New Vanderbilt football coach Derek Mason gave an exemplary performance at his introductory press conference.
Indeed, if there was any misstep, it was just a minor one. At the end, Chancellor Nick Zeppos and athletic director David Williams flashed the VU hand sign — a relatively simple gesture of extending the index and middle fingers and thumb in a rudimentary manual manifestation of the schools monogram. Mason had a brief bit of difficulty with it, before finally striking the right pose.
It works as a metaphor for the kind of coach the Commodores got in the former Stanford defensive coordinator. The hand sign, like so many of the touchstones of the Vanderbilt football cultural revival, was a creation of James Franklin. In many ways, Mason is a lot like Franklin — a young, enthusiastic coordinator with an infectious personality who steps into his first head coaching gig envisioning an ever-brighter future on West End.
But he is not Franklin. Nor should anyone expect him to be.
Franklin — as the events of his departure for Penn State have shown — was a tireless booster not just of Vanderbilt, but of James Franklin, his statements covered with more "I"s than Argus. There was nary a first-person pronoun from Mason, but there were plenty of bon mots that showed he too can rally a suddenly proud and boisterous group of boosters.
His expressed desire for "intellectual brutality" from his teams is as great a line as any Vandy coach has uttered in decades. Were this a fair world, it would replace the oxymoronic Franklin creation "Anchor Down," which, unfortunately, is going to remain, not unlike ... well, a ship with its anchor down.
Another difference: Mason promised he wouldn't pursue Stanford recruits unless they previously expressed an interest in Vanderbilt. That may not do much for the Commodores' recruiting rankings — currently plummeting like Blackberry sales numbers — but it will assuage the screeching moralists upset that Franklin has flipped a half-dozen Vandy commits into wearing blue and white.
Recruit-flipping — or "poaching" for the more rigid observers — is a complicated issue, especially since the people at the heart of it are 17-year-olds being asked to make what is, for most of them, the most important decision of their lives. But certainly Franklin's pursuit of Vandy commits is distasteful, since he is the same man who once declared such equivocation dishonorable.
Whether it's truly dishonorable or just a fact of the matter is an open question. But Franklin has no one to blame but himself for the vituperative reaction to his machinations, since he was the one who so absolutely declared recommitment as an absolute wrong.
Furthermore, Mason praised Franklin for laying a foundation for success at Vandy — a gracious gesture that wouldn't have been missed if he skipped it, given the current level of ire held for the former coach. That stood in stark contrast from Franklin, who barely whispered the name of his predecessor, Bobby Johnson — even though Johnson's staff brought in so many of the players who provided the unprecedented on-the-field success Vandy's enjoyed.
Still, Mason has work to do.
His first few days on the job displaced the betrayal and anger that had dominated the black-and-gold faithful with, if not abject joy, at least a sense of ease that David Williams had again found the right man. In this case, he's a man who has the positives of Franklin without exhibiting the bombastic parts of his personality and approach, which were tolerated, ignored or even defended — vehemently — when he was at West End, and have been castigated now that he's gone.
A valid concern going into the coaching search was whether a new hire would be given the latitude to be his own coach without constantly being compared to Franklin.
In the past week, the reaction of the Vandy faithful to the actions of both Mason and Franklin demonstrate that's no longer a worry. Mason doesn't want to be Franklin, and Vandy fans seem happy he's not. Even if he can't quite get the hand sign right.
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