Vanderbilt made history last season by naming James Franklin its first Black head football coach. Franklin also became the school’s fi rst African-American leading any varsity program. In his first year Franklin took the school to a Liberty Bowl Bid, and narrowly missed getting upset wins over Arkansas and Georgia.
Now, as they prepare for Thursday night’s nationally televised game against South Carolina, he spoke with the Tennessee Tribune about a variety of topics. These included his feelings on being Vandy’s fi rst African-American football coach, his emphasis on educational as well as athletic achievement, and his feelings on his future.
Q: Nashville’s African-American community took a lot of pride in your appointment as head coach. What impact did it have on you to be part of that history?
A: I take a lot of pride in it. I know the importance of the job, and I know what it means to a lot of people, not just in Nashville but around the country. At the same time, once you’ve been named to the position, you’ve got to have success. Any coach no matter what color is ultimately going to be judged on wins and losses. I also look forward to the day when my being Black and being named head coach at Vanderbilt or any place else is no longer a story, that the only thing that matters is how successful I am as a head coach.
Q: You emphasize in recruiting that you consider getting an education equally as important as athletic achievement. Considering how many young Black kids see college scholarships in football and basketball as merely stepping-stones to pro careers, does this approach hinder you in reaching some kids?
A: No, we’ve been able to get top recruiting classes with this approach. When I go into the home of parents I tell them and their son, here is your opportunity to play football in the best college conference in the nation, and also to get a first-class education. The truth is that only a very tiny percentage of the people who play college football ever even get a crack at the NFL, but that education that you receive at Vanderbilt will help you your entire life. Quite frankly we as a community (Black Americans) haven’t paid enough attention to education. We haven’t talked about it enough, we haven’t made it a high enough priority for our kids to understand how important it really is in improving their lives. As a football coach, I want players who want to be the best, both in the classroom and on the football field.
Q: As one of the nation’s few high profile Black college football coaches, you’ve already attracted quite a bit of attention in your fi rst season. Vanderbilt has never been a place associated with football success, so if you are able to win big here, you would certainly be high on the list for the football factory type schools. How would you feel about going to a place like Texas or Southern California in a few years?
A: My answer would be why would I want to follow someone else? My goal is to create something special right here at Vanderbilt, and I feel that’s already in place. Look around at the things that the University has done and continues to do in support of its athletic programs. We’re in Nashville, a place close to any of the major capitals in the region. We’re playing in the SEC, which assures us of a regular place on the national stage each week. There’s no better place for me to be in my view than right here. I’m interested in making Vanderbilt a destination point for top college players, not going somewhere else and trying to piggyback off what someone else has already created.
Q: Your schedule has two Top 10 teams in the fi rst four games. (South Carolina and Georgia). How do you feel about facing formidable competition so early?
A: The only team that we’re concerned about right now is South Carolina. We’re taking the games one at a time. The second you start looking ahead that’s the second someone you didn’t think would beat you will surprise you. So the only game we’ve got right now is South Carolina.
Q: OK, we’ll talk South Carolina. Let’s discuss Marcus Lattimore, a player that ESPN, Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News all have on their short list of Heisman Trophy candidates.
A: Well he’s certainly a great running back, someone who can hurt you from anywhere on the field. But he can’t hurt you if you tackle him soundly, take his ankles out from under him and don’t try to hit him high. That’s our approach against any great running back, don’t let them get momentum and don’t let them break long runs into your secondary.
Q: There is widespread excitement across the city about your fi rst game. You are opening at home against a Top 10 opponent on national television (ESPN). What are your feelings about having an opener of that magnitude?
A: Well it is certainly a big step, an honor, and something that we’re very happy to have happening. We look at Vanderbilt as Nashville’s team, and this is something that gets everyone involved and everyone fired up. Of course we’ve got to do our part and make sure we win the game. But you want to have a lot of enthusiasm and energy for your program, and these are the type of games that create that environment.
Q: Good luck this season coach, and thanks for your time.
A: Thank you.
Photo By: Dave Martin – AP