NASHVILLE — They arrived at Vanderbilt's McGugin Center with the rising sun Saturday morning, almost all of them clad in Commodores black and gold, their singular mission to show unwavering support for Commodores football. If they could somehow convince coach James Franklin not to leave for Penn State, all the better.
Because at 9 a.m. EST, the crowd having swelled above 300, there seemed to be the thinnest of chances that Franklin might remain, swayed by his persuasive, passionate players and VU athletic director David Williams, who once had been a surrogate grandpa to Franklin's daughters at a "Grandparents Day" school event.
"Maybe this will make him want to stay," VU fan Tim Moss said as he pointed at the growing crowd.
Countered Jessica Miller, who grew up in Chattanooga before moving to Murfreesboro: "I'm not disappointed [if he leaves]. If he's not all in he can get out, because the players and fans are all in."
Yet word soon leaked that Franklin was indeed all out, happily agreeing to a contract of more than $4 million a year to coach the storied Nittany Lions.
If you're scoring at home, that's roughly 25 percent more than his VU salary, but Williams was later adamant that the move from Music City to State College had nothing to do with "compensation."
Instead, for someone such as Franklin who grew up in Pennsylvania keeping up with the outrageous success of Joe Paterno's Nittany Lions, this was a chance, in his words, "to come home. I grew up watching Penn State football, and now to be at the helm of such a storied program is a tremendous honor. When football student-athletes come to Penn State, they have a unique opportunity to receive a premium education while playing at the highest level of competition."
If that sales pitch sounds painfully familiar to Vanderbilt supporters, it should. Franklin often uttered roughly those same words when pitching the Commodores program to recruits.
But after more than a week of rumors, at least one of those players, junior defensive tackle Kyle Woestmann of Marietta, Ga., seemed more than ready to continue his premium VU education without his former coach.
"Everybody was kind of tired that it dragged on," Woestmann said. "But the heartache will last a day; then it's time to win a SEC championship."
Others were more supportive of the coach, including quarterback Patton Robinette.
"He's a great man. I know it was tough for him," Robinette said. "He brought this program a long way, but he had to do what was best for his family."
Brian Kimbrow, the running back who played so well in the BBVA Compass Bowl last weekend, seemed caught in the middle, torn between apprehension and appreciation.
"I respect [Franklin], but this is real hard for a lot of us," he said. "This is something we have to overcome. We just have to find ways to stay focused and stay together, find a way to trust the process."
Williams said the process to replace Franklin already has begun, that the school will use a search firm and, while he expects the process to move quickly, "We are not going to move in a way that we make a mistake."
He also expects Franklin's back-to-back nine-win seasons and bowl victories to make it a good deal easier to find a new coach than when Franklin was hired three years ago following back-to-back two-win seasons.
"The last time, we had to go meet them," Williams said. "It was like, 'I'll listen to you if you fly to the Des Moines airport and we can meet behind the cookie counter.' I think this time they'll meet us where we want, hopefully somewhere sunny."
Among those Williams may interview are current assistants Derek Mason (Stanford), Chad Morris (Clemson) and Pat Narduzzi (Michigan State), as well as Vanderbilt defensive coordinator Bob Shoop.
And regardless of whom Williams ultimately hires, he expects the returning players to give that coach a realistic chance to reach a fourth straight bowl.
"The feeling in that room today, when I talked to the team," Williams said, "was that 'we're Vanderbilt. We're the ones who make the tackles and make the blocks and we're still here. So let's go do it.'"
Woestmann quickly concurred, adding, "We can't wait to get back to work on Monday. We're all still excited to play SEC football and get one of the best educations in the world."
For schools such as Vanderbilt -- schools with small fan bases, big academic requirements and limited outstanding athletic history -- the world can change too quickly when tethered to a coaching comet such as Franklin.
"We were determined to give it our best shot," said Vanderbilt super booster John Ingram, whose family's name is painted on the basketball floor of Memorial Gym, the actual playing surface now known as Ingram Court.
"I can look in the mirror and know we did that. But Coach Franklin also showed the world that you can be great both academically and athletically. We've opened a lot of people's eyes to what's possible, and we haven't hit our ceiling yet."
Franklin almost certainly has hit his ceiling with many Commodores fans, however.
Referring to a nonconference game Vanderbilt dropped once Franklin arrived, Miller said of Penn State's Big Ten membership, "He can't avoid Ohio State now."
The SEC's bowl tie-ins with the Big Ten also open the door for Franklin's former and current employers possibly to meet, something that brought a smile to Woestmann.
"If that happened, it would be awesome," the player said.
The wounds are still fresh and painful this weekend. Uncertainty once more has kidnapped the Vanderbilt football program, though at least this time the concern hinges not to so much on whether the next coach finally can turn the Commodores into winners but whether he can stubbornly keep them there.
But if VU super fan Miller was more than a little upset that one week after Franklin declared, "We have the best fans in America," he also said of the Penn State fan base, "No other school boasts the fans we do. ... We are Penn State," Robinette seemed willing to forgive and forget.
"It's a business," he said with a shrug.
And for a few fortunate folks such as Franklin, guys on a spectacular rise, the business of football never has been more profitable.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org
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 ...