LITTLE ROCK — The time is ripe to recycle Vanderbilt’s James Franklin in the search for Arkansas’ next football coach.
Remember him? A top-five name in the days after Bobby Petrino’s dismissal, he fell from favor with some when Vanderbilt opened 2012 with a 1-3 record, including a 45-point loss to Georgia.
In the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately category, Franklin’s Commodores have been spectacular — far outdoing Baylor under Art Briles, West Virginia under Dana Holgorsen, and Iowa State under Paul Rhoads, all men who were prominent in coach-search discussions during the first half of the season.
Baylor has lost five of six and given up 252 points in those losses.
West Virginia has lost four straight and allowed 198 in the process.
Iowa State has lost four of five and is 2-5 in the Big 12.
Meanwhile, Vanderbilt has won four straight and a six-game winning streak is doable with Tennessee and Wake Forest remaining. Beating those two teams would give the Commodores an 8-4 season record and 5-3 in the SEC with conference losses to Georgia, Florida by 14, and South Carolina by four. Each of those teams is ranked in the top 10 and they are a combined 20-4 in the league.
A year ago, explaining a game that Vanderbilt should have won but didn’t because Arkansas returned a fumble 95 yards for a touchdown and the Commodores missed a 27-yard field goal, the lead to the column was “Old habits die hard,” contradicting the idea that Franklin had changed the mindset in Nashville.
After watching Vanderbilt rally from 23-6 in the third quarter in Oxford, Miss., I’m buying that the conversion is complete. On the sideline, Franklin was into it, enthusiastic, but not abusive. On the field, the players did not panic, scoring the game winner with less than a minute to play and then defending with purpose and intelligence.
Clearly, Arkansas’ next coach must be able to recruit and that is another area where Franklin gets a high grade.
Vanderbilt’s 2013 class is ranked No. 17 by ESPN. SEC members. Arkansas, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri are not in the top 20.
Earlier this year, there was conjecture from Sporting News that Vanderbilt could be the Stanford of the SEC and academic standards help explain why the Commodores’ roster includes players from more than two dozen states.
The article cited Dominic Walker, a receiver from Orlando, as an example of a high-quality player who signed with Vanderbilt. He reportedly had offers from Florida, Georgia, Texas A&M, South Carolina and others from the SEC, plus Florida State, Nebraska, and West Virginia.
Maybe more impressive were the remarks of California native K.J. Carta-Samuels, whose brother Austyn is a back-up at Vanderbilt.
“Coach Franklin is down to earth and I know he will never lie to me,” K.J. Carta-Samuels told Sporting News. “That’s the thing I have learned from my brother through his time there. No matter what, the coaches and players are a family and to be a family you must be honest with each other. I don’t think many places are like that in college football.”
Word of mouth, from one athlete to another, can sell a school or nix a deal.
In light of the combined SEC record of 0-13 of Tennessee and Auburn, Derek Dooley and Gene Chizik are likely to be cut loose. In that case, either or both schools could pursue Franklin. The expected turnover, plus the dismissal of Kentucky coach Joker Phillips, doesn’t jibe with the oft-promoted theory that Jeff Long has identified and secured John L. Smith’s successor. For that to be true, everybody involved — from agents to lawyers to the coach’s spouse, family, and friends — would have to adhere to a strict code of silence.
More likely is a full-court press by Long, probably beginning next week.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is email@example.com.