NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Caleb Azubike had it all planned out.
The four-star defensive end from Nashville (Tenn.) McGavock would make an unofficial visit to Vanderbilt as a courtesy to his hometown school. But he wouldn’t actually agree to play for this traditional Southeastern Conference doormat, would he?
Come on: You’ve got to be kidding, right?
“The day I went up for a visit, I never thought once that I was going to go there,” Azubike said.
Yet here he is a year later as one of the headline attractions in the greatest recruiting class in Vanderbilt history. Azubike credits his change of heart to Vanderbilt coach James Franklin’s powers of persuasion.
Franklin worked wonders in his debut season as a head coach by going 6-7 and reaching the Liberty Bowl with a Vanderbilt team that had endured back-to-back 2-10 finishes. As well as he performed on the sidelines, Franklin orchestrated an equally remarkable turnaround on the recruiting trail.
Before this year, Vanderbilt never had signed a top-50 recruiting class since the current version of Rivals.com formed in 2002. This Vanderbilt class should end up just outside the top 25.
Vanderbilt’s 21-man class includes three four-star prospects: Azubike, Paris (Tenn.) Henry County offensive tackle Andrew Jelks and Memphis (Tenn.) East running back Brian Kimbrow. Vanderbilt was on the verge of landing a fourth four-star prospect until Tucker (Ga.) defensive end Josh Dawson made a Signing Day switch to Georgia. The rest are all three-star players.
Even without Dawson, this still represented quite a haul for a school that had had signed a grand total of three four-star recruits in the previous 10 years combined.
“We’ve put together the best class that I’ve ever really been associated with,” said Franklin, a former Maryland and Kansas State assistant. “It’s just one step in the right direction, but I think there’s a buzz right now about Vanderbilt football that I don’t think there’s ever been before.”
This class generated the type of excitement normally reserved this time of year for the school’s basketball program. Of course, until Franklin came to town, not many people in Nashville even talked about Vanderbilt football in football season, let alone basketball season.
“Before, I never heard anyone talk about Vanderbilt ever,” Azubike said. “I never heard Vanderbilt mentioned outside the Vanderbilt campus. Now you see bumper stickers for Vanderbilt. James Franklin’s name pops up everywhere.
[ Y! Sports Radio: Vanderbilt coach James Franklin joins David Nuno ]
“He’s like the Nick Saban of Nashville. Everyone’s talking about him.”
Of course, he also has three fewer national titles than Saban. And that underscores Franklin’s challenge in recruiting at a place like Vanderbilt. No matter how much success he has, Franklin always will be fighting an uphill battle as the coach of the lone private school in the cut-throat world of SEC football.
When he talked to recruits, Franklin didn’t bother to downplay the enormity of the task facing Vanderbilt. He bluntly pointed out that the program hadn’t performed well enough in the past.
But he also mentioned everything Vanderbilt had to offer.
Outstanding academics. The Nashville campus. The opportunity to play in the nation’s toughest conference. The possibility of early playing time.
“You read these articles on Rivals and these kids commit to a certain school and the first thing they say is the reason they committed to that school is because of academics,” Franklin said. “Well, you look at the rankings and it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. If you talk about getting a degree that’s going to set you up for the next 40 to 50 years of your life, Vanderbilt can do that. I’m trying to take this thing back to maybe 1950 or 1955 when kids are choosing schools for the right reasons.”
Then he used Vanderbilt’s lack of a winning tradition to his advantage by pointing out the unique opportunity that awaited any future Commodores. In doing so, he borrowed a sales pitch frequently used by Vanderbilt baseball coach Tim Corbin, who led the Commodores to their first College World Series appearance last year.
“You can be a renter or you can be a builder,” Franklin said. “You can rent somebody else’s legacy or you can come in and build your own. We talk about how that’s a way to differentiate yourself. You can come here and do something that’s never been done before. We talk about selling these kids on a dream and a vision of the greatest turnaround in college football history. That’s an opportunity you don’t get very often. Nowadays, it’s very hard to do something that’s never been done before. You’re following in somebody else’s footsteps. At Vanderbilt, we have a chance to walk our own path.”
That message clearly made an impact on Azubike.
“Frankly, I wanted to go to a school where I could help build a program and have my name live on forever rather than go to a school where I’d just be one of the guys that helped maintain the program,” Azubike said.
The decision of Maryville (Tenn.) quarterback Patton Robinette may best exemplify Franklin’s tenacity. The three-star recruit committed to North Carolina last June with plans to enroll early, but Franklin never stopped recruiting him. Franklin’s persistence paid off in January, as Robinette had a last-minute change of heart after driving up to North Carolina’s campus.
Robinette, the Gatorade player of the year for the state of Tennessee in 2011, now is enrolled at Vanderbilt and will join the Commodores for spring practice.
“I look at [recruiting] as a heavyweight championship fight, and there are 365 rounds,” Franklin said. “That basically what we’ve been in since we’ve arrived here. We have the attitude that we’re not going to take no for an answer.
“Since we’ve arrived here, everybody’s tried to tell us what we can be or should be. We’re not going to let anybody else define us. We’re going to keep fighting. We think we have an unbelievable product to sell. For the right kid from the right family, I think we can beat anybody in the country because they’re going to appreciate what a Vanderbilt degree and an opportunity to play in the SEC – the combination of those two things, what that can do for you.”
Of course, it helped that Vanderbilt also earned a bowl bid last season. If Vanderbilt had gone 2-10 for a third straight season, several of these recruits likely would have looked elsewhere.
“That was very much an influence,” Robinette said. “Nobody wants to play for a team that can’t compete. The ability to compete this past year with the guys who were here and now bringing in these new guys, and with the work ethic we have to just get better every day, there’s really nothing to stop us from competing more in the future.”
The Commodores still have plenty of work to do.
Indeed, this might represent the best recruiting class in Vanderbilt history, yet it remains in the bottom half of the SEC rankings. Vanderbilt just upgraded its talent base quite a bit, but it still might not have made up any ground on its conference rivals in that regard.
[ More Vanderbilt: VandySports.com ]
“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Keith Niebuhr, the Southeast recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. “Long-time observers say it’s the first time they can remember Vanderbilt even being talked about. You don’t go from nowhere to the top 10 overnight. This doesn’t guarantee Vanderbilt will get there, but you can’t get there unless you at least take that first step.”
But will Franklin be here long enough to see Vanderbilt cross the finish line?
Franklin hadn’t even finished his first season at Vanderbilt when his name began to get mentioned in connection with various coaching vacancies across the country. School officials tried to end those rumors in December by signing Franklin to an extension – terms weren’t disclosed – and promising upgrades to Vanderbilt Stadium and the construction of an indoor practice facility.
Of course, that won’t stop the whispers from circulating about Franklin’s future as long as Vanderbilt keeps improving.
“James Franklin is going to be one of the hottest names in any job search that occurs next year,” Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell said. “I think they can repeat this success with him at the helm, but Vanderbilt’s got to make sure he stays if they’re going to have success like this.”
Franklin knows that topic will come up again and again in discussions with high school prospects. He’s ready to deal with it. As far as Franklin is concerned, this speculation would represent just the latest round of negative recruiting.
First he heard that his staff could never make Vanderbilt competitive. When Vanderbilt picked up a few notable commitments, Franklin heard that he must be cheating. Now that the Commodores have enjoyed some success, he’s hearing that he already has one foot out the door.
“There’s a commitment here,” Franklin said. “This school has got resources, and I am fortunate enough and we are fortunate enough to be here at the right time, that people appreciate and understand what a great football program can do for an overall university as a whole.
“We have a long ways to go. Six wins is nice. It was a nice start, kind of laying the foundation, but we have a long ways to go in terms of facilities, we have a long ways to go in terms of recruiting and in terms of production on the field. These are just steps we’re taking. And they’re good steps, but we’ve still got a long way to go, especially in this conference as we all know. The most important thing is people see progress going on here that they’ve never seen before.”
Vanderbilt indeed still has a long way to go.
But it just took a giant step forward.