It is the massive, black-and-gold striped elephant standing astride the quarterdeck of the Commodores' ship.
It has been since at least the 1960s.
Vanderbilt fans do not like to talk about it. Over the years, we have developed elaborate explanations and justifications for it.
Each one of us has a ready "talk" that we give to our friends and family who support other SEC teams.
But finally, someone -- and not just anybody, but the man at the very top of VU athletics -- has had the courage to say it out loud.
The venue for this courageous truth-telling? A packed Board of Trust Room in the Student Life Center on campus.
The occasion? The introduction of 38-year old James Franklin as head coach of Vanderbilt football.
The truth-telling sage? Vice Chancellor David Williams II:
"Almost three weeks ago we heard what you said, we heard what the fans said. We heard the fact that this community and this university, and most importantly our players, wanted us to take a different direction as it relates to football.
"So three weeks ago we started off on a path of basically taking a new effort and a new direction as it relates to football at Vanderbilt. There were three components to that: first, we understood we had to change the culture, everything associated with football, we needed to really think about and look at and review. Second, we really needed to increase our efforts as it relates to our facilities as it relates to football, as we've done in basketball and baseball. And third, we needed to hire a dynamic head coach. So today, we have accomplished one of those things."
Pundits have laughed about it for years, Vanderbilt fans have pretended it isn't really true, and the leadership on West End -- administrators, staff, and Board of Trust members -- have apparently been unable or unwilling to grasp it.
But finally, David Williams has said it: for the past forty years, Vanderbilt football has been a loser. There are three reasons for that: (1) a culture that accepts it; (2) facilities that are woefully inadequate compared to those of all similarly-situated institutions against whom we compete; and (3) coaching that is unable or unwilling to be the dynamo of leadership necessary to make the leap.
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According to Williams, the Vanderbilt Administration has done some soul-searching. For whatever reason, it seems, past Boards of Trust, past administrations, and past athletics officials have never really believed that these three core problems can be overcome, and so they applied band-aids to mitigate the problems (instead of seeking to eliminate the problems through radical, expensive solutions).
There have been some attempts, of course, to address some of the prongs, but only in a piece-meal fashion.
Bobby Johnson certainly was a good coach, but it was clear from the initial salary that he was offered that the Board, back in 2001, wasn't really interested in shelling out the big bucks necessary to land a big name as head coach.
There was the massive construction project that built our current stadium back in 1982, completely refitting it and making it "modern." Of course, that project didn't add the sort of press or luxury facilities that similarly-situated schools had at the time; neither did it significantly expand the capacity or quality of the stadium.
Since then, there have been no truly "major" renovations to the stadium -- in 28 years! -- and only halting, tenative steps to improve other, less-obvious football facilities (like the John Rich Practice Facility: instead of building a new weight room or adding to the surface-area of their practice facilities, we "improved" what we already had incrementally).
And then there's the culture. It's the chicken-before-the-egg problem: how do we change the culture that accepts losing, when we can't get the big-name coaches or build the facilities to match even the bottom-tier SEC schools?
I won't purport to understand how to change the culture. But I suggest that it's not a coincidence that the amount of time between our last bowl win and our last significant construction on the stadium is roughly a quarter century.
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It seems that David Williams -- and, hopefully, Chancellor Zeppos and the members of the Board of Trust -- are finally as tired of losing as the rest of us. And that's what this comes down to: are we really ready to put our money where our collective mouths are?
It looks like we are: if the rumors about Gus Malzahn were true, we were throwing around the kind of money that we're used to hearing people like Alabama, Florida, and LSU use: multi-million dollar contracts for long periods of time.
We landed a young, dynamic offensive coordinator from a major BCS conference and from a team that is bowl-bound. He's got a reputation as a great recruiter (and there are statistics to back up that claim).
We know that Franklin was looking at a $1 million payout just for doing nothing but being at Maryland next year. It doesn't seem likely that he was going to leave College Park (even with all the caveats about the possiblity of instability and fluidity with the Terps' situation) unless we were able to up the ante.
And then there was our announcement from way back in May 2008, regarding major facilities upgrades. These aren't just the cosmetic allowances that we've seen built to date (as needed as those were to make Vanderbilt Stadium at least begin to resemble an SEC stadium). But, if you look at the phases on "Facilities Upgrade Central" (which is still available on the VU website), you'll notice that there are major, capital improvements also included. There is the filling-in of the horseshoe with a buiding that will include general admission seating (around 5,000 seats); a much-needed club level (like that found at L.P. Field or Alabama's Bryant-Denny Stadium); and football offices, hall of fame, training facilities, and weight-training facilities (enabling football to finally stand alone, like baseball and basketball already do at Vanderbilt).
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So is Vanderbilt finally ready to make the Great Leap Forward that will propel its football program out of its 40-year disaster?
It's probably too early to say for certain.
But I think we can get a glimpse into what David Williams II and his fellow administrators are thinking when we look at the reference that he makes to our baseball and basketball programs: we have made major capital investments in these programs in all three of these prongs for those two sports (culture, coaching, and facilities), including multi-million dollar investments in Memorial Gym and Hawkins Field. These renovations and additions brought our existing facilities into line with the leaders of the SEC in their sports.
I'm not suggesting that we're going to build a rival to Neyland Stadium next year on Natchez Trace.
But there's no reason we can't build a rival to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium (Ole Miss), Commonwealth Stadium (Kentucky), or Davis-Wade (Mississippi State). And I believe we can build something to exceed all three.
And if we build facilities to demonstrate our commitment to finally, finally winning in football, backing up the hire we made in James Franklin, something tells me that the culture change will happen on its own: after all, are we going to accept 2-10 seasons after spending literally millions and millions of dollars adding to football facilities? There will be an expectation that now, there are no more excuses. Now, the wins must come.
Let us hope that David Williams II means it when he says we're "all in."
Because if we are, the wins will come.