Sounds like Vanderbilt is looking for another James Franklin as its next football coach

Adam Sparks
Nashville Tennessean

Vanderbilt athletics director Candice Lee is looking to hire a football coach with “a demonstrated ability to run a program,” and a good offensive plan is preferred.

Does that mean the Commodores are steering away from the style of Derek Mason, the defensive-minded coach who was fired Sunday after seven losing seasons?

It certainly sounds like it. But Lee is leaving her options somewhat open.

“What you don’t want to do is miss out on potential candidates because you’re narrowing your focus,” Lee said in a Zoom press conference Monday. “(A candidate) having been a head coach is something I’m interested in. But it’s not a deal-breaker.

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“Offensive-minded is something that I’m interested in. Certainly, it doesn’t mean that you have to be (an offensive coach). If you’re not an offensive coach, who is on your staff? And style of play is going to be very important.”

Lee, who took over as athletics director in May, said she wants a coach who also can “engage with the community and has charisma, who can inspire.” And if he reminds anyone of Vanderbilt baseball coach Tim Corbin, a two-time national champion, that would be a bonus.

It sounds like James Franklin.

Who is similar to James Franklin?

Franklin, the former Vanderbilt coach, is now at Penn State. He is a close friend of Corbin and an offensive-minded coach. And he led the Commodores to 24 wins from 2011-13 in the program's best three-year stretch since the 1920s.

Don’t bet on Franklin becoming available. Even with a 1-5 record this season, Penn State would owe Franklin more than $30 million in a buyout if it fired him without cause.

Instead, it sounds like Lee might be looking for a coach with traits similar to Franklin.

Who fits some of that description? Charlotte’s Will Healy does. He’s a 35-year-old charismatic recruiter with an offensive background and a brief track record of turning around a program.

As Austin Peay coach, Healy took the Governors from 0-11 to 8-4, earning the Eddie Robinson Award as the FCS National Coach of the Year in 2017.

Coastal Carolina’s Jamey Chadwell, Toledo’s Jason Candle, Alabama associate head coach Charles Huff and others may also fit in that box.

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Huff, 37, served on Franklin's staff at Vanderbilt in 2011 and at Penn State from 2014-17. He was the Mississippi State running game coordinator in 2018 and Nick Saban’s associate head coach/running backs coach the past two seasons. Huff started his career as a Tennessee State assistant from 2006-08.

What about Clark Lea, defensive coaches?

So does that mean potential candidates such as Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea or former Vanderbilt defensive coordinator Bob Shoop are off the table? Not necessarily.

"Can I guarantee every single thing? No," Lee said. "But I do think there are things that you are looking for. Sometimes you don't know it until you see it."

And what about defensive-minded former head coaches such as Charlie Strong or Mike MacIntyre, the son of former Vanderbilt coach George MacIntyre? They could still get into the mix.

But it does mean they might need to sell an offensive philosophy or potential offensive coordinator during the interview process.

Lea, a former Vanderbilt player, is particularly intriguing. 

The 38-year-old is a Nashville native, a former Vanderbilt football player and Belmont baseball player. He is a friend of Corbin and a fast-rising assistant coach with stops at UCLA, Bowling Green, Syracuse, Wake Forest and Notre Dame.

Who will pick Vanderbilt’s next coach?

Lee said she is in “alignment” with new Chancellor Daniel Diermeier. She also admitted that might have not been the case between Vanderbilt’s past athletics directors and chancellors. 

They will use a search firm to facilitate the process. 

“But search firms do not pick your candidate” said Lee, a longtime Vanderbilt administrator who was on the search committee that led to the hiring of Franklin and Mason. 

Lee also said she wants to meet face-to-face with the candidates rather than just Zoom calls. And while she hopes to hire a coach before the early signing period for recruits, from Dec. 16-18, that’s not certain.

“We’re not going to sacrifice quality for speed,” Lee said. “But we’ll do it as quickly as we can.”

Reach Adam Sparks at asparks@tennessean.com and on Twitter @AdamSparks.