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Or, as senior quarterback Larry Smith says, Franklin "could sell water to a fish."
In the most tradition-loving conference in the most tradition-laden sport in America, Franklin says he does not want to hear about the past. But surely he will not mind this nugget: In December 1932, Vanderbilt had just finished its 18th straight winning season. That month, the Southern Conference split, and roughly half of it ended up as the SEC.
Coach Dan McGugin had built a football powerhouse, but the sport was starting to grip the rest of the South. With larger enrollments, more passionate fan bases and, in some cases, more generous boosters, the rest of the conference passed the Commodores. They stayed competitive into the 1950s, but for much of the past five decades, Vanderbilt has been the school you most wanted to schedule for homecoming.
Franklin says, "We haven't had 40 years of bad coaches here"—but the Commodores have had 40 years of coaches with bad records. In the early 1990s, Gerry DiNardo went 5--6, 4--7, 5--6 and 5--6. At many schools, that would have gotten him fired. At Vanderbilt, it got him the LSU job. DiNardo's replacement, Rod Dowhower, kept using the phrase "epic struggle" to describe his team's challenge. He won four games in two years.
Beginning in 2002, Bobby Johnson went 29--66 in eight seasons, but his reign is still considered a success, for one reason: In '08, he led the Commodores to a 7--6 record, including a win in the Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl in Nashville. The trophy sits alone at the entrance to the Vanderbilt coaches' offices.
"What Coach Johnson was able to accomplish was so remarkable," Chavous says. "I don't think people realize how difficult that is."
Chavous realized it when he was a freshman in 1994. Vanderbilt took a 5--5 record into its home finale, the big rivalry game against Tennessee. A win meant a bowl berth. Chavous remembers going to Vanderbilt Stadium that day thinking, This is what I came for.
He looked up and discovered this was also what thousands of Tennessee fans had come for. The vast majority of the crowd was dressed in Vols orange. Final score: Tennessee 65, Vanderbilt 0. To this day, Vandy season-ticket sales rise and fall depending on whether Tennessee is scheduled to visit Nashville.
The thing about Vanderbilt is that it seems as if it should be able to compete. The university is nationally respected. The campus is beautiful. The schools it most resembles have thrived—Stanford won the Orange Bowl last season; Northwestern has been to several January bowl games, including the Rose Bowl. In addition Vanderbilt's men's basketball team often makes the NCAA tournament, and its baseball team reached the College World Series in June.
Leaving the conference is not an option. Membership is too lucrative, and the competition is beneficial for Vanderbilt's sports outside football. With no chance to be the best team in its conference, Vanderbilt has sought to be the purest. In 2003 then school president Gordon Gee disbanded the athletic department and folded it into a division of student life. Johnson banned profanity on the football field. Other SEC schools had a habit of oversigning recruits—offering scholarships they didn't have, under the assumption that some of the signees would not qualify academically anyway. Vanderbilt's admissions standards are the highest in the SEC, and the team does not sign players unless the university has already decided to admit them.