This is Millwall.
Millwall is an English soccer team that has fluctuated between the second and third tiers of English soccer for most of its existence. They spend a couple of seasons in the top division in the late 1980s, they made it to the semi-finals of the FA Cup a handful of times, and once they even made it to the FA Cup Final - they lost, but qualified for European play for the only time in their history.
I was in London in May of 2010, when they played Swindon Town, the winner to be promoted from the third to the second league of English football. I didn’t go to the game, but when they won 1-0, their fans were over the moon. Every pub I walked by had fans in blue and white spilling out of it, glassware breaking, lager spilling, chanting and singing. And I gave them a wide berth, even though they were overjoyed, because Millwall is synonymous with "football hooligan;" their particular ultra-fanatic F-Troop has been known to charge opposing fans despite being outnumbered literally a thousand to twelve. It’s a big part of the animosity with which most of the establishment of English soccer regards them, and they simply Do. Not. Care.
This is the spot we find ourselves in. We had the temerity to have a little success a couple of years ago. Not much, by the standards of college football, but back-to-back 8-4 seasons subsequently capped with bowl wins represented the best aggregate performance over two years in a century. Literally. Our best recruiting class ever…and it was good enough for 9th in the SEC. Our best record in decades…and it was good for 4th place in the SEC East. Our first back-to-back wins over our arch-rival since Prohibition…and it was good enough for a bowl game three slots below what our record would predict.
Did we get the hype? Did we get the acclaim of Jim Harbaugh’s Stanford turnaround, or the miracle rise of David Cutcliffe’s Duke team, or at least the enhanced regard of Pat Fitzgerald’s Northwestern squad? Did we hell. We got a steady drumbeat of predictions of our coach’s imminent departure as soon as something came open, and when something finally did, our progress was strip-mined so Penn State could overcome the intolerable burden of having a regular-season record one game worse than our best-in-century performance over the same two year span.
Did we get sympathy and support? Did we hell. We got mocked for having an empty stadium…during a lightning storm when the stadium gates were closed, delaying a Thursday night kickoff that didn’t happen until almost 10 PM. We got mocked for having a slogan on our jerseys and getting flagged by the refs for it…despite having gotten it pre-approved and made the necessary arrangements in advance, but whatever. If you’re expecting a square deal from officials, you must be new.
We try to do right. We try to keep guys in class and off the police blotter. When they can’t make the grades or follow the rules, they’re gone. When they commit horrifying crimes, they don’t get protected by a media stonewall or the collusion of the local police. We’re not getting rung up on a raft of recruiting violations - in fact I can’t think of the last NCAA sanction of any kind against the football program.
And do we get the David vs Goliath story? Do we get the lovable underdog status? Do we get respect for trying to keep our heads out of the cesspool of the SEC and make our way honestly in arguably the most professionalized conference in football? Do. We. Hell.
In the midst of utterly slagging us off, Bill Connelly makes a good point (which he then proceeds to ignore): in college football, the most important thing is how good you were in the 1970s. Or the 1950s. You can be mediocre, but if you have the right name on your jersey, the future is always bright, even when nothing is going your way and you’re turning in historically awful numbers. If you don’t have the right name, everything is a fluke, everything is a flash in the pan, your success is unsustainable and your failure is a reassurance that the universe has now restored normal service.
To be honest, that’s probably how we got to this point. In 1933, there was no question that Vanderbilt belonged in the SEC; it had only recently been lapped by Alabama as a dominant power in Southern football. It was a time when Tennessee could hire a coach with a specific mandate to beat the Commodores. But time passed, and things changed, and Chancellor Alexander Heard’s 1950s proposal to create a new league that would allow for major football without the excesses already creeping into the sport went nowhere, and Tulane and Georgia Tech took off for easier pastures, and by the 1980s we looked around and realized the ground had fallen from under our feet. We were still a university with a football team. Everyone else had become a football team with a university.
So we get what we have now. The scorn and opprobrium of institutions who can often barely muster similar records, whose other non-football sports often can’t stay on the same field with ours, who occasionally flirt with losing their actual academic accreditation. We get entire television networks dedicated to maintaining the party line and an army of sportswriters who cross our program off every year, on autopilot, without a second thought.
No one likes us. So what should we do?
Absolutely nothing. Do you love this team any less when they’re trudging off a muddy field, having gone all-out for sixty minutes against the best borderline-cases money can buy? Do you care any less for the Star-V when you look up at a schedule with six ranked opponents, when you’re playing multiple non-Power 5 opponents on the road in a way that no other SEC team would even consider? Are you ashamed of your black and gold when Chris Marve is headed off to law school and Patton Robinette is starting at Vanderbilt Med a year early?
Write what you like. Tweet what you like. Take time off from pumping gas and making goo-goo eyes at your cousin to repeat the same tired slurs. Write down an automatic win against a program you’ve had a losing record against for the last three, or five, or seven years. Dig up the cheap zings on talk radio and relegate us to thirty seconds of afterthought at the end of the preview show. It does not matter. It will make no difference. We’ve been at this longer than anyone in the South. Founded 1890, still going for 125 seasons and counting. If we haven’t sunk now, or when we went two decades without a rivalry win, or when we could barely scrape up two wins a season, or when two of our proudest players were lost to us in the prime of their lives - if we’ve endured this long, where in the precise hell do you expect us to go now?
Class of 2019, this is your patrimony. It's your time now. Time to stand tall and be proud of who we are, and the entire rest of the world can go to hell. No one likes us? WE DON’T CARE. Say it. Sing it. Hashtag it all over social media and chant it from the student section. Don’t like our uniforms? Don’t like our schedule? Don’t like our existence?
NO ONE LIKES US. WE DON’T CARE.