published Tuesday, January 1st, 2013

Wiedmer: 'Psycho' has believers at Vanderbilt

Vanderbilt players celebrate after defeating North Carolina State 38-24 in the Music City Bowl NCAA college football game in Nashville.
Vanderbilt players celebrate after defeating North Carolina State 38-24 in the Music City Bowl NCAA college football game in Nashville.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
  • photo
    Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin watches from the sideline in the first quarter of the Music City Bowl NCAA college football game against North Carolina State in Nashville.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE — His Vanderbilt football team having just won its ninth game of the year with an impressive showing in Monday's Music City Bowl, second-year Commodores coach James Franklin was asked how such an unexpected achievement was possible.

"Two things," he began. "The university decided to hire some psycho that nobody ever heard of and gave him a chance. And an unbelievable group of guys bought into and believed in everything that we asked them to do."

It takes both, of course. Enthusiastic, dedicated players still fall short without proper direction. Coaches, however brilliant, can't win without talented players dutifully following direction.

But as this 9-4 VU season and 38-24 bowl win over North Carolina State begin to sink in for the residents of Vandyland and beyond, the enormity of what this self-proclaimed psycho and former Maryland assistant coach has accomplished in the short span of two seasons cannot be overstated.

Nor can the methods of his madness be easily dismissed as the byproduct of luck, a somewhat soft SEC schedule or the presence of 29 juniors and seniors among Vandy's top 50 players.

You don't win your final seven games — the longest active streak among the SEC's 14 schools heading into next season — on luck and experience alone.

You especially don't luck into those victories when they come by an average score of 38-15.

"Coach Franklin came in and changed the culture," said senior quarterback Jordan Rodgers, whose older brother Aaron has led the Green Bay Packers to a Super Bowl victory. "He demanded that we work harder and prepare harder than we ever prepared before. You saw the fruits of that last season, but you really saw it come together this season."

Indeed, from back-to-back 2-10 seasons in 2009 and 2010, Vanderbilt finished 6-7 a year ago after a Liberty Bowl loss to Cincinnati. Now this, the Commodores tying the most total wins by a VU squad since 1915 and the most consecutive wins since 1948.

"It just exemplifies how much has changed around this program," said senior running back Zac Stacy, who won bowl MVP honors after rushing for 107 yards and scoring a touchdown.

"We're pretty much the same players [who went 2-10 twice]. But he brought out our full potential, not only as football players but as men."

There has never been much doubt about the men Vanderbilt develops. The SEC's most prestigious academic institution turns out doctors, lawyers and business leaders the way the rest of the league produces NFL All-Pros.

"We heard about the things that couldn't be done, all the negativity that surrounded the program," Franklin said, mindful that the Commodores had posted losing records in 27 of the last 28 seasons preceding his arrival.

"We just put our earmuffs on and kept bombarding these guys with the same positive messages."

President Obama once termed it the Audacity of Hope, the belief against all odds and logic of a better tomorrow. Junior receiver Jordan Matthews expanded on his coach's words.

"[Franklin] brought energy every single day. Every day he'd tell us we can play with anybody if we'll match his energy and expectations. It's not all about talent. It's about confidence and execution."

Matthews paused.

"The measure of greatness," he added, "is what you do with what you have."

According to Franklin, what Vanderbilt has now is "a great foundation."

It's hard to argue that point. The Commodores have won 15 games over the past two seasons, reached two bowls and won one of those.

By contrast, Tennessee — which Vandy crushed 41-18 one day before UT fired Derek Dooley — has won 16 games the past three seasons and failed to qualify for a bowl the past two years.

Largely because of that, 67-year-old Vanderbilt fan Frank Arias interrupted Monday's postgame news conference to thank Franklin for making it much easier for Commodores fans to share the Music City with Big Orange backers.

Leaving the podium, Franklin gave Arias a big hug and told him, "I was expecting a question. I like statements."

Said Arias, a former paratrooper who moved to Nashville 46 years ago and became a Vanderbilt supporter after watching the football team scrap throughout a 35-21 loss to Alabama: "Coach Franklin has an army colonel's sense of discipline. If I had a son playing football right now, I'd rather him play here than anywhere."

Logic says that Franklin will exit Vanderbilt as soon as possible, before a losing season arrives, before the grim reality of the Commodores' cruel past returns.

But he also may be just psycho enough to believe he can succeed where so many others have failed, especially since Vandy's recruiting class is currently ranked 16th nationally by ESPN.

"We're not going anywhere," said Franklin, who received a raise and contract extension last month. "There will come a time when we start talking about things nobody thinks we have any business talking about. The sky's the limit. Just wait and see."

So is he psycho?

Or psychic?

about Mark Wiedmer...

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 ...

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