Vanderbilt Football: Behind the Scenes With James Franklin on Signing Day

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James Franklin recruited the top class in school history.

<p> Vanderbilt coach James Franklin recently signed what is considered to be the top recruiting class in school history. Athlon Sports spent National Signing Day in the Commodores’ War Room with Franklin and his staff.</p>

Vanderbilt coach James Franklin recently signed what is considered to be the top recruiting class in school history. Athlon Sports spent National Signing Day in the Commodores’ War Room with Franklin and his staff.

There was no reason to worry. Andrew Jelks assured the Vanderbilt coaches that he was solid. Yes, other schools were still interested — very interested. But his mind was made up. The son of longtime Tennessee season ticket holders was sold that Vanderbilt — not Tennessee — was the best option for him. In recruiting, however, it’s never over until the fax machine rings. So while the coaches act like they aren’t really worried, they are worried.

But when Charles Huff, Vanderbilt’s offensive quality control coach, makes the short trip from the fax machine to the podium in the Commodores’ “War Room” just a few minutes before 8 a.m. on Feb. 1, and makes like NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on Draft Day, it is finally over: “Lucky No. 13 — the Vanderbilt Commodores have won the in-state battle — Andrew Jelks.” Jelks has done what very few thought was possible — sign with Vanderbilt despite offers from Tennessee and Alabama. This simply doesn’t happen. But it did.

Huff’s announcement is greeted by loud cheers in the War Room. James Franklin, Vanderbilt’s head coach of just one year and the architect of the best signing class at the school in decades, yells the loudest. Offensive line coach Herb Hand, the proud “father” of the future left tackle, hugs every coach in sight.

“I am excited to coach him,” Hand says while relaxing in his office, about an hour after Jelks’ fax arrives. “The big thing with Andrew is that he saw the big picture. He took his time and did the research and visited the places numerous times before he made his decision. And for him to go anywhere but Tennessee was big. But he knew what he wanted, and he found it here. I am proud of him.”

Barton Simmons, a recruiting analyst at 247sports.com, calls Jelks “the most important guy on that signee list.” There were players who were more highly rated. And players with more offers. But Jelks, who played at Henry County High School about 110 miles west of Nashville, is the most significant.

“He is a kid that grew up a Tennessee fan, and Tennessee wanted him,” says Simmons. “He went to Tennessee games his whole life, and he chose Vanderbilt. That speaks volumes to the ability of the Vanderbilt staff to go out and compete with anyone.”

Jelks’ fax elicits the biggest cheer of the day, but there is also tremendous excitement in the room when Huff announces at 7:22 a.m., “With the 11th pick in the draft, the Vanderbilt Commodores have selected ‘Lightning in a Bottle,’ Brian Kimbrow.”

A 4-star running back from Memphis with offers from Alabama, Ohio State, Tennessee, USC and Notre Dame, among others, Kimbrow is the most highly regarded of the Commodores’ 21 signees. He was also among the first commitments of the class, when he, along with wide receiver Corey Batey and defensive end Caleb Azubike, pledged with Vanderbilt at a press conference on July 1 in Franklin, Tenn., that was carried live on local radio.

Kimbrow remained rock-solid throughout the seven-month courtship, but when a player in such demand commits to a school like Vanderbilt (which has averaged 1.1 SEC wins per season since 1960), there will be constant rumors that the prospect is wavering.

“He was sold on Vanderbilt,” Simmons says. “The only reason to sweat was because he had offers from virtually every school in the country. When Urban Meyer is calling and offering and wants you to come up for a visit, that is tough to turn down.”

Kimbrow texted Franklin the night before Signing Day just to let the staff know there was no cause for concern. It read, in part: “What’s good coaches? I know you won’t be able to respond, but I would like to say thanks for the opportunity and believing in me. … I know you will bring the best out of me not only as a football player, but as a student and as a person. By the way, if you don’t get anyone else’s signature, you will have mine.”

Kimbrow’s signature, of course, is not the only one that Franklin receives, but it is no doubt of paramount importance.

“The kids that committed early will always hold a special place for me because they jumped on before we had anything to show them,” says Franklin during some rare down time in the War Room. “We had a plan and a vision, but we had yet to play a game. Those guys jumped on and made it okay to commit to Vanderbilt.”

Indeed, the bulk of Vanderbilt’s class was built before the 2011 season kicked off — before the Commodores opened with a 3–0 record, before they lost their final four SEC games by an average of 4.8 points, and before they qualified for only the school’s second bowl game since 1982. “Many of these kids picked Vanderbilt before we ever played a game,” says defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, who spends the morning juggling phone calls to recently signed players in the Class of 2012 with incoming calls from high school juniors who might be part of the Vanderbilt Class of ’13. “Hopefully, with the modest success we had this year, that validated their choice for them. If you were looking at a 3–9 or 2–10 Vanderbilt, things may have been a lot different.”

Minutes after Kimbrow becomes official, the fax machine rings again. Huff smiles as he approaches the podium. “With the 12th pick,” he says, “the Vanderbilt Commodores have added another Wild Dog. From McGavock High School, Caleb Azubike.”

“That’s a big one,” Franklin belts out. “The Nigerian Nightmare. Get him on the phone.”

The Wild Dogs are Vanderbilt’s defensive linemen, tutored by Sean Spencer, or as his players call him, Coach Chaos. Azubike, who with Batey is one of two Nashville products in the class, is a Wild Dog with a very bright future. A 4-star recruit by Rivals and a 3-star by Scout and 247Sports, Azubike is a 6'4", 250-pound end who some believe could blossom into the best player in the class.

“I think Caleb is a kid that could end up being a guy we have underrated,” says Simmons. “He could end up being an NFL defensive lineman. He absolutely has a 4-star body and 4-star athleticism. He is very impressive at the camps. But he is still raw. On Friday nights, his film in pads sometimes doesn’t live up to what he has done in camps. But he is certainly a guy that can blossom into an NFL prospect.”

While Spencer and Franklin work to get Azubike on the phone, Shoop speaks to Paris Head, a defensive back from Lawrenceville, Ga., who was the third official member of the class.

“Paris, welcome to the family,” Shoop says. “Today is your day. My commitment to you is that I will work my hardest to make you a better man and a better football player. That relationship will last a lifetime. Congratulations.”

For Shoop, a veteran of more than two decades in collegiate coaching, Signing Day never gets old. “There is a feeling of closure when you finally get that letter of intent in the building,” he says. “But what I really enjoy is getting that kid on the phone. It’s his big day, more so than for us coaches. It’s his day. I want to recognize him and thank him and his family for the trust they have shown in us as his coach.”

Shoop has spent time in the ACC and Big East, as well as many years in the FCS ranks, both as a head coach (Columbia, 2003-05) and an assistant. Nothing compares to what he has experienced over the past year.

“This is my first full recruiting cycle in the SEC,” he says. “This is cutthroat, baby. This is big time. This is as competitive as you can believe. The word commitment seems to mean different things to different people. Until you get that fax, you can’t take anything for granted.”

There is one fax that Vanderbilt doesn’t receive on Signing Day. Josh Dawson, a 4-star defensive end/linebacker from Tucker, Ga., who originally committed to Vanderbilt in June, signs with Georgia at a ceremony at his high school. Dawson had informed the staff the night before that he intended to become a Bulldog, not a Commodore.

“It’s difficult,” Franklin says. “I make sure that when a player commits to us that they understand what it means. I don’t care if any other college offers them. I don’t care if the Atlanta Falcons try to draft them. We got engaged. You are not dating anymore. When we get married, we are not getting divorced. When we lose a guy it’s upsetting and frustrating, but that is part of the business. We keep working.”

Dawson’s flip to Georgia creates the need for another linebacker, a position that was alarmingly thin in 2011. At 10:30 a.m. the newest linebacker is announced to the War Room.

“The pick is in,” Huff says. “The No. 16 pick is a surprise pickup. The Vanderbilt Commodores have selected Harding Harper.”

Harper is a Montgomery, Ala., native who reportedly also had offers from Arkansas, Georgia Tech and Ole Miss. He did not take an official visit to Vanderbilt but jumps at the opportunity to join the class when a spot opens up.

“Harper,” Franklin yells. “I like it. That’s a good one right there.”

Huff, who has been ridiculed (good naturedly) by Franklin throughout the morning for his lack of creativity at the podium, is demoted. In steps Sam Williams, the defensive quality control assistant. Dressed in a suit, Williams is taking his position seriously. Perhaps an audition for first-string duties next February?

“With the 19th pick, Vanderbilt selects offensive lineman Adam Butler,” says Williams, who then dons the Mr. Commodore mascot head to celebrate.

A few minutes later, the fax machine rings. Williams has another opportunity to impress the boss.

“This young man had been committed to another school for months,” he says. “We are going to call him a Vanderbilt Commodore. His name is Ja’karri Thomas.”

Thomas, a linebacker from Tallahassee, Fla., committed to Arkansas in July, but changed his mind after making an official visit to Vanderbilt in late January.

Thomas is Vanderbilt’s 20th official signee of the day. There isn’t much suspense remaining. The Commodores are expecting only one more fax, from Kevin McCoy, an offensive lineman from the Tampa area. This is good news and bad news for Hand. McCoy, when his fax comes in, will give Hand another quality big man to work with in the coming years. But it will also cost him. Franklin is making the position coach of the final signee buy the first round of drinks when the staff heads out to celebrate later in the evening.

“Who’s buying the first round?” Franklin says. “Herb, it’s looking like it’s you. I know what you are making now. You can afford it.”

And the Vanderbilt staff can afford to celebrate. This class, ranked as high as No. 26 in the nation, is regarded by most as the best in school history. Some will point out that Vanderbilt’s recruiting haul ranks no higher than ninth in the new 14-team SEC, but that’s still a significant upgrade from every other Commodore class of the Internet recruiting era. And keep in mind that Vanderbilt’s class was rated higher (by Rivals) than all but three Big Ten teams, all but three Big 12 teams, all but five ACC teams and all but one Big East team.

“I’m just really proud of the staff,” Franklin says. “It’s like a 365-round heavyweight title fight. This coaching staff fought and competed and sold all the wonderful things Vanderbilt has to sell.”

How did he do it?

James Franklin’s sales pitch is quite simple.

“A young man doesn’t have to sacrifice,” says the Commodores’ second-year head coach. “He can have the best of everything, which is a world-class education and an opportunity to play in the best college football conference in America. After all, there are three conferences in football that matter: The NFC. The AFC. And the SEC.”

Sounds convincing. But every football coach at Vanderbilt has delivered a similar message. And other than Gerry DiNardo, who signed multiple top-25 recruiting classes in the early 1990s, every other coach has failed to attract top-flight talent.

So why does Franklin’s message resonate?

Coach Franklin has unique people skills in that he can relate to people of all socio-economic backgrounds,” says Vanderbilt defensive coordinator Bob Shoop. “He is very sincere, and he has an unbelievable work ethic. He is also very persuasive, and he won’t take no for an answer.”

Franklin’s persuasiveness was the driving force in Vanderbilt’s 2012 class, ranked as high as No. 26 in the nation. Every one of the recruits received at least a 3-star rating by Rivals, and several picked Vanderbilt over multiple offers from other SEC schools — something that rarely happened in the past.

“When I started playing high school football, when I started getting good, I didn’t think about Vanderbilt,” says defensive end Caleb Azubike, a Nashville native who chose the Commodores over Miami (Fla.) and Mississippi State. “But Coach Franklin really changed my thinking. He has his way with words. He doesn’t sugarcoat anything. He is just a very confident man; he believes in himself and what he is doing.”

DiNardo, who coached at LSU and Indiana after a four-year stop at Vanderbilt (1991-94), is an analyst for the Big Ten Network. He believes that now, more than ever, a head coach at a school like Vanderbilt has to be an elite recruiter.

James Franklin is absolutely a difference-maker and a game-changer at Vanderbilt,” DiNardo says. “You have to be that at Vanderbilt. There is more pressure on the head coach to be a good recruiter at schools that have struggled historically.”

DiNardo says one of the keys to recruiting success at Vanderbilt is to not worry about the players you can’t recruit for academic reasons. “We had a saying, that we stole from someone else: ‘It’s not the one that you lose who will beat you. It’s the ones you take that can’t play who will defeat you.’”

The Model Program

Tim Corbin, Vanderbilt’s baseball coach, was among the small gathering in the War Room looking on as his good friend, James Franklin, put the finishing touches on his first full recruiting class. He knew what Franklin was going through.

Corbin arrived in Nashville in 2003 to rebuild a program that had slipped to the bottom of the food chain in the highly competitive SEC.

In his first season, Vanderbilt qualified for the SEC Tournament for the first time in seven years. In his second season, the Commodores reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1980. By his fifth season, the program earned its first-ever No. 1 ranking, and in 2012, the school reached the College World Series for the first time.

Simply put, Franklin’s dreams for Vanderbilt have become a reality for Corbin.

“Our sports are very different, but he has been a great mentor to me,” Franklin says. “Tim’s a guy who gets it. He’s not just committed to his baseball program, he’s committed to this whole Vanderbilt family, which is kind of how we look at it. We just hit it off right from the beginning, and I think what he’s been able to do with his program, where it started to where it is now … there are a lot of parallels to what we’re trying to do, so he’s been a really good resource to us.”

Corbin has routinely signed recruiting classes ranked in the top five nationally, but he still marvels at what Franklin and his staff have accomplished.

“The intensity of recruiting on this level, at least on Signing Day, is greater,” he says. “Baseball gets a little more strung out over the course of time. The other thing about baseball is that if you make a verbal commitment, it’s pretty much set in stone. For someone to break that commitment is a rarity, so in football, if someone verbally commits, it just means the teams around you work a bit harder to try to get your services. So the excitement of finally getting that piece of paper is like Christmas Day for a football coach. I can only imagine the angst you go through.”

by Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch on Twitter)

This story appeared in Athlon's 2012 SEC Football Preview Annual. 

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