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A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

Coaching Moves

Grading Vanderbilt’s Coaching Move

It takes a special coach to win at Vanderbilt. Not necessarily with any consistency: just win, period, win on occasion, perhaps reaching bowl play once every four years while making things difficult for the rest of the SEC in the process. Is James Franklin that type of coach? While this may be a painful subject to broach, would Gus Malzahn have been that coach? From reports that circulated last month, it seems that Vanderbilt was in deep discussions with Auburn’s offensive coordinator but couldn’t seal the deal, though that has more to do with Malzahn’s hesitancy, not the program’s inability to reel in a big name. Malzahn is right near the top of any list of college football’s top assistants; you’ll find Franklin’s name on this same list, but he’s certainly located a little lower on the pecking order.

Positives Franklin wants to be here. He has been itching for a chance to lead his own program on the F.B.S. level — the B.C.S. conference level in particular — and stands as the opposite of Malzahn, who hemmed and hawed over his decision before opting to remain with the defending national champs. Franklin’s desire to take on this endeavor separates him from several of Vanderbilt’s other candidates, and is surely a positive.

It is good to have a coach with an offensive background. Franklin ran the show offensively at Maryland over the last handful of seasons, piloting an attack that suffered its strings of uneven play but rebounded in 2010 once the program located a quarterback — that position had been a trouble spot over the previous two seasons. Franklin will have an immediate impact on an offense that has lacked rhythm for years, particularly under center, and should have the Commodores scoring enough points to potentially steal a win or two in conference play.

While Maryland — for all its faults — remains on a higher plane of competitiveness than does Vanderbilt, the program’s recent turnaround accomplished with Franklin’s assistance may, in a slight way, prepare the first-year coach for the yearly struggle of lifting the Commodores out of the SEC cellar. Maryland rebounded from a disastrous 2-10 campaign in 2009 to nine wins this past fall, revamping a pedestrian performance on both sides of the ball to stand as one of the nation’s most improved teams. Is Franklin prepared to perform such miracles on a yearly basis? That remains to be seen. Still, the one-year rejuvenation gave him a taste of what to expect, which is a good thing.

Franklin is also an accomplished recruiter, though there’s a difference between landing prospects at Maryland and doing the same at Vanderbilt. There’s a difference between recruiting nearly anywhere and recruiting at Vanderbilt, in fact, what with this fine institution’s academic standards. Don’t ever change, Vanderbilt; still, Franklin will find it hard to bring in the type of athlete he’s used to recruiting.

Negatives He was Maryland’s assistant head coach over the past three seasons, as well as Ralph Friedgen’s designated successor, but Franklin lacks any head coaching experience. This is an issue, in my mind: Vanderbilt needs all the help it can get, and with all the hurdles each year’s team must face, a coach’s learning curve will only set the Commodores back further. Now, it’s a hurdle, but it’s a hurdle Franklin will eventually overcome. For 2011 — and perhaps into 2012 — this is an issue.

The offensive staff is together, and it’s not bad: John Donovan, one of Franklin’s cohorts at Maryland, will call the plays, while Franklin did a wonderful job in adding Herb Hand as his offensive line coach — Hand is certainly one of the best in the business. The defensive staff, on the other hand, seems to be lacking. Vanderbilt will have co-defensive coordinators, with Bob Shoop and Brent Pry sharing the honors. Shoop is late of William & Mary, Pry of Georgia Southern — two fine F.C.S. programs, but I can’t help but feel that Vanderbilt could have done better.

Has Franklin done enough in his college coaching career to prepare him for what awaits with the Commodores? This is the big question: yes, he did a fine job at Maryland and Kansas State, where he spent the 2006-7 seasons, but I’m not sure if either has given him the experience needed to tackle this sizable task. Things may work out; they may not, however, and Vanderbilt might continue to be the SEC’s one easy win.

Grade C+. It’s hard to get excited, particularly when one thinks what might have been: we may never know how in-depth Vanderbilt’s conversations were with Malzahn, but it does seem that the program came close but missed on Auburn’s well-regarded offensive coordinator. Once this occurred, the choice became Franklin; like it or not, he was the fall-back option. While there’s no way to presume that Franklin will fail at Vanderbilt, there’s also little excitement surrounding the hire. In my mind, once it missed on Malzahn the program would have been better off hiring someone with head coaching experience, even if it came on the F.C.S. level. That worked with Bobby Johnson — Vanderbilt should have gone back to the well.

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  1. schedule nit says:

    Here’s what I think of this hire; move Vandy into the SEC East! Totally unfair that the East teams get to play Tulane North every year. As much as I love the Iron Bowl, auburn IS technically East of Vandy…

    BTW, I hear the main bone of contention was Vandy insisting on Malzahn skipping the National Championship game. Try not to make any big sudden movements when you’re trying to get a little squirrel to come over, fellas.

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