There was one phrase heard often at the Southeastern Conference Media Days this week. That phrase was “three in a row.” It is the subtext to the 2013 SEC football season.
Alabama is gunning for its third consecutive national championship. Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron will also be trying to win his third consecutive national championship as a player, an unprecedented feat.
While Alabama and McCarron grabbed the most attention on the final day of the SEC press gathering, the “three in a row” phrase was not just restricted to the Crimson Tide representatives. It also echoed from the Vanderbilt contingent.
Usually when the phrase “three in a row” was heard around Vanderbilt’s football team it was referring to game losses or losing seasons. But not this time. It is referring to another unprecedented event — Vanderbilt aiming for its third consecutive bowl game.
Such is the legacy of the James Franklin era in Nashville.
When Franklin became Vanderbilt’s head coach, he promised to change the air of defeat that has been hanging over Vanderbilt football seemingly forever. The skeptics were quick to point out that every new coach at Vanderbilt promised the same thing, but never delivered on that promise for more than one season at a time.
But Franklin has delivered. In two seasons, he has two consecutive winning seasons and posted a 15-11 record, the first time in history that the Commodores won 15 games in a two-year period. He has taken the Commodores to consecutive bowl games for the first time in their mostly hapless history.
“I think it’s really significant. We’re very, very proud of it,” Franklin said. “But once again, those things are in the past. I think if we spend all our time focused on what we’ve done in the last two years, then we’re not going to be able to achieve what we’re able to achieve this year.”
Can they do it three years in a row? Franklin thinks they can.
“We’ve been able to do some pretty good things that we’re very, very proud of,” Franklin said. “To put a little bit of perspective for everybody, before we arrived at Vanderbilt, Vanderbilt had won four bowls game, had been to four bowl games, excuse me, in 122 years.
“We’ve been to two bowl games in two years. Very, very proud of that. We were able to win nine games last year. Haven’t won nine games at Vanderbilt since 1915. Very proud of that fact. We were able to win our last seven games. Longest winning streak to end the season in the SEC last year was us.”
But if the Commodores take a step back to their old losing ways this season, it would take some of the luster off those achievements.
“Probably our biggest challenge is handling the success. I think a lot of times when you’re taking over a program, you’re dealing with 18- to-22-year-old males, adversity is probably a little bit easier to handle than the success. Making sure our guys understand that we’re going to have to play with the same type of emotion, passion, chip on our shoulder that we’ve had in the past,” he said.
Vanderbilt has also achieved another lesser-known achievement — membership in what he calls the 20-20-20 club.
“Us and Notre Dame are the only two schools in the country that finished in the top 20 on the football field; that had a top 20 recruiting class and are in the top 20 academic institutions. We’re very, very proud of that stat as well,” said Franklin.
Past coaches have hoped to use Vanderbilt as a stepping stone to a bigger job, but that is not Franklin’s agenda.
“We believe in what we’re doing,” he said. “We believe in the commitment that the kids have made. You walk into that home and you talk to that kid and you talk to their parents about the opportunity that you’re presenting to their son at a place like Vanderbilt. The fact that they have a chance and get a world class education and play in the greatest football conference in America.”
Vanderbilt’s entire coaching staff returns for another season in Music City, a fact that has been instrumental in the team’s recruiting.
“I think also the fact the university has made a tremendous commitment,” said Franklin.” I wasn’t able to keep all those assistant coaches just because we’re doing wonderful things; it’s also because we were able to make the commitment to keep them financially as well. I think more than anything you see a commitment at Vanderbilt right now, not only from the head coach and the players, but from the administration and the boosters and the fan base and everybody else, probably more so than it’s ever been at Vanderbilt.
“To me that’s exciting.”
These are exciting times for James Franklin and the Vanderbilt program.