Boclair: Agent of change

Tuesday, November 1, 2011 at 10:05pm

Everybody needs a catchphrase.

They’re memorable. They’re inspirational. Never mind that they are not always accurate.

Take the case of Vanderbilt football coach James Franklin.

There probably haven’t been enough fingers and toes inside Vanderbilt Stadium on any of the past three Saturdays to count the number of times Franklin has said “change the culture” in the months since he was hired.

It sounds good. It’s what a lot of Vanderbilt supporters wanted to hear. It just does not accurately assess the situation.

Make no mistake, Franklin has effected plenty of change in his first season on the job.

He has altered the schemes on offense, defense and special teams. He has changed the positions of any number of players — more than once, in some cases. He has changed the approach to practice and to conditioning. He even has changed the uniforms.

At this point it is safe to say that all of those changes have been for the better. (I’m actually not a big fan of the black helmets, but that’s just personal taste).

Not only is Vanderbilt more entertaining on offense than it has been in years, it is more productive. It puts pressure on opposing defenses and shows more big-play potential than at any time in recent memory.

The defense is dynamic and opportunistic, as evidenced by the fact that it has been at or near the top of the national rankings for takeaways all season.

The special teams are unpredictable, the way they once were under Woody Widenhofer. Only now, fake punts and kicks are much less likely to end up in blooper compilations.

Perhaps most important, the Commodores have avoided the devastating accumulation of injuries that was so detrimental the past two seasons.

All of those things are details that have benefited from a fresh approach. They don’t strike at the core of the program.

Stop and think about it. There is a group of seniors and redshirt juniors on this team that experienced a bowl victory. Those players expected to contend — as is the case this fall — for more such postseason appearances before the end of their careers.

There’s a group third-year players that signed letters-of-intent a couple months after that triumph over Boston College in the Music City Bowl. Certainly they did so with the sense that they would be a part of such contests during their careers.

Other than running back Jerron Seymour, none of the members of Franklin’s first recruiting class have made much of an impact on the field. The players already on hand clearly were good enough to compete at the SEC level.

It’s not as if the academic standards or expectations for football players could or would be raised.

Plus, anyone who ever saw and/or heard Bobby Johnson rail against officials, opposing coaches and the like for indignities and inequities — real and perceived — know it has been some time since the program has not wallowed in its underdog status.

In short, a significant — and much-needed — cultural change took place during Johnson’s tenure, which effectively included the 2010 season under Robbie Caldwell. The program Franklin inherited was decidedly different from the one Johnson or Widenhofer or Rod Dowhower or Gerry Dinardo or Watson Brown did.

Franklin’s task, therefore, was to inject a fresh attitude and to make changes that would “continue” the momentum that was generated a decade ago.

Change the culture.

It lacks just enough specificity to stir the imagination. Plus it has much more panache than saying, “Change all the things that need changing to take advantage of the solid foundation laid by the previous regime.” 

David Boclair is the senior writer/sports editor for The City Paper. Follow him on Twitter, @BoclairSports


4 Comments on this post:

By: wiseguy on 11/2/11 at 7:51

I keep waiting for the much needed cultural change in Nashille's so-called sports writers.

By: on 11/2/11 at 7:58

This may be the height of stupid arguments! If the fact that this team has some players from the victorious Music City Bowl team explains the change in play this year, what explains the pitiful play from 2009 and 2010? One would certainly think a winning season and a bowl victory would have created a "fresh attitude". In fact, those teams performed worse that any teams in recent memory (I know, that's hard to imagine).
By definition as a season ticket holder for many years, I am an eternal optimist. Last Saturday loss was "same old Vandy" in its form but I'm hopeful it was not in its results. I hopeful this team will play hard on Saturday and the rest of the season rather than "mail it in" like they have done the last two seasons-that will be enough specificity to stir everyone's imagination.

By: cash_ville44 on 11/2/11 at 1:33

Boclair, I have enjoyed a lot of what I've read in your column over time, but you are so off-base with this one that it is baffling to the sports mind. If you think that altered offensive and defensive schemes, player position changes and improvements in team conditioning are all that this team and coach are about then you need to spend more time with these kids and with this program and get a clue.

Every coach that you mentioned in the article did the same things that you criticize Franklin for upon arriving at Vanderbilt with minimal effect and change. None of them delivered a return on investment, minus Johnson, equal to what Franklin has done in only his first year on the job. To imply that he is riding the back of momentum that was created a decade ago is completely asinine. Again, only one of the coaches you mentioned in this "decade of momentum" is worthy of mentioning in terms of productivity, and that's Johnson. Where was this momentum last year when we had most of the players left from Johnsons tenure and a head coach from said tenure as well. Continuity was definitely not the issue.

Franklin has taken this team and made them fundamentally sound, tougher than they were before and believers in themselves. And it shows on the field. This, as you so eloquently put it, with only one of his own recruits, Jerron Seymour making an impact on the field. The rest of the guys that are making this team worthy of loving and cheering for were here when he got here. The fire and the passion that coach Franklin displays for Vanderbilt football can be seen in his players as well as on the field and it has definitely effected a change in the entire program. From conditioning, i.e. "less devastating accumulation of injuries" to team state of mind- this Vanderbilt team doesn't quit and hang their heads when things go south, they fight to the end as has been shown in both losses to Georgia and Arkansas. They will not wallow in their underdog status. Not with Franklin at the helm.

There is OBVIOUSLY something DIFFERENT about what he and his staff are doing and have done. Ask the seniors, redshirt-juniors and third-year players that you mentioned in your column that expected to contend for a bowl game last year. Oh, and let's not forget season-ticket holders, like myself that witnessed that 2-10 foundation that you speak of. I think that you would get a differing opinion, to say the least.

If what we've seen isn't striking at the core of what a football program is all about, then what does? Specifically.

By: Dore4Life on 11/3/11 at 4:13

To be fair in assessment, Bobby Johnson aka "Deuce" was also responsible for several losses during his extended tenure at VU due to his ultra-conservative coaching style. His 2008 team which produced the most wins on the field at VU since 1982 wasn't really anymore competitive against SEC competition than even his 2005 team that went 5-6 overall, let alone this 2011 VU team thus far. For proof of that, they lost to 3 teams that finished the season with losing records overall (Duke, MSU, and UTK).

Also, I would like to dig up another gripe I STILL harp on regarding Johnson's decision to, in my opinion, inadequately utilize Dan Stricker and MJ Garrett (Two senior WR's and a couple of the best in the SEC at the time) in his first season as HC. I know it doesn't hold much relevance now, but by comparison to Franklin, Johnson didn't exactly seem interested in winning right away, unless it was done with his style of coaching, which seemed to emphasize making less mistakes over taking risks in order to compete.

All that being said, Johnson's willingness to take extended time to recruit/develop players who were deemed "projects" at best by other programs was his most important achievement at VU, in my opinion, aside of course from the 2008 season's winning season and the first victory over UTK since 1982 in 2005. Players like Jay Cutler, Earl Bennett, Chris Williams, etc. truly reached their potential as football players under Johnson and staff's coaching and are currently playing in the NFL as a result.