NASHVILLE, Tenn. – In a rare quiet moment in the Vanderbilt war room Wednesday, Ava Franklin walked in and was overtaken by curiosity.
"What are the balloons for?" asked the impossibly cute, 5-year-old daughter of the Commodores' head coach.
For the National Signing Day party, she was told.
Ava thought for a second, then delivered the perspective-packed question of the afternoon, "What's Signing Day?"
You'll find out soon enough, kid. But if you must know now …
Signing Day is what has obsessed your father and his colleagues for months. It is what gets him into the office before you awaken, and gets him home after you go to sleep. It is a high holy day in the college football world, a festival of hope for fans and a culmination of dreams for players.
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And on Wednesday at your daddy's office, Ava, Signing Day went like this:
5:35 a.m.: Sean Spencer pulls into the parking lot at the McGugin Center with music thumping out of his white SUV. The Vandy defensive line coach, nicknamed "Coach Chaos," does nothing quietly – not even in the wee hours before dawn.
"One more list!" Spencer shouts across the parking lot at Vanderbilt media relations director Larry Leathers. "One more double-check!"
As it turns out, Spencer is not the only high-voltage Vandy staffer at this hour. Inside the building, the place is already wired. People are bustling around in black-and-gold gear and broad smiles, wide awake and eagerly anticipating the biggest Signing Day in Vanderbilt's meager football history.
Coming into Wednesday, Rivals.com rated Vandy's class No. 19 in America, the highest it has ever been. In just his second year, James Franklin's high-energy recruiting was feeding off the Commodores' 9-4 breakthrough season. Simply put, this is as good as it's ever been at the historic doormat of the mighty Southeastern Conference.
The architect of it all is walking the halls in black slacks, a white shirt and gold tie. Franklin had arrived at the complex at 5 a.m., after leaving it at 10 the night before.
"James is a 6-to-10 guy," says Michael Hazel, the director of football operations.
Hazel hadn't left the building until 2:30 a.m., making sure every last detail was just right in the war room. This is where the staff meets every morning, and where they will spend most of the day. On one wall is a massive depth chart listing every player by position and class. Another wall is covered with recruiting prospects. A third wall features a large video screen, which will be on ESPNU much of the day. Beneath those boards are 126 bins filled with mailing material for recruits – everything from pictures of rappers who have performed in concert in Nashville to photos of Franklin to academic information.
In the center of the room is a U-shaped table. Franklin sits at the base of the U, facing the video screen, and staffers flank him on both sides. Hazel, who went home for a couple hours of sleep and a shower, pronounces everything ready.
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Despite the sleep deprivation, the Vandy staff was in the mood to celebrate in style. Last year Franklin transformed Signing Day into a production, and this year the Commodores turned it up another notch.
Sam Williams, offensive quality control assistant, was strutting around the complex in a tuxedo with a glittery gold vest and bow tie. He was ready for his role as "the commissioner," who would announce each signed National Letter of Intent as it rolled off the Brother IntelliFax 2920.
"I was going to go with a top hat and cane," Williams says. "But that might have been too much."
6:01 a.m.: Franklin bounds into a packed war room and yells, "We got the first one! Let's go, Sammy!"
Suddenly, the room's stereo system is playing the Alan Parsons Project music that the Chicago Bulls used for team introductions during the Jordan years. And there is Williams at a podium in the corner of the room.
"We are happy to be back," said the commissioner. "With the first overall pick in the 2013 draft, the Vanderbilt Commdores select a quarterback out of Cedar Grove High School in Decatur, Ga., Johnny McCrary!"
With that, the room erupts. Even though this was not news to anyone. McCrary was a January enrollee who has been on campus for a while – but this was still a chance to celebrate signing a player who turned down several more established SEC rivals.
As the room filled with cheers, Franklin walked to the wall and meticulously affixed the McCrary magnetic placard to the recruiting board.
"He's so OCD," whispers offensive line coach Herb Hand. "It has to be up there perfectly."
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Five minutes later, Williams is back at the podium and Franklin is back at the board amid a second round of cheers for Vandy's other early enrollee, offensive lineman Sean Dowling. The school fight song blares.
The tone is set: The entire staff will cheer every signee, celebrating the team effort it took to land that player.
Between the two ceremonial signings, Franklin took the first of dozens of phone calls on the day. On the other end was kicker Tommy Openshaw of Jacksonville, who would be faxing his letter later that morning from school.
"Congratulations," Franklin says. "Feeling good about it? We couldn't be happier about it."
Then, to the room, Franklin holds up the phone and shouts, "Hey, guys. Tommy Openshaw!"
"I appreciate your faith in us," Franklin says to Openshaw. "It's going to be awesome. This is your day, enjoy it. But then it's time to get to work."
He would repeat that conversation, with slight variations on the theme, over and over throughout the day.
6:10 a.m.: James Franklin is appalled at his quarterback coach.
"Guys, Ricky Rahne and Jen Rahne have never seen ‘Purple Rain,' " he says. "How can you never have seen ‘Purple Rain?' "
Almost on cue, a Prince song from the "Purple Rain" soundtrack comes on the room's stereo shuffle just a couple of minutes later: "Let's Go Crazy."
"This is a good song," Franklin says. "Turn it up."
Hand is singing along. This is probably not the scene in, say, Bill Snyder's war room.
6:21 a.m.: Sam Williams has just announced the sixth signee, linebacker Oren Burks of Loren, Va., which has become a key recruiting area for Vandy. After the cheering subsides, Franklin decides Williams needs to amp it up a bit.
"We've worked our ass off for the last year," he teases. "Show some emotion. Tear the tuxedo off!"
Franklin's confidence is palpable. It has led him to say some crazy things in his two years at Vandy – most recently calling four-time national championship coach Nick Saban "Nicky Satan" and declaring that he will outwork Saban. But that's who he is, and his players and staff seem to feed off it.
After jabbing at Williams, Franklin is handed a phone by defensive coordinator Bob Shoop. On the other end is Burks.
"Oren, congratulations," Franklin says. "I hear the whole school is wearing black and gold, is that right? That is awesome. We've got to get a picture of that. You've got to get to work now!"
6:48 a.m.: Select boosters and program high-rollers have an invitation to the war room, and some of them have trickled in by now. Franklin greets them with handshakes and hugs, then asks for more chairs to be brought in so the boosters can sit on the periphery of the room.
Among the boosters who make an appearance is John Ingram, who has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to the university. Ingram is here with his 11-year-old son, Lucas, who later in the morning gets the privilege of helping announce a signee. (When your dad gives that much money, there are certain familial perks that go along with it.)
The boosters are greeted by a key announcement from Williams: "With the No. 8 pick out of Central High School in Macon, Ga., the Vanderbilt Commodores select Nigel 'The Hammer' Bowden!"
Shoop is ecstatic with the addition of the muscle-bound linebacker.
"That's a big one, baby!" he says.
Around this time former Vandy player Marcus Buggs arrives with breakfast for everyone. His mom owns a restaurant, and she has supplied the staff with all the sausage casserole and eggs they can eat. A supply of smoothies has arrived as well, but that gets less attention.
On the ESPNU telecast, there's Derek Dooley. He was the coach at Tennessee until the Volunteers were obliterated by Vandy 41-18 – he was fired the next day. In SEC parlance, he got Vandy'd.
Former Auburn coach Gene Chizik was on the same show. He got Vandy'd, too, though he wasn't fired for more than a month after the Tigers lost to the Commodores 17-13.
Chizik did have high praise for Franklin on the show. "He's selling hope," Chizik said.
7:05 a.m.: Several Vandy cheerleaders arrive, in uniform, to help enliven the proceedings. Meanwhile, Franklin is plowing through a stack of Vanderbilt T-shirts, asking for sizes and handing them out to visitors.
A few minutes later, Sam Williams is at the podium and flanked by the cheerleaders to announce the program's ninth signed letter: Tre Bell, a defensive back from Union, N.J. Franklin high-fives the cheerleaders.
This is a satisfying one. Bell was originally a Florida commit. Beating out an SEC East rival is a major accomplishment at Vanderbilt.
7:25 a.m.: The 11th letter rolls in, from Memphis defensive back Latevius Rayford. Auburn and Texas made late runs at Rayford, but he stuck to his commitment to the Commodores.
"Beautiful," Franklin says.
Rayford is one of three Memphis signees in this class, a key area for Vandy. The Commodores broke through in that city last year with the signing of running back Brian Kimbrow, who rushed for 413 yards as a freshman. Memphis is a dicey place to recruit, but a vital area in a state that doesn't produce a huge amount of Division I talent.
Two minutes later, after running back Rapheal Webb is announced, Franklin gives another pep talk – this time to the cheerleaders.
"Ladies, we appreciate you being here," he says. "But we're going to need a lot more enthusiasm. Get some coffee, get a smoothie, get some cartwheels going."
7:31 a.m.: Defensive end Mack Weaver of Collierville, Tenn., is announced. The cheerleaders take coaching well; they are much more enthusiastic this time.
Franklin is enthusiastic, too.
"As the great philosopher Ric Flair once said, ‘Whooooooooo!' " Franklin says.
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In addition to the calls coming in from signees, Vandy has also sent out requests for all its prime 2014 recruiting targets to call the coaches as well. Those calls come in at a steady clip to the position coaches who are their prime recruiters, and after a brief chat they pass along the prospects to Franklin.
His set spiel: "It's going to fly by. Before you know it, a year from now you're going to be committing to Vanderbilt and wearing the black and gold and shocking the world. Keep grinding and try to get to campus to see us in the spring or summer."
7:38 a.m.: Mr. C, the Vandy mascot, enters the room to applause and some hazing from the head coach.
"Good morning, Mr. C," Franklin says. "How are you? Just so you know, we started at 6."
8:05 a.m.: Sam Williams is back at the podium.
"With the 17th pick, this gentleman looks like a grown man and is going to play like a grown man for us. DeAndre Woods!"
Behind Williams, a frumpy-looking man in a suit starts yelling: "Yeah! Yeah! DeAndre Woods! Yeah!"
This is Vanderbilt chancellor Nicholas Zeppos. He might be the head of a prestigious academic institution, but on this day he is just another very excited football fan.
"Our success shows you can have the student-athlete excel inside the classroom and outside the classroom," Zeppos said. "I've got to give James Franklin and his staff all the credit for getting the message out that it can happen here at Vanderbilt."
For decades, of course, it did not happen here at Vanderbilt. The Commodores were forever the laughingstock of the SEC, and Zeppos has endured his share of that in 25 years at the school.
"I've seen a lot of bad halftime scores," he said. "You've got to have people to invest in, and now we do with James. He's what we need. I expect him to be here a long time. There's a tradition of burying the chancellor and his wife on campus. I may make an exception and bury him next to me."
While still among the living, Zeppos is invited by Franklin to affix Woods' placard to the recruiting board. Zeppos puts it up slightly askew. Before the chancellor has even left the room, Franklin has straightened it to military specs.
9:06 a.m.: Live on ESPNU, national top-50 recruit Vonn Bell is announcing his choice between Ohio State, Alabama and the home-state Tennessee Volunteers. When Bell puts on a Buckeyes hat, the Vandy war room roars. Getting him out of the SEC and away from the in-state rival Vols is a good thing.
"Enjoy the Big Ten!" someone in the room yells.
Bell had Vanderbilt on his list, but it was not among the favorites. Franklin knew that, so he tailored his message to Bell when he met with him.
"Let me tell you," Franklin said. "Ohio State would be a heck of a choice."
Later in the day, a prospect deciding between Ole Miss and Auburn chooses the Tigers, and that's well-received at Vandy also – the Commodores don't play Auburn again for six years.
Sometimes it's not who you get, but who your rivals don't get.
"That's a victory," Franklin says of Bell's decision. "That's a victory."
9:30: Another big moment on ESPNU, and Vandy's signature moment of the day: receiver Jordan Cunningham of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., chooses the Commodores over Stanford, Miami and Florida.
When that goes down, the war room erupts. They knew it was coming a week ago, but kept the commitment private so Cunningham could have his moment on live TV.
When Cunningham calls assistant coach Josh Gattis minutes later, Franklin leads the cheers in the room before getting on the phone with the receiver.
"You did an unbelievable job," Franklin says. "You presented yourself so well up there. You preached all the things we're preaching, you represented us unbelievably well."
In his televised announcement, Cunningham had echoed Franklin's recruiting pitch: that going to Vandy was a 50-year decision. The son of a professor said he wanted to be an engineer and an entrepreneur after his playing days were over, and that Vandy would give him the chance to do all those things.
"We want our players to leave here as educated men who have the chance to play the game as long as they can," Franklin says. "But then what are you going to do? This place prepares you for what's next better than anywhere in the country."
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A living example of that is sitting in the war room, in the person of former Vandy star Jovan Haye. Newly retired after a seven-year NFL career, Haye has his own business in Nashville and stopped by to get some of the signing-day buzz.
Having been at Vandy in some of the lean years, he's amazed to see it now.
"Sometimes it's the small fish who becomes the big piranha," Haye says. "That's Franklin. He's going to dominate the whole pond. He's got the plan in place. This is a culture change, and we needed it.
"Nine wins? Unheard of. A Top 25 ranking? Unheard of. A Top 25 recruiting class? Unheard of.
"My ultimate goal is to be sitting in the Georgia Dome one day, and it's Vanderbilt and someone from the West. And let's play ball."
10:24 a.m.: Six members of the Vandy band arrive, playing a trumpet, a saxophone, a tuba, a French horn, a trombone and a drum. They play three songs, perhaps overstaying by one. At the end of the third, Franklin hustles to the front of the room to thank them and diplomatically usher them out.
10:55 a.m.: Hand, the offensive line coach, announces that Oklahoma has a fog machine at its Signing Day extravaganza.
"We've got to step up our game," Hand says, suggesting explosives or a sword fight for next year.
"They're all chasing us," says Franklin, a Red Bull and a plate full of scrambled eggs in front of him.
11:18 a.m.: There are 25 commitments in hand. One more will be announced that afternoon, but the staff must keep it quiet to let the player have his moment in a news conference at his school. Franklin uses this opportunity to gather the staff again in the war room.
"We've got some time to kill," he says. "Let's go over our numbers for next year."
This is the start of focusing on 2014 recruiting. The Vandy coaches have actually been working on prospects for a long time, and have a few verbal commitments from current juniors. But this begins the process of deciding how many scholarships the Commodores have to offer, and who will get them.
With a strong assist from player personnel director Andy Frank, Franklin examines the numbers. Frank, a Princeton grad with an analytical eye, is a key resource when it comes to the process of whittling down hundreds of prospects to a tangible number of offers.
The conservative estimate is that Vandy will have 15 scholarships to offer to reach its limit of 85, though Frank insists it will be more like 17 because of player attrition. Franklin prefers the lower number.
"You say that because you're not the guy who has to make the tough call [on who gets offers]," Franklin says. "You're recommending 17, I'm saying 15."
From there, the staff spends about two hours going over the number of available scholarships by position. The goal is to have 41 offensive scholarships, 41 defensive and three on special teams – a punter, a kicker and a snapper. But the devil is in the details.
What if Vandy is stocked at a certain position but has a chance to land a great talent at that same position? That's a good problem to have.
"It's your job as position coaches to get a great player with outstanding grades who wants to come here, and make me turn him down," Franklin says.
Frank has visions of Vandy forcing a hard decision on a blue-chip quarterback.
"I think we're sexy enough now that we can get a top-five, top-10 quarterback," he says. "I think that's what we should be shooting at now."
From there, the coaches spend an extended amount of time agonizing over whether to scholarship a long snapper. Eighty-five scholarships don't sound like so many when it gets down to an extended debate over a guy who may play a dozen snaps per game.
"If we bring a long snapper in here on scholarship and he can't play?" asks Franklin. "I'm going to be [expletive] pissed. My point is, that scholarship is coming from somewhere. Some [position coach] has got to be willing to give up that number. We can't call the NCAA and say we need 87."
2:09 p.m.: Franklin has reassembled the cast, cheerleaders included, for the final announcement from tuxedoed Sam Williams. Linebacker Zach Cunningham of Pinson, Ala., is the last signee.
"That's the Pryfecta," exults linebacker coach Brent Pry, who has signed three gems.
From there, the last order of business for a while is to determine which coach's recruit was the last to fax in his signed letter. Tradition dictates that the last coach has to buy lunch for the entire staff.
[Related: SEC's dominance extends to Signing Day]
After considerable debate, Frank examines the times on the faxes and announces that receivers coach Josh Gattis is that guy. He will have to pay for lunch Monday, when the staff reconvenes after a four-day mini-vacation.
"I love a good time stamp," says tight ends coach Charles Bankins.
With another Red Bull in hand, Franklin closes up formal recruiting activities in the war room.
"Hell of a job, everyone," he says. "That's just an unbelievable job by everyone who had a part in it."
Franklin says there will be a news conference at 4 to discuss the class, and he wants recruiting coordinators Frank, Gattis and George Barlow to attend with him. Then there will be a public celebration with fans at the Student Life Center, with the entire staff attending.
"I'd like everyone there shaking hands, kissing babies," Franklin says. "I want you walking around, getting to know people and thanking them for coming."
After the celebration, there will be limousine buses at the football complex to take the entire staff out for a night on the town. A group that works hard will play hard, too.
"We're going to enjoy ourselves," Franklin tells the media at the 4 p.m. news conference. "Please don't take any pictures or video, because we're going to get after it."
And after that, Vandy football will be off from Thursday through Sunday, with a staff meeting at 8 a.m. Monday. During the time off, Franklin is taking his wife and two daughters to a Florida beach.
"That's my wife's call," he says. "If we don't leave town, I'll be in the office."
With the day's work over – the year's work, really – the stereo is cranked up again. DJ Khaled's "All I Do Is Win" is playing. A room full of tired, relieved, giddy coaches break into song and dance.
And that's what Signing Day is, Ava Franklin.
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