Commentary

Franklin, Auburn marriage a 'seven-game failure'

Originally Published: October 23, 2008
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

On Tuesday, Oct. 7, Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville stood in front of his players and staff and said embattled offensive coordinator Tony Franklin had his full support. He declared that the Tigers were sticking with Franklin's no-huddle, spread offense. And anyone who didn't like it was free to leave the program.

The next day, Tuberville fired him.

[+] EnlargeTony Franklin
AP Photo/Dave MartinTony Franklin's tenure with the Tigers lasted only seven games.

That's the version of events Franklin gave Wednesday -- a trap-door dismissal just when he thought his head coach was fully behind him.

The natural question: What happened in less than 24 hours to cause such a jarring change?

"I don't know," Franklin said. "I'll never know. Maybe one day people will tell me. I just have to live with the fact that it didn't work out and I got fired."

Tuberville is not offering his version of what happened in Franklin's final days as a coach on The Plains. He declined comment through Auburn football spokesman Kirk Sampson on Wednesday night.

"He's moving on," Sampson said. "He's more concerned with these last five games."

Auburn (4-3, 2-3 in SEC play) faces West Virginia in Morgantown Thursday night (ESPN, 7:30 ET). And now Tuberville's own job security is in question.

On the day he fired Franklin, Tuberville was asked what happened to his reported vote of confidence. The answer: "You keep looking at things, look at production. There's no really unknown reason. You've just got to go with your gut feeling."

Now Franklin is going with his, two weeks after he was fired. After carefully considering what he wanted to say publicly, he spoke with ESPN.com on Wednesday night.

Franklin described his seven-game tenure at Auburn as a mutually bad decision by himself and Tuberville -- he shouldn't have accepted the offer to leave Troy to radically transform an old-school offense, and Tuberville shouldn't have hired someone so un-Auburn in terms of football philosophy.

Franklin said he encountered a veteran staff that was resistant to change and that the staff might have contributed to his ouster.

What began as a promising season reached a boiling point after the Tigers were beaten by Vanderbilt 14-13 on Oct. 4, dropping them to 4-2. Franklin said he feared for his job the day after that loss, in which his sputtering offense produced just 208 total yards and was shut out over the final three quarters.

"I thought he was going to fire me after the Vanderbilt game," Franklin said. "I asked him and he said no. I was surprised, and I thought then I had a chance."

Tensions had escalated up to that point, with staff disagreements about how to fix what was wrong. In the aftermath of the Vandy loss, Franklin said, the situation reached a boiling point.

When he heard about some players and staff members publicly questioning the direction of the offense, Franklin called a meeting of the entire offense the following Tuesday. His tone was not conciliatory.

[+] EnlargeTommy Tuberville
Doug Benc/Getty ImagesTommy Tuberville had a "gut feeling" that it was time to move in a different direction.

"It was not a Girl Scout meeting," he said. "I'm fiery. I'm rough around the edges."

So Franklin stood in front of the offense he was hired to modernize and gave everyone an old-fashioned ass chewing.

"I had a George Patton speech of more modern times, with all the players and coaches there," Franklin added. "There were some things the players and coaches needed to hear about being responsible. I had owned up to my responsibility and publicly tried to take the blame every time I was asked. It was time for them to do the same.

"Some of them hated me for it, I'm sure, but it worked. I made an attempt that I either won the football team and got them back in my hands, or I lost them. I wasn't going to sit and watch it all sink with my thumb in my mouth. I was going to take every approach I knew to make it work. And I really think it worked."

Franklin went out for practice that day and "coached every position on the field like I was 25 years old again. I was running routes the best a 51-year-old can run them. I think I got most of them back."

That belief was reinforced at the end of practice when Tuberville addressed the entire team.

"Coach Tuberville made the statement that this was my offense," Franklin recalled. "He said they needed to jump on board or find somewhere else to go."

The next morning, everything changed.

"When he walked in the room and shut the door I knew he was going to fire me by the look on his face," Franklin said. "He was white as a sheet.

"He said, 'This isn't working.'

"I said, 'Coach, are you trying to fire me?'

"He said, 'Yeah.'"

Franklin said he doesn't recall many other specific details of the conversation, including whether there was any explanation given for the sudden disappearance of support. I've heard two explanations from various sources:

• A mutiny by the offensive staff, some or all of which went to Tuberville and demanded that Franklin go or they go.

• The long arm of super-booster Bobby Lowder, who has inserted himself into football personnel decisions in the past.

Franklin said he wouldn't recognize Lowder if he saw him on the street. But he did not discount the possibility of a staff mutiny.

[+] EnlargeTony Franklin
AP Photo/Dave MartinTony Franklin plans to return to coaching coaches about his spread offense.

"The thing with the assistant coaches could have happened," Franklin said. "I don't know. I wouldn't be surprised if they did. Common sense tells you that if things aren't going great, there will be some changes, and I think people did what human nature teaches them to do, which is whatever it takes to survive.

"If they were asked their opinion or went in and gave their opinion, I'm sure it wasn't, 'Hey, I love this guy and if he goes, I go.'

"He probably did the best thing. Because if it was either me or three or four guys, it's a lot easier to fire one guy than three or four. Especially when you've got guys you've been with a long, long time."

Three of Tuberville's offensive position coaches have been with him since his time at Mississippi in the 1990s: offensive line coach Hugh Nall, receivers coach Greg Knox and running backs coach Eddie Gran. The other offensive position coach, tight ends coach Steve Ensminger, is in his sixth year at Auburn.

Deleting the old offensive coordinator, Al Borges, and bringing in Franklin in December 2007 had the effect of making Franklin feel like an outsider. He was the lone addition to a staff accustomed to doing things a certain way.

"The lesson I learned was one I already knew," Franklin said. "When you go into a new place, you never go alone. You need to have someone who's willing to sink with you. When the ship is going down, you don't want to be alone.

"I think in the beginning they [the offensive assistants] all tried to do what was asked of them. I think it was human nature that they all reverted back when it wasn't working."

In Auburn's only game to date post-Franklin, the Tigers were upset at home by Arkansas 25-22. In that contest, Auburn produced only 193 yards total offense. So it's hard to blame it all on Franklin.

The coach who took over for Borges before Auburn's Chick-fil-A Bowl appearance last December describes his tenure at the school as "a seven-game failure." But he also points out that Auburn's offense has not been very robust in recent years and is not flush with talent.

"There are a lot of other people who are better coaches than myself who wouldn't have succeeded either," he said. "I coached seven games, we won five. It's not like we were 0-7. I'm proud of the fact that we found ways to win, even when it was ugly."

Now Franklin will try to find his way back into his previous niche in the sport: marketing and selling his no-huddle offense to coaches on various levels around the country. Franklin was forced to sell his portion of that business when he went to work in the SEC, but now he'd like to buy back in and return to coaching coaches.

He's also written two books, one of them detailing the previous SEC coaching staff implosion he was part of at Kentucky under Hal Mumme. If he writes another one, it wouldn't overflow with bitterness toward Auburn.

"Shoot, it was a unique experience," Franklin said. "I'm glad I had the opportunity. Sorry it didn't work."

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.

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