Technology is perhaps the most disruptive force in business. The rise of new technologies can render traditional models of conducting business unprofitable while enabling new opportunities for the savvy and creative. Technology can crumble competitive barriers allowing smaller organizations to compete head on with the most resourceful and powerful organizations. Frequently, the incumbent powers of an industry are the most susceptible as they tend to be complacent while a scrappy startup works tirelessly to find a way to compete despite clear disadvantages.
When we think of examples of such competition, we might consider a traditional newspaper who finds its voice threatened by the internet-enabled voices of the new media. If Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin is successful, you might think of Vanderbilt football as the latest to use technology to disrupt its industry.
Playing in the most competitive league in college football, Vanderbilt is not built to compete head-to-head with SEC programs like Georgia, Alabama, LSU and Florida. Whether it’s the facilities or the media coverage, Vanderbilt is not on a level playing field with the traditional SEC powers. Perhaps most importantly, Vanderbilt battles its reputation or lack thereof. Ask a college football fan what they think of when you say Alabama, they’ll likely say Bear Bryant, Nick Saban, or football. Ask a fan what they think of when you say Vanderbilt, and they’ll say…smart kids? Clearly, Vanderbilt is an outstanding academic institution, but such a reputation doesn’t escape potential recruits – recruits singularly focused on football.
When James Franklin got the call to become the head coach of the Vanderbilt Commodores, the program had had two head coaches in less than a year and was coming off a 2-10 season. Franklin was seen by many SEC fans as somewhat of an unknown, since he was coming from the ACC’s Maryland staff. Moreover, Vandy was considered in the running for hiring the sexy name at the time in Auburn Offensive Coordinator Gus Malzahn.
For many of us, Franklin got on our radars when word came out of Vandy’s preseason camp that he had tackled a player after throwing an interception as the acting quarterback during a scrimmage:
After Franklin was intercepted by LB Archibald Barnes on a pass over the middle, the coach gave chase toward the front left pylon as Barnes attempted to return the pick for a score. Sophomore DB Andre Hal was shielding Barnes when Franklin – not wearing any pads, mind you – put two arms into Hal and sent him flying out of bounds. It was a priceless moment.
This guy has some energy.
Franklin’s enthusiasm helped lead the ‘Dores to a 3-0 start – the best start for a new coach at Vanderbilt in almost 70 years. After a 6-6 season, Franklin became the first Vanderbilt coach to lead the team to a bowl game in his first year.
But the overwhelming enthusiasm of Franklin is just part of the plan. Franklin is much sharper than a mere cheerleader. He has known that he is fighting the absence of an identity associated with Vanderbilt football. Franklin, from the beginning, knew that a new brand of Vanderbilt football needed to be created.
The problem with getting a new brand out there when you’re Vanderbilt is the lack of media coverage. While a school like Florida has legions of reporters seeking any ounce of information out of Gator camp despite a Muschamp media lockout, Vanderbilt has to fight to get more media coverage.
As Vanderbilt’s Director of Football Communications Larry Leathers told me, the lack of media presence led Franklin and his team to decide to “create content to tell our story.”
Through the use of the internet and social media, Vanderbilt football is creating and distributing their own content – no beat writers needed. The strategy not only helps get Vanderbilt football in front of media, fans and recruits, but it’s also the primary mechanism to rebrand the football program.
The use of video is a cornerstone of Franklin’s strategy. Through the video content, as Leathers explained, Franklin intends to show how the Vanderbilt players have fun both on and off the field.
For on the field, we turn to “Dore Wars” – a 4×4 drill which the players love:
For off the field, you might consider the recent dance off between Vandy players (and coaches) or let’s look at what happened when Franklin decided to switch it up back in spring practice in 2011:
But the inside look via video isn’t just fun and games. The football program releases new videos on a near daily basis providing a sort of “all-access” look at everything Vanderbilt football. Whether it’s post-practice interviews with coaches and players or the awesome video of Franklin awarding a walk-on a scholarship (which has been watched nearly 350,000 times now), the athletic department is doing an outstanding job of creating quality content on a consistent basis.
If you watch the videos, you’ll notice the consistent branding of #AnchorDown. Franklin himself has been an active Twitter user providing his own comments and encouragement via the Twitterverse. Since the beginning, Franklin has been pushing the #AnchorDown branding.
Pushing a memorable meme or brand is no strange occurrence in the SEC. Consider the iconic and widely used phrases such as “War Eagle” or “Roll Tide”.
In addition to the use of technology, Franklin is counteracting the struggle to obtain the national media’s attention by granting immense access to those interested members of the media. Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples spent the entirety of National Signing Day this past February with Franklin and Co. Moreover, SBNation’s Steven Godfrey spent an entire week with the Vanderbilt squad – and in the middle of football season no less.
The media access, the use of technology, the branding. These make up Franklin’s strategy to create a buzz around his program, and it’s hard to not see its success at least in some regard. You might consider why more programs that find themselves struggling with similar challenges as the Vanderbilt program do not duplicate such efforts. And in doing this, you will be discounting Franklin himself.
Vanderbilt’s Larry Leathers confirmed to me that everything is driven by Franklin. Perhaps the latest video out from Kentucky’s athletic department featuring a pool party is a page out of Franklin’s and Vanderbilt’s book. There’s a key difference, however. No disrespect to Joker Phillips, but he brings a different level of energy when compared to Coach Franklin. The technology and marketing program of Vanderbilt is taken to another level because of the man leading the initiative.
Ultimately, Franklin’s tenure will be judged based on his success on the field. And this will require talent. Franklin’s known as a great recruiter and an emphasis on changing the culture feeds right into the ability to bring top talent to Nashville. In his first class, Franklin brought in the 29th best class in the country according to Rivals. In the current recruiting cycle, Vanderbilt’s ranked at #15 at least for the time being.
Are we ready to start talking about how Vanderbilt can take down the traditional powers because they’re savvy on YouTube? Certainly not. But in today’s world of social media, technology can be used to connect and relate to kids looking to play football in college. You use the tools you have, and Vanderbilt doesn’t have the same tools as Alabama.
Franklin is putting the message out there that kids have the opportunity to come to Vanderbilt, get a great education and have a ton of fun playing football too. Browsing the Vanderbilt YouTube channel may or may not be entertaining to you, but you can’t deny the fun that Franklin’s players are having while playing for Vanderbilt.
It seems like the other SEC coaches are impressed as well. Some of the league’s coaches spoke anonymously about the other coaches recently, and the words about Franklin weren’t too shabby:
“(James) Franklin came in as a recruiter, and he’s lived up to his reputation. But now that he’s getting his guys, he has to coach them up.
Their offense improved so much during the season. Never seen anything like it. Their staff deserves a ton of credit. They seemed to re-invent themselves after the first few games.”
Recruiting has taken a significant leap forward. Now Franklin needs to take the next step in conference play. 6-6 was an improvement for Vanderbilt in 2011, but within a year or two, Franklin needs to win some SEC games that Vanderbilt typically doesn’t win. Ultimately, it means knocking off a Tennessee, a Georgia or a Florida. Success begets success in college football. The more you win, the easier it is to recruit, the easier it is to win. If all goes as planned, the lack of media attention might be a thing of the past in Nashville.
While nobody thinks that Vanderbilt is ready to compete against the power teams in the SEC on a regular basis, it’s obvious that the program has some much needed momentum. Franklin has turned the program into one of the more interesting programs in the conference, and he’s making darn sure that we take notice. Whether it’s through Twitter, YouTube or on the field on Saturday, it’s time to pay attention to Vanderbilt. Anchor down.