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The Texas Longhorns Head Coach Search: Vanderbilt's James Franklin & The Beguiling Blank Slate

The seductive appeal of the blank slate.

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Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

James Franklin may be the hottest young coaching candidate in America.  With a borderline messianic following in the SEC and national media, fueled by Franklin's undeniable charisma as much as three years spent elevating lowly Vanderbilt to respectability in the nation's best conference.

James Franklin - Coach of the century?

The appeal of Franklin is obvious.  He's young, smart, competitive, telegenic, humiliates the decayed in-state bully from a traditional weak sister school, and provides saltines to a desperate Vanderbilt fan base that thinks they're steak.  After a lifetime of starvation and gruel, it is.  SEC fans - well, other than in Knoxville - are more than happy to evangelize Vanderbilt's awesomeness under Franklin's tenure because, well, SEC.  Vicarious self-promotion is writ as deep into SEC fan DNA as the lifetime ambition to own a jet ski.

The central problem with Franklin is that of all blank slate hires: a lack of record.  Given his likability, accompanied by a corresponding lack of context, the optimistic conclusions that are projected into a Franklin future at a place like Texas are downright giddy.

Three years as a head coach with a modest assistant's background means any future result can be credibly projected upon him.  That Vandy slope is pointing up and it's awful steep.  Why bother looking at how the X and Y axes are labeled, graph scale, or the length of the line?  We like velocity!

James Franklin got it done at lowly Vanderbilt in the mighty SEC

He's 23-15 over three years, 11-13 in SEC play overall.  And if you know anything about Vandy's dismal history and refusal to compromise on academic integrity for athletes, that's startlingly good.

But the "and he did it in the SEC!" part of this plaudit is tricky, the sort of tricky that I'll rechristen "awesomely deceptive."

The SEC is indeed the best football conference - primarily because the quality in the top quartile of the conference is assured from year to year.  But the associated SEC imprimatur of quality for all of its conference members is largely a smokescreen.  Recently, aside from Bama, the top teams shift from year to year, and the dregs and middle class of the SEC can be as ordinary as their counterparts in other power leagues.

History shows that the middle class in the SEC, given the right schedule, is attainable at a historically downtrodden program, and one of the sweetest opportunities for accolades in college football.  Rich Brooks had a four year demonstration of this at Kentucky between 2006-2009 (UK was 30-22 with four straight bowl games).  Dan Mullen experienced this at Mississippi State recently.  Houston Nutt at Arkansas and Ole Miss.  Leave it to Nutt to double dip inflated expectations in two different fan bases.

Outside of the SEC, Jim Grobe of Wake Forest took a historically horrific program and produced a 28-12 record over three years (2006-2008), including a conference title and BCS bowl berth.  He just resigned after his 5th consecutive losing season.

This is hardly unprecedented.  What's missing is how this ends.

Well, it's unprecedented at Vanderbilt.  In 2012, Vanderbilt went 9-4.  And he did it in the by-God SEC!

In 2008, Vanderbilt's Bobby Johnson was the SEC Coach of The Year for going 7-6 at Vandy with a bowl win, two wins over ranked teams, and five losses by an average of a touchdown each against a season SOS of 13.  How would that Vandy team have stacked up against Franklin's schedules?

You tell me.

Vanderbilt's historically extraordinary 2012 5-3 SEC conference record was fueled by wins over four awful teams and a one point victory over an average one.  Vandy beat the three dregs of the SEC East - Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee - three teams that combined to otherwise go 3-21 in conference play.  They notched a close 17-14 win over Auburn (0-8 in SEC) and a 27-26 win over Ole Miss (3-5 in the SEC).  There's your 5-3.  All five wins came against teams that combined for a 6-34 conference record.

That the name brands of Auburn, Missouri, and Tennessee can be thrown around in these wins with the average fan or media type not quite remembering their putridity lends only more credence to this achievement with the passage of time (not to mention 2013 Auburn in the national title game, 2013 Mizzou winning the SEC East).

Vanderbilt's 4-1 non-conference record was fueled by wins over FCS Presbyterian (absurd), UMass (execrable), 5-7 Wake Forest (ACC bad), a bowl win over 7-6 NC State (coached by a fired Tom O'Brien shell staff) and a 10 point loss to Big 10 Northwestern (aka Vanderbilt Midwest).

The Northwestern loss provides further context for Vanderbilt's season.  The 10-3 Northwestern Wildcats, playing in the often mocked Big 10, finished the year ranked 55th in SOS.  Vanderbilt SOS was 57.

You like projecting short trends?

2011, 33rd SOS, 6-7.

2012, 57th SOS (behind Minnesota 50th, Purdue 51st, Northwestern 55th), 9-4.

2013, 61st SOS (behind Houston, Northwestern, 1 slot ahead of South Florida), 8-4.

Ah, wins increasing as schedule strength plummets.  The secret to good living in the SEC lower middle class.

Would you be as impressed with Franklin if he was doing this in the Big 10?  Or a non-power conference?

I have news for you - SOS says that he kind of is.

They've been to three straight bowl games.

A redundancy to stating his record.  A bowl is the reward for any strategically managed .500 or better record. And it's as much a function of schedule as quality when you reach the 70th best team in the country.  Yep, 70 college football teams go to bowls each year.

James Franklin is an elite recruiter.

Probably true.  He has a reputation for signing the people he targets (including unborn children) and punching well above his weight class at Vanderbilt.

Being a great recruiter has two components - targeting and acquisition.  Being a great coach adds another two: deployment and development.  His acquisition looks good.  His targeting is up in the air.  His development and deployment look solid at Vanderbilt, but I'm not sure how they project elsewhere.

Franklin's historical record at Maryland as a key recruiting assistant 2000-2004, and OC 2008-2010, is a mixed bag of performance. "Loaded Maryland" is not a descriptive I've heard much - at least in on-field results, but they had their Vernon Davis and Shawne Merrimans.  His two year stint as OC at Kansas State (2006-2007) was famous for JUCO oversigning and a massive depletion in Wildcat talent, largely because they couldn't identify high school talent.  That staff showed almost zero affinity for recruiting.

Let's not talk about him like he's 1994-2006 Mack Brown.

James Franklin is an elite motivator

Yep.  I'd run through a wall after watching one his press conferences.

James Franklin knows Xs and Os.

He was a subpar to mediocre offensive coordinator at KSU and Maryland who may, frighteningly, think that he's a good one.  He's an out-of-step West Coast Offense proponent, championing a system going as quickly out of favor in the current NFL as it is dead in the college game.  What offensive philosophy will he hire in?  Does he know what good looks like?  He looks a like a pretty self-assured guy to me.  Do you think he'll take a backseat to his OC and let him run the show?

Franklin has also been around a lot of coaching crazy (Mike Locksley at Maryland, Ron Prince at KSU) and not much coaching quality. That's not his fault, but I'm curious what his staff looks like at the Big Job.

You're being pretty hard on an immensely talented candidate.

Just a needed Devil's advocacy.

Franklin actually impressed me the most this year.  His 2012 team had a classic Cinderella breakout profile - an easy schedule against several self-imploding teams, they were loaded with key upper class contributors, a good OL, a damn good RB (Zac Stacy), a talented QB, and had some underrated defenders at key positions.

In 2013, they had a kind schedule again, but Vanderbilt should have plummeted given their graduation losses and injuries. They held serve. If I saw another two or three years of that with his own recruits - or even a legitimate upper quartile of league contention run - I'd back up the Brink's truck.


I'm in the "Texas can do well with a solid hire" camp.  Vince Lombardi isn't required to win here.  Every candidate will have questions.  Darrell Royal had a short track record, too. He was a back-up option after three high profile rejections; a pure projection, a calculated gamble.  Conversely, Mack Brown came in with a proven track record of program building.  And we've hired everywhere in-between (DX Bible was a guaranteed success, Akers a promising hopeful, McWilliams an act of utter insanity, Mackovic a double down on same).

Trying to find the perfect blueprint is folly.

James Franklin may very well be the right hire for Texas.

But the notion that he's a "safe hire" is an odd one. There's nothing safe about forecasting.