For the Class of 2017:
Twenty-three years ago, I was where you are: getting ready for my first home game. I was a first-year grad student, coming from an undergrad institution with no football team, and nursing quite the hangover from a party the night before as I trudged into a battleship-gray monster to take on Wake Forest. Back then, the student section was at the far end of the horseshoe on the Memorial Gym side, and it got to about half-full by halftime with guys in coats and ties and girl still hanging onto Laura Ashley dresses (that long ago, kids). I thought we had a pretty good turnout. Then I realized that Wake also wore black and gold.
We won that game, 35-14. It was the last time we'd beat Wake Forest at home for a while. Hell, it was the last time we'd win at home that year bar one. We finished 5-6 for the second time in four years, and that was enough for LSU to swoop in and hire away our coach. That's right: two 5-6 finishes in four years at Vanderbilt made you a hot enough commodity for another SEC school to poach. Of course, from 1983 to 2007, 5 wins was as good as it gets. This year's seniors started their Vanderbilt careers with a former turkey inseminator as the acting head coach and experienced a second consecutive 2-10 season.
Things are different now. Vice Chancellor David Williams went out and got us a coach, as promised. James Franklin built a staff, took essentially the same players, and went 6-7 (and could have won even more with reliable place-kicking and officials who could recognize pass interference if it grabbed them by both arms). Then the next year we finished 9-4 with a resounding beatdown of Tennessee at home (the first home victory over the Orange since 1982) and a bowl victory to deliver the most SEC wins ever and most total wins since 1915. (We were really something before, you know, radio.)
Here's the point: for years, we were all pretty lackadaisical about football. We showed up halfway through the second quarter, if at all, and were long gone before the final gun. We filled our stadium with season tickets bought by Gators and Vols and Bama fans, and shrugged. There was no three-finger VU sign, there was no "Who Ya Wit" or "Anchor Down." Even the very lyrics of our fight song were "you know, we'll be fine whether we win or not." We had precious little to care about, and there were precious few who cared. Forget hope; all we had was a pipe dream.
Then James Franklin happened, and then Commodore football happened, and here we are. And now here you are. It's your time, and your team needs you. They need you running out of the tunnel Thursday night like all the hounds of hell were at your heels. They need you on your feet for sixty minutes, loud and proud and to hell with being able to speak coherently in the morning. Your professors will understand if you croak like Toad of Toad Hall on Friday if we deliver the goods Thursday night.
So do it. Do it for your classmates. Do it for Austyn Carta-Samuels, who had an odyssey worthy of Homer to get to that first snap. Do it for Jordan Matthews, who could be a Heisman contender before the year's over. Do it for Brian Kimbrow, who could have gone across the state but declared for all to hear that the orange hat didn't fit. Do it for Andrew Jelks, whose family held Vol season tickets his entire life until now. Do it for Josh Grady, who did more to bring Vanderbilt football Twitter to life than anyone.
Do it for James Franklin, who any school not called Alabama would love to be able to hire. Do it for Coach Hand, the king of assistant coach Twitter, and Coach Chaos, who I want to record my morning alarm clock tone, and a whole staff that stayed together from last year, which never happens in college football. Do it for VCDW, who placed a bet on a Maryland offensive coordinator that's paid out every day since. Do it for a national ESPN audience who needs to know who we are and what we're about.
But do it for us, too. Everyone who sat and watched Notre Dame placidly drive down the field in the last 7 minutes to get their win after we took a miracle lead on a 3rd-and-37 pass. Everyone who plunked in a seat every even-numbered year for three decades only to see us fall to the Vols at the last minute (or, as in 1994, get our brains dashed out 65-0). Everyone who didn't see as many wins in their whole four years combined as the Dores charted these last two seasons. Everyone who wanted to see one good run for the black and gold before they died, a sign that they hadn't pledged themselves in vain, that we could someday be more than a punchline or a joke or a sure homecoming win.
You have the great fortune to be here at the beginning of the new age. You have the team for which we could only wish. Be the fans they deserve. Take up our quarrel with the foe; to you from failing hands we throw the torch - be yours to hold it high.