Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Cult Leader

Auburn at Mississippi State
SEC Game of the Week
Sept. 13, 2008
ESPN2 7:00 ET

(Article originally appeared 9.7.08 Gameday Weekly)

"We call him the 'cult leader' ... we're going to get him a crown and a robe." Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville on new offensive coordinator and seminar superstar Tony Franklin

He’s kind of like Jack Lalanne except he’s peddling passing schemes instead of physical fitness.

Think of him as the Tony Robbins of high school football coaches, his “system” of self-help seminars promoting record-breaking performances from Hoover to Houston to Hazard, Kentucky.

Now, Tony Franklin has his biggest marketing stage yet as Auburn offensive coordinator.

Can the Guru come through or are Auburn fans swallowing a bunch of snake oil?

There are few stories over the past decade in college football as interesting as that of Tony Franklin.

A long-time high school coach in Kentucky, Franklin was hired by former Wildcat head coach Hal Mumme in 1997 to coach running backs. He served on Mumme’s staff for four years, the final one as offensive coordinator before being swept out as part of a housecleaning over NCAA violations during Mumme’s tenure.

The Wildcats were a wide-open offense during the Mumme years, using a no-huddle spread attack that would later form a foundation for “The Tony Franklin System.”

There is nothing particularly unusual about a staff being fired for cheating, but Franklin did not go quietly.

Seemingly out of anger, he wrote a tell-all book, Fourth Down and Life to Go, chronicling the travails of the Mumme years. Rather than money or fame, the book earned Franklin a blackball. He would not coach again in college for five years.

In the interim, struggling financially, Franklin began pitching the no-huddle spread option attack.

His method?

Seminars and clinics during which he would equip coaching staffs (for a healthy fee) with all the basics to successfully implement a wide-open offense. Like an old-time gospel revivalist, Franklin’s camp meetings grew in popularity, especially among high school coaches in Kentucky, Texas, and Alabama.

The most famous proponent of the “Franklin System” was another pretty fair self-promoter named Rush Propst – the former Hoover (AL) head coach who took the Bucs program to national prominence through offense – the kind Franklin preaches and the kind gained by overexposure on MTV through a series called Two-A-Days.

The high-profile success of those high school programs led Larry Blakeney to hire Franklin as offensive coordinator at Troy in 2006, and the Trojans immediately began to pile up points and yards.

Last season Troy averaged 30 points per game against Arkansas, Florida, and Georgia, while Auburn managed only 16 versus the same three squads.

Hello Guru and welcome to the Plains.

After installing "the system" in nine days (hey it only takes three for high school teams to get it in a seminar), Auburn reeled off 93 offensive snaps in a Chick-fil-A bowl win over Clemson, and the cult of Tony Franklin grew wider and louder.

Results this season have been solid but not overwhelming.

The Tigers struggled with the passing game in a 34-0 opening game win over Louisiana-Monroe, then passed well but could not hold onto the ball in the running game (three fumbles) while beating Southern Miss 27-13.

Keep in mind that if Franklin had given the Auburn offense a flavor these first two games it would have been vanilla.

Expect a bit more taste when the Tigers travel to Starkville this week.

Mississippi State played at Louisiana Tech in week one and got humbled 22-14 thanks primarily to an offense that could have used some self-help. QB Wesley Carroll threw three interceptions in the game, and the State defense wilted under the pressure late.

Last weekend, the Bullies racked up five sacks on defense in a 34-10 win over Southeastern Louisiana, and the offense looked better with Carroll tossing two TDs and the running game grinding out 216 yards.

State beat Auburn on the Plains last season, but it is difficult seeing the Bulldog offense having enough success against a stout (and underappreciated) Tiger defense to win this one.

Maybe they can sign up for a seminar with the Guru if they lose.

Game Ball: Auburn