By LARRY VAUGHT
It’s been 18 years since Tony Franklin coached a game at Kentucky. That changes Saturday when he returns to Lexington as offensive coordinator for Middle Tennessee.
Franklin was the running backs coach and then offensive coordinator at Kentucky under coach Hal Mumme before being fired in 2000 when the program was facing NCAA investigation. He later wrote a book about the inner works of the UK program under Mumme that basically got him blackballed from college coaching (he was never implicated in any wrongdoing by the NCAA) until he got hired at Troy. He’s also coached at Auburn, Louisiana Tech and California since leaving UK.
“I’ve gone through all the emotional cycles — anger, hatred, all kinds of stuff,” Franklin, a western Kentucky native. “I went through survival and not being able to get a job and being out of college coaching for five years before I was able to get back.
“I always knew what was going on at UK. I always kept up with Kentucky regardless of who was coaching. It never really mattered to me that much what happened until people I really cared about — Neal Brown, Chad Scott, John Schlarman — started coaching there.”
He now passionately pulls for Schlarman, UK’s offensive line coach who is battling cancer.
“There have been times the last two seasons watching John that I was like a little kid yelling and screaming at the TV. Last year I remember walking into the locker room and Kentucky was playing Florida. We started watching and I just worried they were going to pull a Kentucky and lose … and then they did find a way to lose that just killed me,” Franklin said.
“But this year they have been remarkable. I pull for them every week. I love John. I really do. It’s been fun to watch how they win. It’s been typical John with that line. John and I have always stayed in contact. He sent me a nice message when he got a good contract.”
Franklin’s daughter, Caitlin, babysat Schlarman’s children when he was working under Franklin at Troy. Franklin says his wife, Laura, “loves” Schlarman’s wife, Lee Anne, and says she is his wife’s “all-time favorite” among all the coaches he’s worked with. Just like the coaches, their wives have stayed in contact. John Schlarman has even worked Franklin’s football camps.
“I love him. I think about him every day,” Franklin said. “Of all the humans who could endure what he’s doing and do it, it is him. I remember Bill Curry saying John Schlarman was the toughest player he had ever seen. I never forgot that quote about John. He is very unique and such a good man and fun guy. One of my best things has been watching the success he’s had and I am so glad I gave him a job at Troy.”
He’ll certainly exchange messages with Schlarman this week.
Franklin says his wife and children are excited about coming back to Lexington.
“All my girls graduated high school in Lexington. They have beautiful, and horrible, memories from Lexington. There are things I never realized my kids knew and thought about from then until just recently,” Franklin said. “Still, I am excited about coming back. It’s something I feel good about it. I didn’t quit. I didn’t allow people that wanted to bully me to do it. It was not easy. But I am excited to get back to the place where I grew up.
“I still remember the first Kentucky game I went to. There will be a lot of nostalgia for me at 61 years old as I near the end of my career to get to come back to Kentucky.”
Franklin knows there will be some “negative type” reaction to his return because of the “craziness” that went on at the end of the Mumme era.
“But I would think most people could care less,” Franklin said. “They have a magical season going on. I told our head coach all season why did we have to be playing Kentucky this year. What they are doing on offense is genius. The are playing to use a great defense and one of the best backs (Benny Snell) in the nation. The O-line is a bunch of bad asses, just like the coach. They have done a phenomenal job of winning games.
“It reminds me of the Derrick Ramey era (UK went 10-1 in 1977) when they had a phenomenal defense, scored enough to win and just ate up the clock on offense like they have this year. It doesn’t work if you don’t play great defense, and they have a great defense so they can just feed that monster of a running back. You just look at them physically and they do not look like the days from years past when Kentucky didn’t look like a SEC team. These guys more than pass the look test.”