshmen and the average GPA is a perfect 4.0.
Even then he sees such academic prowess as a benefit to his players, whether they necessarily match those lofty standards or not.
"I know this is unheard of, but we believe that competing in the classroom helps you compete on the football field," he said Monday.
"That's one reason why we talk so much about competing in everything we do. We used to do that as a country. It's what made us great. But we've become a soft, entitled society. We won't allow that on our football team. We sell education because that's what all of this is supposed to be about."
Franklin isn't naive. He is quick to point out: "I see college coaches fired all the time who have high graduation rates and not enough wins."
Perhaps that's why former Baylor School star Barrett Gouger has gone from a 265-pound Red Raider to a 300-pound Commodore expected to log important minutes this season. The football matters, too.
"And we'll be happy to sign a lot more just like him if you'll send them our way," the coach said with a grin.
Two years. Two bowl games. And with a schedule minus Alabama and LSU, the Commodores should be away from home for Christmas for a third straight December.
Franklin recalled walking through the lobby of Birmingham's Wynfrey Hotel two summers ago and no one recognizing him.
"[Alabama coach] Nick Saban walked in and people were tossing babies at him," Franklin said. "He was like a rock star. I realized then how little people thought of Vanderbilt football. So much negativity every day."
Two springs later he told the Quarterback Club, "I want to win a SEC championship. I want to win a national championship. After all, nobody says, 'Gee, it would be awesome to finish third this year.' Who does that?"
Those who willingly settle for something less than the best.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...