Remember when these guys all said they'd be back? That was only one of several awesome moments for Vanderbilt athletics this spring and summer. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Think back - when was the last time you felt this good about Vanderbilt sports?
The baseball team is coming off a run to the College World Series that validated the team's presence as a national power. The men's basketball team has developed into a perennial top 25 squad and will be returning all five starters this winter in a bid for Final Four glory. Even our lowly football team, coming off a 2-10 season, is taking steps to erase five decades of futility behind new head coach James Franklin and an ever-expanding base of top-flight recruits.
Was there ever a better summer to be a Commodore?
2010-2011 will go down as a strong year for Vandy athletics, but 2011-2012 is shaping up to be even better. Several parties are responsible for this; classes of tremendous student-athletes that have chosen to come to - or stay in -Nashville, an administration that's allowed the school's athletics to flourish despite the lack of an Athletic Director, and a fanbase that has proven that West End is a viable setting for big-time college sports. However, most of the credit must go to a solid base of coaches that have re-ignited Vanderbilt's passion for athletics and given the school an identity outside of "the SEC's private school."
Tim Corbin, Kevin Stallings, and Franklin - head coaches of the men's baseball, basketball, and football programs, respectively - are the architects behind this revival. All three have been tireless recruiters and salesmen of the Vanderbilt vision. All three have stolen prospects who probably had no business coming to Nashville. Two of the three, excluding the first-year coach Franklin, have tasted postseason success. Their hard work has been the catalyst that set this snowball in motion, and as Vanderbilt teams win more, their momentum will breed more success. This promise of success on the field, in the classroom, and on the recruiting trail, have made the summer of 2011 one of the best ever for Vandy boosters.
Of course, this is a far cry from the summers of the past in Nashville. The June-July-August corridor rarely gives Commodore fans the chance to be happy. Instead, we've been forced to watch as basketball heroes slip out of the first round of the NBA draft or baseball squads heartbreakingly fall out of postseason play. Summer football recruiting was a futile effort that generated few headlines and even fewer recruits. In general, the dim optimism of the upcoming football season was overwhelmed by the lingering failures of the past.
But not anymore.
Corbin's ability to bring future MLB stars to Nashville revived a baseball program that was on life support. Now, we get to celebrate a College World Series run and follow players like David Price, Pedro Alvarez, and Mike Minor in the pros. Just 300 feet from center field, Stallings was building his own empire, turning mid-tier recruits into SEC Player of the Year candidates and bringing in talent from across the globe to make the Commodores a consistent threat in their conference.
Despite their successes, neither man had the instant impact on recruiting that Franklin has had at Dudley Field. Franklin, a man who was thought of as the consolation prize to landing Gus Malzahn during Vandy's coaching search last December, has turned the Commodores from a recruiting afterthought to a top 25 program. His charisma has bled through into a crop of impressionable young athletes and turned what was once a stagnant pond of two-star recruits into a building tidal wave of the south's top prospects.
Need proof? Just look at Josh Grady, an incoming 2011 freshman that Franklin plucked from programs like Purdue, UConn, and Iowa despite having been name head coach just two months before inking the highly rated quarterback. It only took a new more months for Grady to change his Twitter handle to Commostar_7 (he's since changed back to JStat7) and become Vanderbilt's biggest supporter, sending out excited tweets every time Franklin earns a new commitment and ending many of his quick hits with #ANCHORDOWN.
Or, take a look at last Friday's recruiting event that saw three hyped players choose Nashville over several other BCS powerhouses. This group included four-star tailback Brian Kimbrow - a small, speedy waterbug of a runner who was ranked the second-best back in his high school class. Kimbrow started his press conference by grabbing a Tennessee hat, putting it on, and declaring "it doesn't fit" before choosing a Vandy hat on the table in front of him.
When has anything like that ever happened for Vanderbilt football?
This is a new era of Vanderbilt athletics, built up brick by brick atop the failed efforts of the great players and coaches who made progress possible.
Thanks to guys like Corbin, Stallings, and Franklin, fans in Nashville have something to talk about other than the Titans' lockout plans. Our sports fix is no longer only satisfied by Thirsty Thursday trips to Sounds games. Instead of swallowing hard when talking about Vanderbilt's role in the SEC next year, Commodore fans can speak pridefully and optimistically - hey, did you hear about this kid Sealand that's coming in next year? Did you hear about Jeffery Taylor wowing scouts at Kevin Durant's camp?
We've had glimpses of this in the past, but rarely have things come together like this for Vanderbilt University. The school boasted an elite baseball team in 2011. The men's basketball team is earning praise as a potential Final Four candidate. The football team is inking recruits that normally wouldn't have stepped foot in Nashville unless they were on the opposing sideline. That's three major sports - and three major steps in the right direction.
Vanderbilt isn't a national power by any means, but the strides that the University has taken in the past five years alone have been impressive. It hasn't been easy to be a Commodore fan, but anyone who has donned a replica Earl Bennett jersey and walked out to Dudley Field on a balmy September night will tell you that it's gotten better. The progress has been incremental, but 2011 appears to be the turning point.
There's an air of overwhelming optimism coming from West End and Natchez Trace these days, and it has permeated through the state of Vanderbilt athletics. Three hardworking coaches have been the force behind shifting the tide of a culture that accepted being the SEC's lovable losers for decades. This could be the golden era of Vanderbilt athletics - and the best part is, it's just starting now.