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VOL. 129 | NO. 139 | Friday, July 18, 2014
Don Wade

Don Wade

No Crying in Vanderbilt Football, Not Anymore

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HOOVER, Ala. – Before James Franklin, Vanderbilt never had been to consecutive bowl games. He took them to three in three years.

In the lore that isn’t Vanderbilt football, that’s enough to build the man a statue.

Of course now, Nashville pigeons would be bombing said statue because Franklin raced off to Penn State for greener pastures (a reported guarantee of $25.5 million over six years).

Happy Valley, indeed.

Everyone knew Franklin was a short-timer at Vandy, but it was the way he exited that had sophomore defensive lineman Adam Butler questioning Franklin’s sincerity, describing the routine way in which Franklin could turn on the tears, and questioning if the coach hadn’t taken a few acting lessons.

“It wasn’t disappointing that he left,” Butler said this week at SEC Media Days. “People lose head coaches all the time. It was more the way he left. He repeatedly told us he wasn’t going anywhere. Just be straight-up with your own players.”

It’s a quaint concept in this day and age of big-time college football, which now has made a stop at Vanderbilt.

And first-year coach Derek Mason comes into a situation no other Vanderbilt coach has faced: following sustained success, inheriting expectations.

“James did the legwork, no question. And Bobby Johnson did the legwork before him when you talk about the recruits playing at Vanderbilt the last three years,” said Mason, who as defensive coordinator at Stanford helped the Cardinals to four straight BCS games.

“But my expectation is to push the envelope a little bit. We have to move past the idea of playing for nine wins. Why nine when you can have 10? Why settle for 10 when you can have 11?”

It is a lot to say in any league, but especially in the SEC. Franklin came in after Johnson went 2-10 in his last season and Robbie Caldwell went 2-10 in his only season. It made a 6-6 regular season and a trip to the AutoZone Liberty Bowl a celebration.

Mason does not have this luxury. His own players, never mind fans, cannot abide the idea of returning to the bad old days when Vanderbilt was the conference punch line.

The typical play for a coach in this spot would be to tamp down the expectations. Mason, who wore a bow tie at SEC Media Days, isn’t typical. He’s his own man.

“His vision is winning the SEC title,” Butler said. “That’s the next step we have to take as a program.”

Still, it’s one thing to go from beating Tennessee in consecutive seasons and going to three straight bowl games and another to more or less openly declare the goal is winning in Atlanta on Dec. 6.

“(Coach Mason) feels if you can’t talk about it, you can’t be about it,” tight end Steven Scheu said.

Practically speaking, Mason has to settle on a quarterback before the start of the season. Sophomore Patton Robinette had some nice moments filling in because of injury last season, but Mason has said six quarterbacks – including LSU transfer Stephen Rivers, the younger brother of San Diego Chargers QB Philip Rivers, and redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary – are in the mix.

One possible saving grace: Vanderbilt has about as forgiving a schedule as there can be when you play in the SEC. The Commodores have only four road games, and their crossover games are at home against Ole Miss (not impossible) and at Mississippi State (probably a pick ‘em here in July).

Some might believe Mason accepted the Vanderbilt job only because the team is coming off a good run, but he says that had nothing to do with his decision.

“I would have took this job had they been coming off an 0-11 stint,” Mason said. “Doesn’t matter to me. It’s the opportunity, especially coming from a place like Stanford where you actually saw it being done. Being smart shouldn’t be an excuse, you know?”

So much for employing Vanderbilt’s time-honored public relations prevent defense against mediocrity.

Also, so much for crocodile tears.

Don Wade’s column appears weekly in The Daily News and The Memphis News. Listen to Wade on “Middays with Greg & Eli” Tuesdays at noon on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM.

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