James Franklin: Derek Dooley’s Worst Nightmare

While Derek Dooley has been focused on growing nonexistent bamboo in Knoxville, James Franklin has been winning football games at Vanderbilt. In just his first season at Vandy, Franklin has notched the two biggest margins of SEC victory for the Commodores since 1971, come within a single play of beating both Arkansas and Georgia, and seen his team win more football games in his first season than it won in the previous two seasons combined. Along the way Franklin has refashioned the Commodore football program, grabbed the city of Nashville’s sports attention with his insistent sales job, and beaten out Tennessee for at least two prime recruits in the state. Indeed, Franklin’s most recent commit, Andrew Jelks, grew up a Tennessee fan and his parents are Vol season ticket holders. Franklin’s recruiting class currently sits at #21 in the country. That’s poised to become the best recruiting haul in the school’s history.  

Coming in to Saturday’s game in Knoxville, Franklin has accomplished the unbelievable — his Commodores are a favorite over the Vols in Knoxville for the first time in modern history.  

Put simply, James Franklin is Vanderbilt football’s own Bruce Pearl.

Just as Pearl arrived in Knoxville to take over a moribund basketball program and immediately sent shockwaves through the conference with his brash confidence, showman’s nature, and fearless swagger Franklin has done the same with Vanderbilt football. The most fascinating thing about these two men? The same UT fans who loved Pearl, hate Franklin and the same Vandy fans who hated Pearl, love Franklin. Personally I really like both guys. Each man makes the sport more fun to write and talk about because they both understood, at its essence, that what they do is rooted in entertainment. We watch teams play sports to be entertained. Too often, coaches don’t realize this fact or neglect it along the way. If you have fun, success tends to follow.

It’s not rocket science.

Franklin has fun, and success is following.

In his first year Franklin has been the anti-Dooley. He hasn’t bemoaned his lack of talent, youth, schedule or given golly gee soundbites when things didn’t go his way. He hasn’t pointed to the opponents and said that Vandy wasn’t able to complete against the best teams and he hasn’t shrugged his shoulders as beating after beating rained down on his team. Instead, Franklin has focused on a simple mantra, we have to get better and win now. While Derek Dooley has been making excuses in Knoxville, James Franklin has been winning at levels never seen before in the Vanderbilt football program.  

Last week Dooley’s Vols came within a hair of taking the worst SEC beating in the history of the program. Along the way Dooley’s haphazard sideline decision making, his inability to correctly use timeouts, and his insistent quips about the Vols’ inability to compete given their situation, has become frustrating. Fans are voting with their wallets. This year will be the lowest home attendance — butts actually in seats — since Tennessee expanded to 100,000 seats.  

James Franklin took over a program that had gone 4-20 in its previous two seasons, that has had one bowl trip in thirty years, that has had three coaches in three years, and he’s won. Vanderbilt has gotten better each week this season; Tennessee has gotten worse. Against five common opponents this season, Vanderbilt has been the much more competitive team, scoring more points and giving up much less. The Commodores have lost to South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas, and Florida by a combined score of 145-80 while the Vols have lost to the same teams by a combined score of 153-51. And, before this even starts, the Commodores lose just six senior starters. The Dores will be better next year than they are this year.

Do you really think Dooley took over a worse program than Vanderbilt?

(Hint, he didn’t.) 

Derek Dooley took over a program in very similar circumstances and he’s bitched, moaned, told jokes, and lost to anyone that matters. Nearly two complete years into the Derek Dooley era, here are the two best things about Dooley’s tenure at UT:

1. Barbara Dooley

2. The orange pants.

That’s it.

Somewhere along the way UT fans bought in to what I call the Vol Lost Cause. It goes something like this: Phil Fulmer left the Tennessee program so decimated that no coach, no matter how great, could have come in to Knoxville and won. The only major flaw with that logic? It just isn’t true. Do you know how many games Lane Kiffin was favored to win in 2009? Nine. Do you know how many he won? Seven. Kiffin went 7-6 and sold Vol fans on a false bill of goods — the idea that Fulmer left a team that couldn’t compete. In the April 2010 draft the Vols sent six players to the NFL, the second most in the SEC behind Alabama. Now, half of Kiffin’s vaunted 2008 recruiting class is already gone — the half that remained was mostly recruited by Fulmer — and Kiffin ran off over 30 scholarship players from the Fulmer regime.

So there’s no doubt that Kiffin left the program in much worse shape than he found it. But he didn’t leave the cupboard completely bare.

In Derek Dooley’s first season with the Vols do you know how many games he was favored to win?

Six. 

Do you know how many Dooley won?

Six. 

That’s hardly a program in awful shape.

Do you know how many regular season games Dooley was expected to win in Las Vegas coming in to this season? 6.5. (Vanderbilt was 3.5) Do you know how many Dooley will win?

Well, less than that. But after he got UT to pay a million dollars not to play North Carolina, Dooley had teed up six guaranteed wins. All he needed to do was beat Montana, Cincinnati, Buffalo, MTSU, Vandy and Kentucky and he’d be bowl eligible again. 

Can he do it?

It’s looking like he should have bought out Vanderbilt too. 

What Dooley has avoided until now is the cataclysmic defeat. The loss that makes every Vol fan throw his hands in the air and say, “What in the world were we thinking hiring a guy who couldn’t even win over half his games in the WAC and expecting him to go toe-to-toe with Nick Saban?”

Derek Dooley is Mike Shula with a law degree. (Both men were 10-13 in their first 23 games at Alabama and Tennessee, respectively). Only Shula, who lost his starting quarterback to season-ending injury in year two, went 10-2 in his third season. Dooley won’t sniff ten wins in 2012. So Dooley will be Mike Shula with less wins.

Ouch.

Dooley is 0-17 against top 25 opponents, 27-33 in nearly five complete seasons as a head coach, and has beaten two teams with winning records in his coaching career. At what point do you acknowledge that Dooley is what his record says he is — a sub .500 coach? 

What’s worse than all this? Dooley has lowered expectations to such a degree that Tennessee has turned into Ole Miss without fans even realizing it. Every four or five years we can have a good year. That’s really the expectations? Remember when Vol fans were furious at Mike Hamilton for extending Phil Fulmer’s contract every time he won eight games? Now Tennessee gives coaches three years to win eight games and talks about what a wonderful job they’re doing when they finally get to eight wins.

Remember when Steve Spurrier said you couldn’t spell Citrus without UT?

If only.

Now Tennessee aspires to the Music City or Liberty Bowls.

Every week more and more of you put down the Dool-Aid and come around to my school of thinking. Give me a dump truck full of cash and let me drive around the country with $5 million a year in the back until we find a top coach who won’t say no to the Vols. (Hint, with the current weakness in the SEC east, it wouldn’t take very long at all to get a prime candidate on the hook). See, I’m of the opinion that getting rejected by top coaching candidates isn’t insulting at all. Do you blame a guy for getting shot down by the hottest girl at the bar? You gotta ask to win. And one of the nation’s ten largest schools in the country should never be paying bargain basement rates for head coaches. (UT pays less for its head coaches as a percentage of overall revenue than every school in the SEC. Hell, Kentucky pays John Calipari a million more dollars than UT pays Derek Dooley and Cuonzo Martin combined. The lesson is simple, you get what you pay for. Read this breakdown of coaching salaries if you doubt me).      

Back in August I said on my radio show that I’d rather have James Franklin than Derek Dooley as the head coach of my program. Many Vol fans were furious with me. This week dozens of emails, Tweets, and Facebook messages have come rolling in from Vol fans asking whether we could trade Dooley for Franklin. (Or steal away Franklin next offseason).

Yep, people are pouring out the Dool-Aid and asking this simple question, if Vanderbilt can get a coach who can win immediately, why can’t we get one who can win in two years?

It’s a great question with a simple answer.

Vanderbilt has a better head coach than Tennessee does.  

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