published Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

Wiedmer: Vanderbilt’s James Franklin may face tough choice on his future

Vanderbilt coach James Franklin is doused by linebacker Chase Garnham (36) after they defeated Houston 41-24 in the BBVA Compass Bowl NCAA college football game in Birmingham, Ala.
Vanderbilt coach James Franklin is doused by linebacker Chase Garnham (36) after they defeated Houston 41-24 in the BBVA Compass Bowl NCAA college football game in Birmingham, Ala.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Vanderbilt football coach James Franklin's location Monday was clear for all to see. He was in Pasadena, Calif., participating in ESPN's coverage of the final BCS title game.

His whereabouts going forward may be less certain, however. According to cbssports.com, Franklin is now the front-runner to succeed Bill O'Brien at Penn State. Were that to fall through, assuming Louisville hasn't turned to former coach Bobby Petrino by then, Franklin almost assuredly would earn an interview with the Cardinals.

There even is word from some NFL reporters that the Commodores coach could wind up being interviewed by both the Washington Redskins and Cleveland Browns.

To which we ask: The Tennessee Titans aren't interested in saving jet fuel and hotel reservations by driving six or seven miles from team headquarters to VU's West End campus to check out Jumpstart James?

In fact, some might even argue that Penn State would be better off with just-fired Titans coach and Nittany Lions alum Mike Munchak, while only an energetic if not frenetic sort such as Franklin could deliver a second Music City Miracle to Nashville's angry-trending-toward-apathetic NFL fan base.

So what should Franklin do, if given the chance on any of those jobs?

Moreover, which of those positions, if any, would be the best fit for the Pennsylvania native who has been a major college or professional coach (one season with the Green Bay Packers) for the past 15 years?

Let's start with the possibility, however slim, that Franklin remains with the Commodores. We should all struggle to get by on more than $3 million a year while we "anchor down" (Franklin's favorite slogan for Vanderbilt) in one of the nation's most livable cities.

Yes, it's difficult to imagine Franklin ever making the Commodores one of college football's final four teams in its new playoff system. But is that really any more difficult than what he's already accomplished at VU in guiding the 'Dores to two straight nine-win seasons, two bowl wins and a stunning sweep of Florida, Georgia and Tennessee this past season for the first time ever?

Neither Franklin nor Vandy athletic director David Williams have shied away from the notion that if academic giant Stanford can reach the Rose Bowl, the Commodores similarly can rise to the top of their sport. And while its SEC schedule hasn't exactly been the league's toughest the past two years -- no LSU, Alabama or LSU in 2012; no Bama, LSU or Auburn this season -- Vandy still has won 16 of its last 20 contests, which is second only to the Tide within the league.

Franklin also should consider that any slight dip in his performance won't upset the Commodore crowd much, but even a couple of 11-win seasons at a program like Penn State that are followed by nine-win years is reason for the bandwagon fan to scream, "Fire that idiot!"

Yet it's also fair to say that Franklin's appearance on ESPN's BCS coverage was the first time most of America had seen him. Let him coach the Nittany Lions to so much as the Big Ten title game and he could become a household name.

Everyone's dream job is different, of course. Franklin may already have found his at Vanderbilt working for Williams, who was not only willing to hire, in Franklin's words, "some psycho that nobody ever heard of" but also has continued to deliver that psycho everything he's asked for, if not more.

There may be few more important things in this world than knowing you work for a boss who always has your back, and no athletic director in the SEC may believe more in his football coach than Williams believes in and backs Franklin.

That said, Penn State is one of the top 10 jobs in America, regardless of the fallout of the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal. Fertile recruiting ground, marvelous facilities, a nationally respected university academically.

Given Franklin's Keystone State roots and his past recruiting ties as a Maryland assistant to that general region, it's almost impossible to see the Nittany Lions not swiftly returning to college football's elite, though it's also fair to wonder how much Penn State, given the Sandusky horror, may want to employ a coach whose current team has a rape charge hanging over it involving five players with whom the school parted company last summer.

But let's say PSU isn't scared off by that. No offense to VU, but regardless of the job Franklin's done, almost anyone would argue that Vandy isn't even one of the top 10 football jobs in the 14-member SEC, arguably better long-term only than Kentucky and Mississippi State, and that mostly due to the value of its diploma.

That doesn't mean Jumpstart James shouldn't stay. Just means that Vanderbilt becoming something permanently better than its recent elevation isn't a sure thing.

But while Penn State would seem a no-brainer -- and coachingsearch.com already has reported that Vanderbilt's offensive and defensive coordinators are beginning to follow Penn State recruits on Twitter -- moving elsewhere this year would seem more reach than beach.

Even if Louisville calls, the Cards' move to the Atlantic Coast Conference means they'll at least trail national champ Florida State, Clemson, Miami and Virginia Tech in terms of name recognition.

(And big ups to Texas for hiring away U of L's Charlie Strong, who's not only a great coach and great person but someone who also gives all those dejected and disappointed Austin residents a reason to hold onto those "Livestrong" bracelets they originally bought to support Lance Armstrong.)

As for the NFL, the Browns are as dreary as their name and the Redskins have professional sports' worst owner in Daniel Snyder. If Franklin is bright enough to make Vanderbilt into a winner, he should be too bright to fall for the temporary employment of coaching the Browns or 'Skins. After all, the VU coach loves to refer to the NFL as "Not For Long."

Yet Franklin also has tweeted the following regarding recruits who might choose someone else over the Commodores: "If u want 2 settle in life this probably isn't the place 4 u anyway!"

Choosing Penn State isn't settling. Choosing any other college or NFL job currently open might be.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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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