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The First Year(s)

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Fifty Years Of New Beginnings

Don't think I don't know what you're doing, Import. I got my eye on you.
Don't think I don't know what you're doing, Import. I got my eye on you.
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Looking at the dismal prospect of yet another losing season under a new head coach, I decided I needed some historical perspective.  And I need to kill time waiting for another dose of painkillers.  And I'm going to Disneyland this weekend.  So where does an irritable drugged-up VandyImport find answers?  Sing along!

"In the Wiki Wiki Wiki Wiki Wiki Room/ In The Wiki Wiki Wiki Wiki Wiki Room/ All the nerds have words and the answers croon/ In the Wiki Wiki Wiki Wiki Wiki Room!"

(I am so so so so sorry it is the drugs narcotics are bad children do not take them.)

We start with Bill Edwards, the first new hire post-WWII.  He replaced Red Sanders, who fled Vanderbilt for UCLA (and took the dean of the law school to boot.  Imagine if Penn State had nicked John Lachs into the bargain). Edwards had been the head coach at Case Western Reserve and for the Detroit Lions (!) but was working as a Cleveland Browns assistant before being brought on as head coach and athletic director. In his first season, he went 5-5, followed by 7-4 and 6-5.  Then he went 3-5-2 and was fired under pressure from the alumni in 1953, in case you think impatience is a new phenomenon around West End. He was the last coach to leave Vanderbilt with a winning record (21-19-2) until last year.

Bill Edwards
Year 1: *5-5 Head Coach When Hired? No
Year 2: *7-4 Head Coaching Experience? Yes
Wins per Season: 5.5

Art Guepe took over, hired away from Virginia where he'd gone 47-17-2. His first two seasons were 3-7 and 2-7, but his third year was the famous 1955 Gator Bowl-winning season that was Vanderbilt's first and only bowl victory until 2008.  But he never broke the 5-win mark again, and his last three seasons were 3-7, 2-8, and 1-9.  CAG is most famous, though, for his pronouncement when he retired: "There is no way you can be Harvard Monday through Friday and try to be Alabama on Saturday."

Art Guepe
Year 1: *3-7 Head Coach When Hired? Yes
Year 2: *2-7 Head Coaching Experience? Yes
Wins per Season: 3.5

John Green was his replacement, hired away from Florida where he was defensive coordinator.  His first season went 1-7-2, his second 3-6-1, and he was catapulted into a swamp after the 1966 season with a career record of 7-29-4.  He was an assistant for one year at Kansas and never coached again.

John Green
Year 1: *1-7-2 Head Coach When Hired? No
Year 2: *3-6-1 Head Coaching Experience? No
Wins per Season: 2.25

Bill Pace was an assistant at Arkansas when hired.  He went 2-7-1 the first year, 5-4-1 the second year, and never broke the 4-win mark again.  He resigned in 1972, leaving behind a career record of 22-38-3. But as he was also athletic director, he hired a pretty good replacement...

Bill Pace
Year 1: *2-7-1 Head Coach When Hired? No
Year 2: *5-4-1 Head Coaching Experience? No
Wins per Season: 3.9

Steve Sloan was probably the Kliff Kingsbury of his era, for those of you below a certain age.  One of the flash-and-dash Bama quarterbacks of the 1960s, he was hired away from the OC job at Georgia Tech (where he'd been for a year after being OC at Florida State for a year) and won 5 games his first season,  His second season produced a record of 7-3-2 and a tie with Texas Tech in the Peach Bowl.  Then he quit.  To take the Texas Tech job.  Say what you like about Franklin, but at least he didn't decamp to Houston.  Amazingly, Sloan went on to be head coach at Ole Miss and then Duke before winding up as athletic director at Alabama during the tumultuous Bill Curry/Joab Thomas years.

Steve Sloan
Year 1: *5-6 Head Coach When Hired? No
Year 2: *7-3-2 Head Coaching Experience? No
Wins per Season: 6.5

Fred Pancoast picked up the pieces, coming from a winning three years at Memphis (then Memphis State). He went 7-4 the first year (and got no bowl bid) before going 2-9 every subsequent season.  He left after four years to pursue a career in human resources.  Seriously.  You can look it up.

Fred Pancoast
Year 1: *7-4 Head Coach When Hired? Yes
Year 2: *2-9 Head Coaching Experience? Yes
Wins per Season: 3.25

George MacIntyre was the OC at Ole Miss when hired, but he was only one year removed from the head job at UT-Martin (which he took after being an assistant under Steve Sloan at Vanderbilt). While he had a winning record with the Skyhawks, he started 1-10 and 2-9 at Vanderbilt before the surprising 1982 season which finished 8-3 with a win over the Vols before going to defeat in Birmingham against Air Force at the Hall of Fame Bowl.  His son is the head coach at Colorado, where he was hired after turning around San Jose State.  I'm just saying.

George MacIntyre
Year 1: *1-10 Head Coach When Hired? No
Year 2: *2-9 Head Coaching Experience? Yes
Wins per Season: 3.5

Watson Brown was Bill Pace's star QB at Vanderbilt and was hired away from the top job at Rice to be head coach at his alma mater. He'd also been the top man at Austin Peay and Cincinnati, although his career record when hired by Vanderbilt was a whopping 22-32-1 with no winning records after Peay.  Sadly, his Vanderbilt record was singularly awful: 1-10 the first year, 4-7 after that, and only five more wins in three more seasons including back-to-back 1-10s before being fired after the 1990 campaign (the last time Vanderbilt won only one game in a season).

Watson Brown
Year 1: *1-10 Head Coach When Hired? Yes
Year 2: *4-7 Head Coaching Experience? Yes
Wins per Season: 2

Gerry Dinardo was the offensive coordinator of the 1990 co-national-champion Colorado Buffaloes and brought the "I-Bone" (later known as the I-Sore and the I-Suck) to Nashville.  But he went 5-6 the first year, which won him SEC Coach of the Year, and went 4-7 the second year before turning in two more 5-6 seasons.  And 19 wins at Vanderbilt in 4 seasons was enough for him to be hired away by LSU.  Things were different in the early 1990s, kids.

Gerry Dinardo
Year 1: *5-6 Head Coach When Hired? No
Year 2: *4-7 Head Coaching Experience? No
Wins per Season: 4.75

Rod Dowhower was next. He had actually been a head coach at Stanford for one year and coached the Indianapolis Colts for a year and change in the 80s, but was pretty much a career NFL assistant when hired.  He accomplished exactly one thing in his two seasons at Vanderbilt and this is it:

Rod Dowhower
Year 1: *2-9 Head Coach When Hired? No
Year 2: *2-9 Head Coaching Experience? Yes
Wins per Season: 2

Woody Widenhofer had been a head coach in the USFL and at MIssouri, but was most famous as an assistant with the Steel Curtain-era Pittsburgh Steelers when he was hired as Dowhower's defensive coordinator.  He was promoted to head coach when Dowhower bit the dust, but didn't do much - two or three wins a year barring the 5-win season in 1999.  Apparently the stories about him working a tollbooth in Florida were true, although he did some low-league DC work after leaving the Dores.

Woody Widenhofer
Year 1: *3-8 Head Coach When Hired? No
Year 2: *2-9 Head Coaching Experience? Yes
Wins per Season: 3

Bobby Johnson was hired away from Furman after losing the I-AA national championship game.  I was very much against this hire, because Charlie Strong was still kicking around at Florida.  This was also the era when Ty Willingham was running wild at Stanford and being poached for Notre Dame and when Cal was first hiring Jeff Tedford from a red-hot Oregon offense, but sure, let's get a I-AA coach, that'll be good for a laugh.  In fairness, he was a 2-win coach when he started and closer to a 5-win coach when he quit, but when "6-win season capped with a bowl victory four miles from campus where the punter was MVP" is the 25-year high-water mark of the program, it's time for us to have a talk about the soft bigotry of low expectations.

Bobby Johnson
Year 1: *2-10 Head Coach When Hired? Yes
Year 2: *2-10 Head Coaching Experience? Yes
Wins per Season: 3.6

Robbie Caldwell.  Interim coach.  Eternal king of SEC Media Days.  Pluck on, you magnificent turkey inseminator.

Robbie Caldwell
Year 1: *2-10 Head Coach When Hired? No
Year 2: n/a Head Coaching Experience? No
Wins per Season: 2

You all know the last fellow.

James Franklin
Year 1: *6-7 Head Coach When Hired? No
Year 2: *9-4 Head Coaching Experience? No
Wins per Season: 7

So, since Captain America disappeared into the glacier, the average first-year Vandy coach wins about 3 games (both mean and median) and about 4 games the second year (the median is 3).  And if you math it up, by and large, it works out to about 4 wins a year no matter when or who is around.  (Note that I did not include Robbie Caldwell in these calculations as he was an interim head coach and not a deliberate hire, and besides, the man has suffered enough.) Of those fourteen names, only four were head coaches when they were hired (and only one from what is now a Power-5 school, and that in 1953).  But none of those ever averaged as many as four wins a season at Vanderbilt, and of the four other Vanderbilt head coaches who did average over 4 wins a season, none were head coaches when hired and only one had ever been a head coach before.  When I came into this, I was expecting previous head coaching experience to be more of a difference maker, but the record says otherwise.

Set against that, Mason's record of 3-7 with two to go isn't really that historically abnormal; 3 wins is as good or better than most of the guys on this list (and you can argue that CBE and CFP had the cupboard left full by their predecessors). And any coach who's averaged more than 4 wins per season has been poached by somebody else in not more than four years (again, except for CBE, who in retrospect was done wrong and no fooling).

There are two ways you can spin this.  One is that unless you're more successful than average right away, you're never going to establish consistent success here.  The other is that unless somebody tees it up for you in terms of leaving behind established talent, you're going to struggle here the first year no matter what.  Unless we can go out and throw a sack of gold at somebody's feet to persuade the super-hotshot-coach-of-the-moment to decamp from their school (and I don't know how much it would take, but if $21M for 7 years didn't shift Gus Malzahn when he was an assistant, I suspect it'll be north of that), what we're doing is as sane as anything we've ever done with successful results.