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July 18, 2013
Inadvertently, James Franklin caused a bit of a stir on the opening day of SEC Media Days. During interviews with television crews in Hoover, Ala., the Missouri quarterback responded to a question about hostility he received from SEC fans during the 2012 season.
"Well, actually, probably the rudest fans that I experienced were Mizzou, my own fans," Franklin said. "I'd say I heard some pretty not so nice comments from my own fans."
The comment caused some grumbling, particularly on websites populated by Tiger fans. By no means was the reaction a full-fledged outrage, but in the month of July, when there is no actual football to be scrutinized, plenty did weigh in on what the Mizzou senior had to say.
Let's first get this out of the way: Had Franklin had time to consult a public relations expert prior to answering the question, he probably wouldn't have said what he said. That he was justified in saying it doesn't really matter. Major college football players are expected, at 21 and younger, to stay above the slings and arrows fired their way by fans who are, in most cases, older and, theoretically, more mature. That is probably difficult to do, particularly with the abundance of social media outlets now allowing for one-to-one interaction between players and fans and also in a situation with more than 1,200 accredited media sticking microphones and recorders in their faces, desperately searching for a line--any line--that isn't the same old boring coachspeak they will hear dozens of times over a 60-hour period at the Wynfrey Hotel.
I read some of the things directed at Franklin last season. If they'd been directed at me, I'd probably have been pissed off too (and without doubt, I get pissed off far more easily than James Franklin does). But still, it isn't a quote Franklin would likely offer up again given the chance.
Franklin did clarify what he meant in the next stop on his Hoover parade.
"They were asking the worst thing I heard from the rudest fan," Franklin said. "I was like, 'Well, all the fans are pretty nice.' I said the rudest comment I got was from our Mizzou fans. I'm definitely not going to say what he said, because it wasn't the best thing to say, but, no sir, I meant it in a way that he said something pretty bad and it was the worst thing I heard last year.
"I've come to the realization that you've got to be careful about what you hear in the media, what's posted online. Just like the comment I made earlier, about what was the rudest comment I got, now all the Mizzou fans are going to think I think they're the rudest fans ever kind of thing. So you have to be careful of what you pay attention to online, because once it comes out, whether it's true or not, people are going to see that. They're going to see it in their newsfeed, they're going to see that on their Twitter, whatever."
So Franklin understands the spotlight under which he operates. If he didn't, he could have waited around the Wynfrey for another few hours until Johnny Manziel arrived. On Wednesday morning, the owner of a Heisman Trophy and college football's most turbulent off-season talked with some surprise about the volume of attention he has received since the end of his redshirt freshman season that culminated in a 41-13 curb-stomping of Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl.
"I've made some mistakes and I've owned up to them," Manziel said in Hoover. "The spotlight is ten times brighter than I thought it was."
The other thing I'm sure Franklin knows is this: His situation is not different than that of any other quarterback. In a note posted on Instagram Tuesday night, Franklin stated "I was not complaining, I simply answered the question truthfully. I love Mizzou fans and they're great! And I understand exactly why they've said rude things towards me...I didn't perform well and that's frustrating! I'm sorry"
And that is really at the crux of the matter. First off, Franklin didn't have a good junior season. Not by his standards, nor by the standards of his coaches or fans. Add to it the controversy of whether Franklin sat out games he could have played and you get the whirlwind of negativity that has surrounded Missouri and its quarterback for the last ten months.
By most statistical measures, Franklin is the second-best quarterback in Missouri history (this isn't my opinion, it is backed up by numbers). He's not the second-best quarterback in Missouri history. But along with Paul Christman and Phil Bradley, Franklin joins Gary Pinkel signal callers Brad Smith, Chase Daniel and Blaine Gabbert in the group discussion of Mizzou's most successful quarterbacks. Even if he comes in at the bottom of that list, he's not exactly at the bottom of the totem pole.
Christman played in the 1930's and Bradley in the late seventies when college football coverage was a whole different world. But Smith, Daniel and Gabbert all played in the Internet age. Most would say all three--to this point--had more successful careers than Franklin. And none escaped the same scrutiny Franklin has experienced in the last calendar year.
Smith was everyone's darling as a redshirt freshman and a sophomore. Starting with a breakout nationally televised performance against Illinois in 2002, Smith drug Missouri football from the depths of despair to respectability nearly by himself for two seasons. As Mizzou attempted to prepare him to be an NFL quarterback, Smith's play and the team's record suffered as a junior in 2004. And during much of his senior season, a vocal minority among Tiger fans screamed for Daniel to replace him. Bad Brad's time had passed, defenses had figured him out and it was time to turn things over to the true freshman phenom from Texas. At least according to some. Many will make the argument to this day that if Smith (not only the best statistical QB in Missouri history at the time, but one of the best in the history of college football) would not have been injured against Iowa State, Pinkel would not have been around to even coach Daniel in Columbia.
Daniel won eight games as a sophomore. He put together what is inarguably the best individual season in Mizzou football history as a junior, finishing fourth in the Heisman balloting and leading Missouri to the brink of a Big 12 title and national championship game appearance. But after a three-interception performance in a loss to Oklahoma State simultaneously derailed his Heisman campaign and Missouri's national title hopes in 2008, fans began to rumble that perhaps the most decorated player in Tiger history had lost his focus. Maybe Blaine Gabbert should get a shot.
Gabbert won 18 games in two years at Mizzou and became a top ten pick in the NFL draft. And yet, probably largely because he followed Daniel (it is never good to be the guy that follows THE GUY), and to a slightly lesser degree because he had a couple of extra gold stars next to his name as a high school senior, he never felt the same level of love from Tiger fans that his predecessors did. And there were times during his ten-win junior season that would be his last that fans called for Gabbert to move on and Franklin to take over. It is tough to believe Missouri would be a better team with a first-year starter at quarterback in 2011 than it would be with a top-ten NFL pick entering his third season as a starter. But there was a portion of the fanbase that was not sorry to see Gabbert enter the draft a year before his eligibility expired.
And now, Franklin is in the same situation. The backup quarterback is the most popular man on every campus in America. At programs coming off a losing season, that popularity is even higher.
Missouri's first game is just more than six weeks away. At that point, Franklin has a mostly clean slate with the fans. Win and play well and they will love him. Lose and struggle and the rudeness will surface, followed quickly by screams for Maty Mauk to play. So goes the life of a college quarterback.