(NB: this is a little over 1800 words I bashed out last night in a blind purple rage. All opinions are my own and do not reflect the opinion of the fine management of AoG. Please note that I also mean nothing personally against Godfrey, Brandon at TSK or the fine folks at Blogger So Dear, all of whose work I greatly enjoy and who I hold in regard. They are merely shining the light; others cast the shade.)
So. Here we go again.
It seems as long as we have a talented coach we'll never be lonely...nor free from the rumor mill. It doesn't exactly help to have people on Twitter explicitly tying CJF's appeal for bowl tickets to the USC job opening, but then again, it's par for the course. Actually, that's a very conceptually complex piece of information, so let's unpack it.
One: CJF is appealing for people to buy bowl tickets. Of course he is. That's what he does. CJF sells the program 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Now he won't ever say so, because he's spoken about not being a bowl snob (which is the right thing for him to be saying at this stage) but he probably knows that a huge presale on bowl tickets might help swing things toward our first January 1 bowl ever. The problem being that we went to the Music City Bowl at 6-6 in 2008 and the Liberty Bowl at 6-6 in 2011, only to go to the Music City Bowl again in 2012 at 8-4. Now we're looking at 8-4, and if the Gator Bowl elects to pick a Georgia team with an identical 8-4 mark (who we beat head-to-head, mind you) then we will almost certainly fall to the Liberty Bowl. More about the SEC's bowl bids in a moment.
Two: CJF is allegedly under consideration for the USC job. Whether it's true or not, it's certainly plausible. USC is one of the top programs in this sport, historically, and they're finally out from under NCAA scholarship sanctions. The removal of Lane Kiffin lit a fire under the program thanks to Ed Orgeron. Remember that LSU hired away Gerry Dinardo after he went 5-6 twice in four years at Vanderbilt - a coach who won 8 games with the Dores in back-to-back years, especially a young and dynamic minority coach, is someone USC AD Pat Haden has to look at. It would be malpractice for him not to consider Franklin. But at the same time, USC is a program on the order of Notre Dame and Alabama and Ohio State - would any of those fanbases be happy hiring a coach away from Vanderbilt, no matter how successful? Hell, Texas still thinks they can hire Nick Saban away from Alabama. Now I freely admit we weren't exactly over the moon three years ago with the announcement of CJF, but most of that was due to the hamfisted way the process unfurled and the $3 million tease of Gus Malzahn before falling back to what many saw as the second choice. Regardless, I have no doubt that CJF would be successful anywhere in the country; if you can make it here, you really can make it anywhere.
Three: now connect it - people (and here I mean SBNation's own Steven Godfrey, who wrote an outstanding embed piece on UT week in 2011) are explicitly drawing a line between bowl tickets and CJF staying in town. I'm not saying it's an invalid consideration, but it's one that's tremendously unfair to Vanderbilt. The SEC's bowl partners have flexibility in the decision-making process; there's not an automatic slotting of "you finished 6th so you SHALL go to the Gator Bowl!" And if we don't go to the Gator Bowl, we will be playing a bowl game in the state of Tennessee for the third straight year and the fourth time since 2008. In fact, at that point, bowls in Tennessee will be the majority of all bowls Vanderbilt has ever been to. We were happy to go to any bowl at all at 6-6, and rightly so. But to make the jump to 8-4 and be offered those very same bowls again...
Actually, let's look around at some of the teams in other conferences with similar/comparable records right now. These are all from SBNation's bowl projections as of last night.
VIRGINIA TECH - 8-4 overall, 5-3 in conference, #5 in ACC overall, projects to Sun Bowl (El Paso)
KANSAS STATE - 7-5, 5-4 in Big 12, #5 overall, projects to Holiday Bowl (San Diego)
TEXAS TECH - 7-5, 4-5 in Big 12, #6 overall, projects to Texas Bowl (Houston)
UTAH STATE - 8-4, 4-5 in Conference USA, #2 overall, projects to Las Vegas Bowl
IOWA - 8-4, 5-3 in Big Ten, #5 overall, projects to Outback Bowl
NEBRASKA - 8-4, 5-3 in Big Ten, #6 overall, projects to Texas Bowl
WASHINGTON - 8-4, 5-4 in Pac-12, #6 overall, projects to Fight Hunger Bowl (San Francisco)
Here we start to see some of our problem. An overall record of 8-4 projects to at least 6th place in most conferences, if not 5th. Hell, Kansas State won 7 games and gets to go to San Diego for their trouble. Meanwhile, we went 4-4 in the SEC and 8-4 overall, and that's good for 8th place overall on the tiebreak with Texas A&M. We have the same record as Georgia overall and beat them head-to-head, but they went 5-3 in the league, which probably gives them an edge. And that's the problem: the SEC has generally-regarded-as-prestigious (or at least January 1) bowl berths down through the Gator Bowl. After that, it's Nashville, Memphis and Birmingham as your destinations of choice...and we just happen to be in the same state as two of those and four miles from one of them.
James Franklin has demolished a whole lot of myths in three years. Can't win at Vanderbilt? 23 wins in 3 years. Can't win in the SEC? One win short of .500 in that span. No facilities? Just opened a brand-new indoor practice facility to go with our remodeling in McGugin and the locker rooms. Can't get to the NFL from Vanderbilt? Zac Stacy. Casey Hayward. Jordan Matthews, you can bank on that. Can't recruit talent to Vanderbilt? We had a top-20 recruiting class last year and plenty more on the string for February.
And yet, that top-20 recruiting class was good for 9th place among SEC recruiting classes.
We're playing in a conference that's won the last seven BCS national championships, with four different teams. On any given week, half the teams in the league are ranked in the top 25. Right now, we have three teams in the top 5 of the BCS standings. Our most successful run of football in a lifetime has been sufficient to push us into the middle third of the conference, no thanks to an expansion from 12 to 14 that accounts for two of the teams ahead of us right now. Hell, take Aggie and Mizzou out of the picture and we might be looking at the Gator Bowl as a fallback if we miss the Peach Bowl.
Now, tie it all back together and you'll see the problem. People are linking Vanderbilt bowl ticket sales to retaining James Franklin. And why are people saying this? Because they can't fathom why anyone would stay at Vanderbilt. Why wouldn't anybody stay at Vanderbilt? Because it's not really an SEC school.
That's the message. That's the bottom line. When the guys at Team Speed Kills or Blogger So Dear assume that Franklin has one foot out the door week in and week out, when every December brings fresh rumors about this school or that school about to spirit him away, when Vanderbilt is singled out for attendance issues in a year when Nick Saban is berating Alabama students for not staying through games - what they're really saying is "you don't belong in this conference." The past three years have been an alarming and distressing anomaly, and once Franklin is safely dispatched to Austin or Los Angeles or Seattle - or let's be blunt, Gainesville or Fayetteville - then Vanderbilt can be put back in the shelf, pencilled in as an automatic W every year, and all of this will just have been a bad dream.
So yeah. Never mind that we spent the last fifty years only poking our head out of the cellar once a decade or so, and have only had a serious commitment from the administration to support football for these past three years. Never mind that we are the only SEC football program that has to compete for the local dollar with an NFL team five miles away. Never mind that we have the smallest student body in the league, or the most widely scattered body of alumni in the league, or the least-developed "sidewalk alumni" fanbase in the league. We can't turn out Alabama numbers to a bowl game, so we don't belong in an SEC bowl, quod erat demonstrandum.
Coach Guepe, when he resigned, famously told us "there is no way you can be Harvard six days a week and Alabama on Saturday." Maybe we were wrong to believe him. Maybe we were wrong not to be like Stanford and find some filthy rich alumnus who would shower tens of millions on the program annually. Maybe we were wrong not to be like Tulane and Georgia Tech and leave for a more accommodating conference. Maybe we should have kept the old-style athletic department, sandbagged our academic standards, showered money on football at the expense of baseball and men's and women's basketball and campus housing and academic programs. Maybe we should have hushed up legal issues and put guys on the field who were implicated in horrific felonies. Maybe we should have spent more time poisoning trees or making death threats on Twitter. Maybe it's all our own fault. Maybe we should have compromised who we are and what we stand for so that we could be a better fit for this conference.
We are who we are, and we'll go forward, and we'll remain loyal to our black and gold come what may and whoever we run out there at head coach. Because we're all we've got. The rest of the league certainly doesn't wish us well. The SEC itself certainly never has. The anomaly, the afterthought, the homecoming victim, the ringer for academic credentials - but not really SEC.
If you still wonder why the shirt says CHIP right there on the shoulder, it's because there's no reason for that chip to budge. Not now. Maybe not ever. And that works for me just fine. We're all we've got, and we're all we need.
You still need an explanation for Anchor Down? Consider it explained.