by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Many years ago, THE GOLD SHEET employed a long, tall Louisiana-bred handicapper named Bill Lee. “Gentleman Bill” was as southern as gumbo and jambalaya, an LSU grad who played hoops for some illustrious Tiger teams in the early ‘50s that also featured future NBA great and Hall-of-Famer Bob Pettit, as well as the one and only Joe Dean, who eventually gained quite a following as an SEC basketball TV analyst before becoming LSU’s athletic director. As could be expected, Bill knew the southern sports scene and the SEC like the back of his hand . And when the subject would turn to the gridiron, ol' Bill certainly knew about one of the realities of SEC football. “Ain’t no way,” Bill used to drawl, “that Vanda-bilt ev-uh gonna’ win the SEC.”

Sadly, Gentleman Bill passed away late in 2008, and it’s now been thirty years since we heard Bill make those comments about the Commodores. But not much has changed. Indeed, since 1982, Vandy has made it into the postseason only one time, squeezing into the hometown Music City Bowl in 2008 with a 6-6 record, then beating Boston College in a tense defensive struggle, 16-14. Vandy still hasn’t won an SEC football title, and odds are that it won’t again this year. We also know that Gentleman Bill, when he was still with us, got as big a kick as anybody when the Dores briefly shook up the gridiron landscape and made a move into the polls, which they did for a brief time in the first half of the 2008 campaign under HC Bobby Johnson. So, although Gentleman Bill never lived to see Vandy win the SEC, at least he was around long enough to see them become a ranked team, if only for a short while.

It might also surprise college football fans that there really is some quality gridiron history at Vandy. Four former Commodore coaches are in the College Football Hall of Fame: Dan McGugin (whose 1904 Vandy team outscored its opposition 474-4!), Ray Morrison, Henry “Red” Sanders, and Bill Edwards. A fifth, Art Guepe, ought to deserve consideration after steering Vandy to five straight non-losing campaigns in the late ‘50s, including a stellar 1955 team that finished 8-3 and beat a powerful Auburn team in the Gator Bowl. Since 1955, however, the Dores have been “bowling” only thre times, in 1974 when Steve Sloan’s team tied Texas Tech, 6-6, in the Peach Bowl (the well-respected Sloan, Joe Namath’s successor at QB for Alabama, took the job at none other than...Texas Tech after that Peach Bowl); in 1982, when an entertaining Vandy team coached by the underrated George McIntyre made it to the Hall-of-Fame Bowl, where it lost in exciting fashion to one of Kenny Hatfield’s best Air Force squads, 36-28; and in the aforementioned 2008 Music City Bowl, beating BC.

As a smaller private school with an excellent academic reputation, however, Vandy has long been the runt of the football litter in the SEC, competing against mega, state-supported universities and their football programs. There has been occasional talk of moving to the more palatable ACC (switching spots, perhaps, with Clemson), as well as discussion of forming a “Magnolia League” with like-minded, similar-sized, academic-oriented institutions such as Northwestern, Duke, Rice, Georgia Tech, and Wake Forest. But the Vandy community likes its association with the SEC. And, aside from football, the Dores more than hold their own in a variety of other sports, including regular appearances by Kevin Stallings’ basketball team in March Madness, and Tim Corbin’s baseball team, which competed in this June’s College World Series in Omaha.

Football, however, has always been a different matter in Nashville, and the Dores really didn’t respond well to that rare moment in the spotlight three years ago. The Dores immediately regressed back to 2-10 in 2009, which meant that Johnson compiled a 4-16 record in the 20 games that followed the 5-0 break from the gate in 2008. A series of unwatchable performances in that campaign began to turn up the heat on Bobby J, who was reluctant to make staff changes, especially regarding good friend Ted Cain, his staid offensive coordinator. After losing eight straight to close the ‘09 season, and the momentum from the rare bowl visit having vanished from the previous year, Johnson had enough of the pressure cooker and eventually stepped down, although he waited until the summer of 2010 to do so. With no time to conduct a national coaching search in July, Vandy had no choice but to promote from within, naming homespun offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell, who had never been a head coach, to the top spot on an interim basis. Caldwell had little chance to land the job permanently, which was confirmed when the Dores became saddled with cluster injuries and lost their last seven games to come in at 2-10 for the second straight year. Caldwell was not retained, eventually surfacing as Clemson’s new OL coach. But Vandy’s HC search got quite interesting before resolving itself just before Christmas.

A key component in the Dores’ coaching hunt was super-agent Jimmy Sexton, whose clientele numbers more than half of the SEC head coaching ranks, including Nick Saban and Steve Spurrier. Regional sources indicated Sexton quickly brokered the deal between Texas d.c. Will Muschamp and Florida, which didn’t take long to replace Urban Meyer. Credit Sexton for making that deal happen pronto.

Sexton was also busy with another client, in-demand Auburn o.c. Gus Malzahn, who for a while seemed to be bound for Nashville. Some SEC observers, however, believe Sexton simply played unsuspecting Vandy Vice Chancellor David Williams, heading the Commodores’ coaching search, like a fiddle, creating a threshold for Malzahn in the $2.5-3 million per year range, while allowing Vandy to set the market. Although Williams denies offering Malzahn the job, sources in the SEC indicated otherwise, as Malzahn’s quick about-face suggests he and Sexton might have had something else in mind all along. Curiously, the serious movement in the Vandy negotiations came immediately after Bobby Petrino inked a new extension at Arkansas (which many believe was Malzahn’s first preference) rather than pursue the Florida opening after Meyer’s departure. It did not take long for Sexton to move Malzahn to the front of the Vandy queue, and reap the desired benefits from the Dores’ interest.

Sexton was been able to parlay the Vandy interest into a significantly enhanced deal for Malzahn at Auburn, and there were indicators that Malzahn never had much desire to coach in Nashville, instead lining himself up for a better job in the region and creating a salary floor for future negotiations. Regional sources indicate there is a good possibility a couple of plum opportunities could present themselves after this season (Ole Miss and Georgia mentioned most prominently), and there’s always the chance Spurrier might hang ‘em up at South Carolina, as was rumored for a time last winter. Malzahn is thus at the front of the queue for any and all future, non-Vandy SEC openings, but can at least thank the Dores for helping to set the marketplace for his future head coaching services.

After being played by Sexton and Malzahn, Williams went to Plan B, luring Maryland o.c. James Franklin, a Jason Kidd lookalike, to Nashville. Franklin had been designated as the “coach-in-waiting” at Maryland, but it was really just a $1 million buyout the school had to pay him if he were still on staff and didn’t become the head coach by 2012. Franklin accepted the Vandy job in mid-December, before Ralph Friedgen was forced out at College Park, so we’ll never know if the Terps would have really promoted Franklin. But we do know that he is the new man at Vandy, where he revamped the staff in an effort to put his stamp on the floundering program.

Early reports have been exceedingly positive from Nashville, especially regarding Franklin’s recruiting prowess, which seems to have opened up a pipeline into the Atlanta area, with a handful of 4-star recruits already committed for 2012. Franklin is also working the boosters and money people in Nashville better than former senator Fred Thompson.

But can he be a head coach?

Franklin’s o.c. title at Maryland was somewhat ceremonial (it was mostly Friedgen’s offense), and it’s worth noting that several coordinators have proven to be poor fits as head coach in situations that were better than Vandy’s. But Franklin inherits ten starters on the attack end as he and o.c. John Donovan (who coached the RBs at Maryland) seek to implement a high-tech, downfield passing attack, which could be quite a chore for an offense that ranked 119th in pass efficiency a year ago and resembled a fire drill late in the campaign, especially the schizophrenic finale vs. Wake Forest when departed backup QB Jared Funk attempted 61 passes. There isn’t much evidence, however, that erratic sr. QB Larry Smith is the best alternative to detonate the strike force, though he might win the job by default if former juco Jordan Rodgers, Aaron’s brother, can't recover sufficiently from the shoulder injury that kept him out of “live” drills in spring. Long-range plans likely involve touted frosh Lafonte Thorougood, a candidate to redshirt in the fall. Smith only connected upon 47% of his tosses in 2010, and didn’t better the 50% mark in any of his last six games when he also passed for only 1 TD. If Franklin wants the offense to be able to go deep, he has to hope sr. WR Udom Umoh, a flyer who gained 16 yards per catch in 2010, can overcome a recurring case of “dropsies” that have hampered his career. Spring work indicated that lanky 6'3 soph Jordan Matthews might also be ready to emerge. The other featured pass catchers are all possession types, with sr. TE Brandon Barden (team-best 34 catches LY) a particularly reliable underneath component.

There are some interesting alternatives at RB, where explosive jr. RB Warren Norman (459 YR and 6 ypc LY) returns to the fold after missing several games last season with a dislocated wrist, with jr. Zac Stacy and soph Wesley Tate also owning plenty of pop. But a veteran OL lacks top-quality athletes and had numerous problems dealing with the many speed-based SEC defenses last season, and contributed mightily to the poor marks in total (mere 298 ypg ranked 110th in the country LY) and scoring (16.9 ppg, ranking 112th) offense.

The prospects seem a bit brighter for a defense that returns nine starters and would routinely keep the Dores within earshot, at least for a while, last season until collapsing under the pressure of the offensive ineptitude. New d.c. Bob Shoop arrives from William & Mary and would prefer to use “Tampa 4-3" looks (the “Tampa 2" schemes out of a 4-3 alignment) and eventually implement zone and fire-zone blitzes in various 3rd-down “chaos” packages to create some unorthodox pass-rush mismatches. The inherited personnel, however, might have a hard time making it all work, especially with improvements needed against the run after ranking 100th vs. the rush in 2010. Upgrades along the DL, especially from returning DTs T.J. Greenstone and Rob Lohr, could cut down on the workload of sr. MLB Chris Marve, who decided against leaving a year early for the NFL Draft and enters the fall as the leading active SEC career tackler with 306. Although Marve could be forced to cover more ground than usual with the only scheduled newcomers to the starting lineup flanking him at the OLB positions. Senior CB Casey Hayward, an honors candidate and key playmaker with 6 picks and 17 pass break-ups last season, also toyed with the idea of entering the NFL Draft but decided to return for his senior year.

Summary...With three winnable home games out of the chute and six of the first eight contests being played in Nashville, plus several returning playmakers on defense, suggests that James Franklin has a decent chance of exceeding the measly 2-win Vandy win totals from each of the past two seasons under Bobby Johnson and Robbie Caldwell. But expecting much more could be wishful thinking, especially noting the trendline for the Dores the past few years, as the tough SEC slate has caught up with the last three Vandy editions; the Dores are 1-20 straight up (and 5-16 vs. the line) in their last seven regular-season games the past three seasons. The Franklin regime will seek to overcome the chronic lack of consistency from the offense, but until a reliable QB emerges to deal with the SEC stop units, we’re not sure how much upside the Dores will have until Franklin gets more of his own recruits into the fold the next few years. And we still have to see if Franklin is head coaching material or another recruiter/coordinator without the skill set to oversee the operation. More evidence will be available on Franklin's head coaching aptitude after the season.

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