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Having the brightest players in the league does not necessarily mean having the brightest team. As he watched film at a recent staff meeting, Franklin expressed disbelief at one player, who could not grasp a new scheme. "He got almost a perfect score on the ACT, and he's struggling," Franklin told his staff. An assistant cracked, "[But] he'll split the atom for you."
One problem is that the Vanderbilt community generally expects to lose. Players are susceptible to that mind-set. Receivers wait to catch the ball instead of going after it. When leads start to vanish in the second half, the Commodores buckle. The last two years, Smith says, "we kind of fell into a typical Vanderbilt team, not being confident, not being able to finish games."
Franklin is trying to change that thinking. Other coaches, and even some people at the school, can rattle off a list of reasons why Vanderbilt loses. Franklin has a list of reasons why Vanderbilt will win. Oddly, the reasons are the same.
In Franklin's world, living on the dark side of the moon means you don't have to worry about sunburn. Did you say Nashville doesn't care about Commodores football? He says players get to live in a city with so much going on. Vanderbilt doesn't have enough talent? Then recruits can play right away. Franklin is too young to win in the SEC? He says, "I think of myself as an old-school, tough coach. But I'm not so old that I don't understand what [the players are] talking about."
And if you say that Vanderbilt can't possibly win in the SEC, he says that at Vanderbilt, players can get a world-class education while playing in the nation's toughest conference.
"Where else would you go?" he says. "Nobody else can offer that."
Can Franklin pull this off? History and 11 other rabid fan bases say no way. Franklin can't match the credentials of other coaches in his conference, but he is trying to make up for it by being closer to his team. Players' family members walk through the Vanderbilt football building, and Franklin, fresh off a tough practice, stops them, hugs them and calls them "partner" without seeming phony. When the Commodores saw the movie Horrible Bosses in August, Franklin realized, Uh- oh, that's me, I'm the boss now. He looked around. Nobody was in his row. He grabbed a few freshmen and made them sit next to him.
"I have no problem telling these kids I love them," he says. "And I want them to feel the same way about me. That's what we're working toward every day."
He already knows what every other Vanderbilt coach since World War II figured out: He has to do almost everything right just to have a chance. Franklin is trying to mold his system to his players, instead of forcing the players he inherited to fit his system, because he needs to squeeze as many wins as he can out of this group before his recruits arrive.
He has told his coaches: If a recruit is at practice and you don't know his name, do not ask. He told them to fake it if they must. During the January recruiting whirlwind, an airline temporarily lost Franklin's luggage. He was in a new city every day, so the luggage kept following him around, unable to catch up. He wore the same suit for six straight days. He jokes that he went from hugging everybody to standing back and shaking hands. But he was undeterred.