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ULTIMATE UNDERDOG
MICHAEL ROSENBERG
September 19, 2011
For Vanderbilt, playing in the nation's toughest conference is a losing proposition. But the only team in the SEC that everyone can love is 2--0, thanks to a new coach who has turned a blind eye to the past
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September 19, 2011

Ultimate Underdog

For Vanderbilt, playing in the nation's toughest conference is a losing proposition. But the only team in the SEC that everyone can love is 2--0, thanks to a new coach who has turned a blind eye to the past

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The roar needs no explanation, but an onlooker provides one anyway: "Yeah. He's here." The he in question is Nick Saban, and his devotees have filled the lobby of the Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover, Ala., hoping to glimpse the Crimson Tide coach.

Saban has arrived for SEC Media Days, a three-day event every July that is so big in the South that its 2012 schedule has already been released. Commemorative T-shirts declare WE ARE COLLEGE FOOTBALL, a statement that rings both arrogant and true. Teams from the conference have won five straight BCS national titles, split among four schools (Florida, LSU, Alabama and Auburn). For a region that drinks up college football like sweet tea, Media Days are almost as much fun as chanting S!E!C! after a bowl win.

For fans, Saban is like a fiftysomething Justin Bieber. It does not seem to bother anybody that he is a reluctant guest of honor. "I think you all know that this is one of my favorite days of the year," Saban tells reporters sarcastically.

Appearing before the media alongside Saban and the three Tide players, almost for bookkeeping purposes, are the representatives for the Vanderbilt Commodores. They have a new coach, 39-year-old James Franklin, but the same old story. They have finished with a losing record in 27 of the last 28 years. They have not had a winning conference mark since 1982.

Even at a gathering of its conference brothers, Vanderbilt football is an orphan. Forget luring fans to Media Days. Vanderbilt barely draws any media to Media Days. Of the 1,050 credentialed reporters, fewer than 10 are there to cover Vanderbilt.

And yet: This appears to be Franklin's favorite day of the year. He says, "I believe whoever I meet, they're a Vanderbilt fan. And if they're not, by the time we get done talking, they are." He looks out at a ballroom of skeptical media members and sees opportunity in every seat.

Since becoming coach last December, Franklin has filled every single media request that has hit his desk. He cohosted a Nashville morning radio show and has invited radio personalities to broadcast live from practice. (They accepted.) He spoke to the leaders of Vanderbilt's student government and the Black Student Alliance. He has had staffers post short promotional videos on YouTube. He has visited every fraternity and sorority on campus ... twice. He has spoken to Kiwanis clubs and Rotary clubs. Sometimes it's hard to tell if he is trying to win the SEC or a seat on the city council.

"I'll do birthday parties," he says. "I'll bring balloons."

If the folks on Vanderbilt's campus think Franklin is passionate when he speaks to them, they should see him with his players. During one practice in August, Franklin, a former Division II quarterback for East Stroudsburg, stepped in against the Commodores' defense. Linebacker Archibald Barnes intercepted his coach's pass and tried to return it for a touchdown. Franklin sprinted toward Barnes and leveled a defensive back blocking for Barnes. The coach was not wearing pads.

Last Saturday night in Nashville, before the Commodores played Connecticut, Franklin surprised his players with all-black uniforms, including black helmets. The color was symbolic. Franklin hopes that, for the first time in a half-century, Vanderbilt is the aggressor.

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