Here at AoG we love to hear ourselves talk, make funny Simpsons' references and talk somewhat knowledgeably about Vanderbilt football. To help expand our horizons and get a different perspective about Vanderbilt football, I recently talked to Adam Sparks the Vanderbilt beat writer for The Tennessean. The questions ranged from "what should fans expect" to "are we going to playing in a new stadium in the future."
Before we get to the questions, I want to thank Adam for taking his time to answer our questions and give us a better perspective about what is going on with the football team. Last, if you are on Twitter, I highly recommend you follow @AdamSparks and you can read his blog at Tennessean's Vanderbilt Sports Blog where he covers all things Vandy.
1. How did you get involved with covering Vanderbilt football?
I worked at The Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro (the sister paper of The Tennessean) for the past 13 years. Ten of those years were spent as the MTSU beat writer. Vanderbilt beat writer Jeff Lockridge left the Tennessean in May, leaving the position open. I really enjoyed the past decade of covering MTSU, but I thought the timing was right for a change. I had other opportunities in the past that I passed on, but the Vanderbilt beat seemed right. I have lived in Mt. Juliet for the past 10 years and wanted to stay put. The job change allowed me to cover another well-respected athletic department, work in the SEC and live where I want. It seemed like a win-win-win. I have really enjoyed it so far.
2. As someone who went to MTSU and has lived in the area now, has Vanderbilt had any success in turning Nashville and the surrounding areas from UT supporters to Vandy supporters?
I've been asked a similar question several times over the past decade covering MTSU. However, the dynamic is different because I think some MTSU fans feel you can root for the Blue Raiders and Vols simultaneously. But between UT and Vanderbilt, you've got to pick a side. It appeared to me that Vandy made a dent over the past three bowl seasons, but the current struggles are threatening to turn that progress back around. Winning is the only thing that increases and sustains a fan base over time. If Vandy wins, the fan base will grow. It's as simple as that.
3. Vanderbilt fans have become accustom to winning, which is just odd to say after so many years of losing seasons, and this season already appears to be a losing season. Should Vanderbilt fans be surprised by this result?
From what I can tell, some people around the program thought this might be a mild rebuilding year, at least after the coaching change. The roster is very young. The senior class is small. Vandy has played 31 freshmen, the most for a team in the nation. If James Franklin stays, maybe the ‘Dores beat Temple, or maybe that Kentucky game is more winnable. But I don't know that the record would be that different. I don't think fans are as frustrated by the record as they are the tone of the losses.
4. When Franklin was the Head Coach, he had a policy of not commenting on injuries and everyone accepted it. With the Robinette injury, Mason appears to be taking a different approach with injuries. Do you think this is a change in policy or a reflection of fan and media pressure on him after all the QB problems that started the season?
At Vanderbilt, the head coach dictates the injury policy. Coach Derek Mason was put in a precarious position. By not saying that Robinette was injured early one, it cast suspicion on other things. If he is healthy and your best QB, then only a bad coach would keep him off the field. In other words, Mason needed to say Robinette was injured to at least make sense of his personnel situation. My take is that coaches are best served to give very basic information to keep fans in the loop about why a guy is not playing. They can do that without giving up specific details of an injury. If a coach does not at least admit the existence of an injury, it raises more questions than it answers.
5. With all the trouble Vandy has had at QB, it seems strange that Johnny McCrary hasn't been given any real chances this year. Have you heard anything regarding this?
[Note: The question was asked before Saturday's game, but Adam's answer was after Saturday's game.]
I think it took time for coaches to trust McCrary enough to put him back in the game. Tossing two interceptions in three pass attempts against Temple was enough to doubt McCrary could take care of the ball. Obviously, he proved to have some value against Charleston Southern. McCrary has a good arm and above-average athleticism. If he takes care of the ball and runs the offense efficiently, he could play more. Of course, Robinette will be the guy when he returns. But since Robinette has been injured twice already, Vandy needs to keep its QB options open.
6. With the poor play by the Vanderbilt football team and the quick negative reaction of it by Vanderbilt fans, what steps can Coach Mason, his staff, and the players take to help calm the fanbase. The obvious answer is to win some games, but is there anything else they can do?
They need to develop an identity - show fans the team is particularly good in an area. Maybe that's rushing offense. Maybe that's a pass rush. Maybe that's creative play-calling. No matter what it is, there needs to be consistency. Until Patton Robinette is healthy, the running game is not going to move much. And until the young secondary develops more, the front-7 will be up and down. Right now, each game is too much of a crapshoot for fans to put trust in the coaching staff.
7. Do you think the team's poor playing was unavoidable this year? That is, if Coach Mason had come in and installed the exact same game-plan that Coach Franklin was using, would Vandy still be struggling?
That's hard to say. I think the secondary and passing game was going to be sub-par no matter what because there is so much youth at both spots. But the offensive line has struggled more than expected. Franklin did seem to give the team a swagger that this team lacks thus far. But I think the more pressing question is if Patton Robinette played every game, would the record be the same?
8. As the season goes along, what things should fans be watching that will show them the team is improving?
More long drives. Better third-down offense and defense. Consistent game-plans. Less penalties. A healthy Patton Robinette. More takeaways. Better play in the first and third quarters, coming out of locker room.
9. Some fans are concerned about the long term perception this season will put on potential recruits and fans. Do you think that's reasonable, or, do you think that it's too soon to be getting worried about that?
I would normally say that one season doesn't make or break a program's momentum in recruiting. But with a coaching change coinciding with a drop-off on the field, there are definitely some concerns. With as many struggling seasons in Vanderbilt's past, it is only natural to fear that the program could slip into that again. The best thing Vanderbilt can do is beat Old Dominion, win at least one SEC game in the second half of the season and restore confidence in the direction of the program. This recruiting class will be small, so there will be a slim margin of error anyway.
10. Given the unique drabness, age, and capacity of Vanderbilt Stadium - and the possible field test of playing at LP Field earlier this year - do you see the university renovating or building a new on-campus facility for the football team in the next five years?
I'm probably not deep enough into the Vanderbilt beat yet to answer that question. But my hunch is that a building project like that would be unlikely - especially in the next five years.