Storylines are never lacking heading into Southeastern Conference Media Days.
This year is no exception.
As was the case in 2012, SEC officials expect more than 1,000 credentialed media members to descend upon the Hyatt Regency Wynfrey Hotel in Birmingham, Ala., for the three-day spectacle, which begins Tuesday.
There will be plenty to write and talk about.
Can Alabama make it three national championships in a row? In the last year of the BCS system, can the SEC add another chapter to its legacy with an eighth straight title? Will Johnny Manziel defend his Heisman Trophy? Will Manziel’s second go-around against Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide be much different? Who is the favorite to win the SEC East?
When the Vanderbilt contingent arrives on Thursday, though, the story becomes what James Franklin says.
Instead of recapping an historic nine-win season, many of the questions aimed at Franklin likely will be in regard to the dismissal of four football players a couple weeks ago amid an investigation into a sexual assault at a Vanderbilt dorm room. As of press time, no arrests had been made and the identities of the players had not been made public.
Since the initial announcement, Vanderbilt officials have stayed quiet on the matter. Vice Chancellor for Public Affairs Beth Fortune was not made available for comment. Assistant Vice Chancellor Elizabeth Latt did not issue a timetable for when the university would comment further, saying that might depend on further developments in the Metro Nashville Police Department’s case.
Multiple messages left for Franklin have not been returned. Most likely, his first public comments on the incident will come on Thursday in Birmingham.
“James Franklin is going to have to address it,” national columnist and college football TV analyst Tony Barnhart said. “Now the question is does he choose to be on offense or does he choose to be on defense? My guess is, having spent some time with him since he has been at Vanderbilt, he’ll want to go on offense and get his position out there. I think a lot of people are going to be watching James Franklin next week to see exactly how he responds.”
Barnhart, now in his sixth year with CBSsports.com after a lengthy career with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, has covered every SEC Media Days since 1984. He describes the mammoth event as a “pretty intense three days.”
Joining Franklin will be three seniors — CB Andre Hal, OT Wesley Johnson and WR Jordan Matthews — who also will be asked about the incident and how the negative attention affects the team. Though the Commodores appear on the last day, the media coverage won’t be waning. Coaches and players from Alabama, Georgia and LSU also are scheduled for Thursday.
As part of the media days process, teams also provide the media guides for the upcoming season. Vanderbilt’s will be in high demand as writers, broadcasters, bloggers and commentators flip through the pages to see who is no longer on the roster.
“Let’s face it, the media coverage, has, for the most part, been very, very positive,” Barnhart said. “When you’ve won a bunch of games and done things for the first time in 100 years, the media coverage is very positive. Well this is the not so positive thing. Every coach has to understand this comes with the territory.”
Franklin, like most coaches, wants to control his message about the program. When questions veer off his course, he tends to clam up. For example, when pushed about injuries — which are taboo to ask about in Franklin’s eyes — he won’t budge and occasionally turns sarcastic.
“What you can’t do — this is strictly my opinion — is be defensive,” Barnhart said. “It is one thing to not want to tell the media who is going to play left tackle or who is really hurt. It is one thing to do that; it is another thing to have to address these kinds of issues. These kinds of issues happen in every football program. The coaches who are confident in what they’re doing sort of go on offense and take these things head on.”
Coming off consecutive bowls for the first time in school history and winning nine games for the first time since 1915, Vanderbilt rides a rare wave of momentum. The Commodores’ 2013 opener against Ole Miss on the opening night of college football on Aug. 29 will receive national attention.
The open investigation does not “blunt” momentum, Barnhart says. Nor has Franklin’s image taken a hit. But Vanderbilt’s third-year coach must recognize his Commodores will be a storyline next week, for reasons he has made clear he would rather not discuss.
“I don’t think he needs to rehabilitate his image. I don’t think this has hurt his image,” Barnhart said. “I try to tell people episodes like this do not define coaches. It is what they do from this point moving forward. It is what happens next. He has to say, ‘Look, this is certainly not typical of who we are.’ I think that is understood.
“But, again, you can’t just go into a media situation and shut down the conversation. That is not going to work.”