Today James Franklin made Vanderbilt and Tennessee a rivalry.
And it will remain a rivalry as long as Franklin is at Vanderbilt.
Last year Derek Dooley’s Tennessee Vols triumphed over Vanderbilt and celebrated in the locker room, with Dooley remarking, “The one thing Tennessee always does is kick the s— out of Vanderbilt!”
On Saturday night James Franklin sprinted into the post-game locker room and started speaking almost before he sat down, “The one thing Vanderbilt always does is,” he paused for just a moment, a smile playing at the edge of his mouth, “focus on being 1-0!”
It was a subtle jab at Dooley’s comments from last season, a rehearsed line that I guarantee Franklin tested out on his coaching staff all week.
Like most of what James Franklin has done at Vanderbilt, it worked perfectly.
That’s why every single Vanderbilt fan on earth would sign James Franklin to a lifetime coaching contract right now. Give him a twenty year deal and don’t give him anyway to leave. Ever. As the Commodore players rushed around on the field for twenty minutes after this win over Tennessee, waving a huge black and gold flag and partying on West End like it was 1982, Vanderbilt’s football stadium rocked with an energy it has never known before.
The anchor was down.
And like just about everything else that could injure him, the anchor landed on Derek Dooley’s foot.
A little over a year ago I wrote on OKTC that Tennessee and Vanderbilt were two programs passing in the night.
The reason was simple, Vanderbilt’s program, players, fans and administration believed in James Franklin with total and complete confidence. No one believed in Derek Dooley. UT fans were furious at me for telling them something that secretly they all feared, Vanderbilt was becoming the superior football program in the state. Vol fans changed my wikipedia page to say I was married to Franklin — when Franklin met my parents he said he was thrilled to meet his in-laws — they called our radio show and said that Vanderbilt would never be any good at football because they’d never been good before.
Tennessee fans fell for the oldest trick in the book — they believed something was impossible because it hadn’t happened before. They confused the impossible with the improbable. Vanderbilt’s rise wasn’t impossible, it just neeeded the right commodore.
My observation that Franklin had Vandy on the right path and Dooley had UT on the wrong one wasn’t rocket science, but it was 100% right.
It all starts at the top and no expenditure in college athletics is more important than your head football coach. Vandy hit a home run with its hire of James Franklin, Tennessee broke a bat on a check swing and sliced its jugular with Derek Dooley. Then it shanked a punt, cut its toe and had to use crutches.
The Dooley era was summed up in a sentence, yet again, when Dooley was asked why he’d faked a punt midway through the third quarter. Dooley said the call had been a good one, but that he thought the fake punt failed because his punter, Michael Palardy, hadn’t loosened up his arm.
Asked whether he believed he’d be back at Tennessee, Dooley replied, “That’s not my call.”
Which is probably good. Because if it was Dooley’s call, he’d likely give himself a four-year extension, a move that would make the Vanderbilt fans chanting, “Four more years,” in the crowd tonight incredibly happy.
From a purely comedic perspective, it’s probably ashame that Dooley doesn’t get to return to Knoxville. Especially since he and Tyler Bray’s clear distaste for one another has become so readily apparent. Given another year together I think it’s nearly 100% likely that Bray and Dooley would get in an actual fight on the sideline.
Especially since Dooley finally benched Bray today.
After throwing his only touchdown pass of the night, Bray turned to the Vandy bench and struck this pose, that he’d perhaps copied from “Bring It On.”
Double hands on hips!
Are you kidding me? The I’m a little teapot stare down? The sorority girl head roll?
This picture alone should knock Bray’s draft stock down a round.
It also sums up his entire tenure at Tennessee.
In three years Bray’s mental make-up hasn’t really changed very much. This is the same quarterback who went from double slit throat gestures for the North Carolina sideline during the Music City Bowl to crying in the space of ten minutes. We haven’t seen an emotional swing like this since Oprah’s show ended.
The only thing that could make this picture better. This addition from @etaylornc that will probably make you die laughing. McKayla Maroney, not impressed by Tyler Bray either.
And if you’re a Tennessee fan, this upcoming line will probably make you cry.
Prior to a late fourth quarter punt return touchdown when Vandy thought the returner was already down, the Vanderbilt Commodores had their largest lead on the Tennessee Volunteers since 1923.
A couple of decades after that glorious Commodore win William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
That was true at Vanderbilt for generations, a football program found more ways to lose football games than seemed humanly possible. It was southern gothic brought to the gridiron, so painful it hurt for Commodore fans to watch. Every Vanderbilt football game was a choose your own adventure book that ended in dreadful defeat, death or dismemberment.
Sometimes all three.
Vanderbilt’s football past was inescapable, bleak, and dark.
It was not a place anyone ever wanted to go.
But then James Franklin arrived at Vanderbilt.
And James Franklin did something interesting and cocky as hell, he didn’t give a damn about the past.
What’s more he flat out didn’t care about the past at Vanderbilt and he said so in public. In fact, he refused to talk about Vandy’s past at all. Ask Franklin about anything that happened before his arrival in Nashville and he immediately brushed it off, “That was before I was here,” he’d say, “I can’t control any of that.”
Which is the exact same mantra espoused by one of the most underrated athletic directors in the country, Vanderbilt’s David Williams, who when asked about past futility that he wasn’t in charge of, shrugged his shoulders and said, simply, “What am I supposed to do about that?”
It’s a simple mantra, but an effective one.
Control what you can control.
So for nearly two years Franklin’s said the same thing in response to any question about the past, giving William Faulkner’s Southern ghost a stiff arm, tossing the old demons of Vanderbilt’s past into the dustbins of history, he said the past flat out didn’t matter.
And on Saturday he was right, the past didn’t matter at all.
Vanderbilt dominated the Vols.
But more impressive than that, Vanderbilt expected to dominate the Vols.
A rivalry begins when two teams play and either team can win. By that metric, Tennessee and Vanderbilt is a bona fide rivalry again. And after the game, Franklin agreed: “We’re 1-1 since I’ve been here — I would say it’s a rivalry now in state,” he said.
Remember General Neyland’s instruction when he was hired by Tennessee? Beat Vanderbilt.
For most Tennessee coaches in the modern era that directive hasn’t been very challenging.
As long as James Franklin’s at Vanderbilt, it will be.
Maybe the past is prologue after all.