10 Questions With: Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin
It's hard to believe James Franklin has only coached two seasons at Vanderbilt. With all he's accomplished - nine wins, a bowl win, national ranking, obliterating decades of history and perception in the process - how has it only been 24 months?
We talked to the third-year head coach about building a program, what the success of private schools means about college football as a whole and the benefits of confrontation.
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1) Private schools such as Vanderbilt, Northwestern, Stanford, Baylor and Duke have been on a serious role as of late. What do you attribute that to?
I think it's a couple things. I don't think there's any doubt people see those places having success and then they want it as well. You look at a place like Stanford, there's been a lot of people who came to Stanford and had success. They've had success under Denny Green, Tyrone Willingham, Bill Walsh. Some of the other schools that maybe haven't had that type of success, to me there's a little bit of a difference. What Coach Cutcliffe is doing at Duke has never really happened there. There was one year with (Steve) Spurrier. I just think you have to be careful. A lot of people say, 'Well, you could take the model from Stanford and bring it to Northwestern, or the Northwestern model and bring it to Vanderbilt.' Every school is specific and unique and you better have a plan that's specific to that institution. We all have strengths and we all have weaknesses. One of the things I think that is helping is there are some problems right now in college athletics, in college football. Now you have these schools that are doing it really on its purest form and they're doing it like it was done probably in the '50's. We're true student-athletes here. To me, it's a really good story for college football. It's a really good story for college athletics. Here's these schools that are doing it at a highly, highly academic institutions with true student-athletes and they're finding ways to be just as successful as everybody else.
2) What have you found to be different about being the head coach at Vanderbilt as opposed to, for example, Florida?
You have to recruit and educate the administration, the boosters, the alumni, the community, the campus just as much as you have to go out and recruit high-profile players and student-athletes. I would say most of us at these schools, especially the ones that haven't done it in the past, we probably wear more hats than anybody because you probably do more speaking engagements than anywhere in the country. You're doing more media interviews. You don't say no to anybody when it comes to the media because it's an opportunity to sell your brand and change perception. It's selling season tickets. It's doing all these things that other people that are just paid to coach their team and recruit players, at these schools you have to wear a lot more hats and you have to have your hands in a lot more pots, and you just have to embrace that. I don't think there's any doubt that at any level you can't have success unless the people that are above you, your bosses and the administration, are supporting you and are on the same page.
3) You use Vanderbilt's academics as a major selling point in recruiting. Was that something you planned to do from the first moment you became a candidate for the job or has it evolved as you've been there?
It's kind of how we've handled things our whole life. You can look at things as problems and issues or you can look at them as challenges and opportunities. It's no different than anything else in life, it's how you perceive it. To me, the academic reputation here in the past had been used as an excuse to not be successful and we've used that as our greatest strength. For the right kid from the right family, we can beat anybody. We can beat anybody in the country. What we have to offer that really nobody else does is, not only do you have the opportunity to get a world class education, and there's really only three or four schools in the country that play major college football that can compete with us, plus the opportunity to play in the SEC. That makes us really unique. I think that's what we're all trying to do in life, we're all trying to find ways to differentiate yourself and make yourself unique. That's something that we have. Couple that with the town that we're in, Nashville is a great town, a very metropolitan, really good city, really good college environment. And then some other things we have here as well, the opportunity to build your own legacy and do something that's never been done before. To me, there's really some attractive qualities there.
4) What have you learned about the demands of your job that you couldn't have known before you took the job?
It's funny, a lot times people say, 'I want to be a head coach because I want to be my own boss.' Well, that doesn't happen and I didn't realize that until I became a head coach. You're just working for different people now. Instead of being an assistant coach and working for the head coach, now you're working for your athletic director and the president and the board of regents, the governor, whatever it is. A lot people say, 'I want to be a head coach because I want to run the show.' Well, that's not the case. You're just working for different people. That's something that I learned very quickly.
5) How did you define success when you first took over the program?
What I'm concerned about is, are people comfortable with the leadership of the program and are people comfortable with the direction? When we get done with a season, a meeting, talking to a group individuals, do people leave saying, 'You know what, I'm comfortable with the direction of the program and where it's going and I'm comfortable with the leadership.' To me, that's the important thing. If you have that, if you have people's belief, the hope that you need for positive things in the future then the rest of the things will fall in place. That's, to me, how I define whether we're having success or not.
6) As you head into year three, is there a point where the goals start becoming less subjective and more objective?
It's never going to be a wins or loss thing with me. Now, externally you're going to get that. That external perception of what you need to do or how many wins or this or that. But internally, no. For us it's about waking up every single morning and being the best James Franklin I possibly can be as a husband, as a father, as a head coach, as a mentora, as a friend or whatever it is. You put enough days like that together and you get your whole organization to buy into that philosophy. We talk about how you can get everything you want in life by serving others. That's just kind of how we approach every single day. You try to maximize your experiences and the results will take care of themselves. We very rarely, if not ever, talk about a number of wins or going to bowl games or any of those things. A lot of coaches talk about, 'We take it one game at a time.' We truly, truly, truly live that way. We break it down even further. One day at a time. We talk about even six seconds (at a time). We constantly take the VU sign, which is a peace sign with your thumb out, and we do two of them in the air which equals six. The average college football play last six seconds so give me everything you've got six seconds at a time. We don't talk about 60 minutes, we don't talk about quarters, we don't talk about halves. We say be great for six seconds at a time.
7) As you look back on it, when do you think the players bought in to you and your staff?
I think it happened quickly because we've got a very, very authentic and genuine staff. The guys could tell that we weren't just saying what they wanted to hear. We had a plan, we were organized, we were passionate about what we were doing. Players, they see through that stuff. They see through the fake stuff fast. If you're genuine and come off that way then they buy in. I think the other thing I would say is, I think it's easier in some ways - in terms of buying in, not in terms of changing a culture - to get kids to buy in when they've been 2-10 two years in a row. If they've won five or six games and they think they're having some success, they don't the program or situation is as bad as what it is, then maybe they're less likely to buy in. When you take over a program that had won four games in two years, they understand very clearly. You don't need to tell them things aren't good. When you're the third head coach in four years you don't need to really explain that there's problems we need to fix. You've got to remember too, we've got a bunch of kids that have been highly successful in everything they've ever done their entire life. Academically, athletically, socially, spiritually, the whole package. And then they come to Vanderbilt and it hadn't gone that way so they desperately wanted to get back to that. As long as they saw that we had a plan and that we were organized, knowledgeable and that we cared about them, it happened. It's no different than in the NFL. You go to the NFL and as long as you know what you're talking about, you've got a plan and you're organized, you're going to be fine. If you don't, you're going to have tough days. I think the biggest thing is we have a genuine staff that's authentic. I think that's helped us in recruiting and I think that's helped us with our players.
8) How did you handle the first few times you had to deal with being "the boss" with an assistant coach or staff member?
That's never really been a concern or an issue. I'm a very direct person, I've always been. I don't think confrontation is a bad thing as long as it's handled the right way and not done to be disrespectful. I'm a guy that I would get frustrated where you'd have your end of the year meeting with your boss and your boss would tell you three things that you didn't do well this year. Well, why didn't you tell me throughout the year? Why are you going to wait until the end of the year to tell me things that I can improve on? I never really understood that business model. If we have a problem, we have an issue or see something that we don't like or disagree on, we're going to have a discussion right then. I write notes down and every morning we go over notes - things that I liked, things that I think we can improve on. We have open discussions. That's kind of just the way we do it and it's been that way from day one. A lot of times we have those discussions in front of the staff and we have those discussions, or sometimes where I do feel like it's too sensitive or it won't be handled well then we'll come to my office and sit down and talk through it and work through it together. I'm a pretty direct guy. I'm also a person that I have to speak my mind and get things off my chest or it eats me up. That's never really been a problem for us and I think people respect that as long as it's handled the right way.
9) What's an area you're continuing to improve upon in the way you manage your staff?
I think people want feedback. I want feedback. I would like more feedback, to be honest with you. I'm constantly telling my assistant head coach, my offense, my defense and my special teams coordinator, my director of football operations and my strength coach I want more feedback. 'You handled this well. You said this and I don't know if it came off the way you want it to come off.' I am thirsting for feedback in ways that I can grow and get better. We've tried to create that type of climate in our office as well.
10) Are you tempted to take a peek at Johnny Manziel film since you travel to College Station on Oct. 26?
Ole Miss, that's the only game on our schedule. We have a schedule board in our building and it says Ole Miss on it. Next year's schedule, 2013, it says Ole Miss. It's the only game that exists and after that game we might have another game. Usually my SID tells me who we play the next week and then we start talking about them and focusing on them. The only game that exists is Ole Miss. I get a little upset at our sports information department, they release a schedule posters and they put it on the Internet. They tell me they have to do that for the fans and for season tickets but internally in our program, with our players and our coaches, the only game that exists for us is our next one and that's Ole Miss and that's not just coach-talk. That's how we live.