When Vanderbilt hired James Franklin as the Commodores' 27th football coach back in December, he was a virtual unknown.
Franklin came to West End after serving as an offensive coordinator for a Maryland program whose offense was only a smidge better than Vandy's. Make that a Maryland program that had lost to MTSU — twice.
Vandy had flirted with Auburn's Merlin of Misdirection, Gus Malzahn. There were whispers that former Texas Tech head coach, litigious eccentric and pirate enthusiast Mike Leach was interested in the gig.
Instead, the powers-that-be brought in a guy no one had heard of, who was hard to get excited about.
But then Franklin arrived and took to the hustings like a Gilded Age populist politician on a whistle-stop tour.
His enthusiasm for Vanderbilt football — there's a phrase we hadn't heard much — was infectious and palatable. His proclamations that he would change the culture, that he would make the team competitive, echoed the early days of Bruce Pearl's Tennessee tenure.
Franklin kept the charm offensive going through the off-season — cold-calling radio stations, telling everyone who'd listen things would be different at Dudley Field. He even scored verbal commitments from recruits who heretofore would have shrugged off Vandy like a haughty socialite being shown a prêt-a-porter evening gown while eating Caspian caviar on a yacht.
Those verbals gave Commodore fans the chance to act like the rest of the SEC: giving excessive attention to the word of 17-year-olds. Get excited in February when they actually sign.
Or get excited now, Vandy fans — because the Black and Gold are 3-0.
Sure, those wins came over cupcake Elon; a UConn team whose title as defending Big East champion is an insult to the football history of the Big East (and that's saying something); and Ole Miss — an occasionally proud program whose current woes would cause the plucky population of Yoknapatawpha County to lose their religion.
But Vandy is coming off consecutive 2-10 seasons, and they're now 3-0 with virtually the same personnel as 2010.
The difference has to be Franklin and his staff.
Intangibles are one thing, and Franklin has spirit to spare. But the play-calling, which once seemed an attempt to lull opponents into a coma — and left VU fans longing for euthanasia — now delivers more twists than a season of Breaking Bad.
Even when UConn blocked a punt into the end zone, tightening the score, sending the whispers of "Same Old Vandy" around the stands, Franklin's charges held fast. It was a victory snatched from the jaws of a defeat nearly snatched from the jaws of victory. In other words, Vandy won a game that in the past they would have lost, even though they should have won.
And their woodshed domination of Ole Miss has unfortunately turned into speculation about the seat temperature of the Right Reverend Houston Nutt — what respectable coach gets drubbed 30-7 by Vandy! — when the real story is the culture shift within the Commodores.
It's Vandy's hottest start since 2008, when the 'Dores rattled off five straight wins to open the season. That year was capped by a home upset of Auburn, an on-campus visit from GameDay, ESPN's college football road show, and a Top 15 ranking.
It's the hottest start by a Vandy coach since the delightfully nicknamed E.H. "Herc" Alley took over for Red Sanders in 1943 and went 5-0 in a war-shortened season.
Unlike Alley, though, Franklin doesn't have the advantage of getting to play Tennessee Tech (twice). The 'Dores' next two games are on the road, first at South Carolina. The Gamecocks are led by Alshon Jeffrey (one of college football's top receivers), Marcus Lattimore (one of the SEC's best running backs) and quarterback Stephen Garcia (who is probably going to hit on your sister). And of course, Carolina is coached by Steve Spurrier, a man so ego-deprived he wears a visor embroidered with his own autograph.
Then the 'Dores go to Alabama, where they haven't won since 1984. There, Nick Saban has a seemingly endless train of blue-chip players, whom he throws on the field as casually as an oil tycoon tossing $100 bills onto a poker table.
But after this brutal back-to-back, there could be three more wins on the schedule, taking Vandy to the bowl-eligible magic number of six. Army, Kentucky and Wake Forest are all winnable, especially with the first two at home.
No matter how it turns out, though, one thing's certain: Franklin hasn't just shushed the "Same Old Vandy" whispers. He's shouted them down.
Quoting passages from the bible is irrelevant as an argument related to government programs.
Here's the money quote: "I’m Chucky. I’m a different person."
That you are, Chucky.
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