On Friday, Vanderbilt University Vice Chancellor slash de facto Athletic Director (without the title) David Williams told the Tennessean’s Adam Sparks that the university plans to replace Vanderbilt Stadium, the archaic structure that has been the Commodores’ home since 1922 (with the most recent updates performed in 1981, a time period when the overriding architectural style was charitably described as “functional.)
On Saturday, Vanderbilt’s football team looked listless in a 38-7 loss to the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets.
The juxtaposition between the two events could not have been more stark than it was. Since 1962, an arbitrarily-selected year when Art Guepe resigned under pressure and famously said, “There is no way you can be Harvard Monday through Friday and try to be Alabama on Saturday,” Vanderbilt’s record has been 188-396-10 for a .325 winning percentage. That means an average Vanderbilt football team has gone about 4-8 over a 12-game schedule. In those 54 years, the Commodores have had a paltry seven winning seasons (counting a 5-4-1 record in 1968, but not counting a 6-7 record in 2011) and gone to six bowl games.
That’s been the reality of Vanderbilt football, and it’s created a vicious cycle of ineptitude. With that kind of record of futility, the university has seen little reason to make an effort to invest in the football program; meanwhile, ambitious coaches see both the historical record and the lack of any real investment on the university’s part and stay away. When that’s what you’re going to deal with, maybe you’re better off remaining Auburn’s offensive coordinator and waiting for a better opportunity to come along than taking a first Division I head coaching job that seems to offer little chance at upward mobility.
And speaking of upward mobility, the historical futility and the lack of investment means that the few coaches who do create some upward mobility for themselves — namely, Steve Sloan, Gerry DiNardo and James Franklin — look for the exits as soon as they have some success (if you want to call DiNardo’s tenure a “success”). But mostly, the Vanderbilt head coaching job has been the province of failed head coaches like Rod Dowhower and Woody Widenhofer who take the job because it’s an opportunity to get a bigger paycheck than they would get as a coordinator, or grinders like Bobby Johnson who take the job because otherwise they won’t have the opportunity to move up from being a successful lower-level head coach.
All of that is to say, while coaching has been a problem at Vanderbilt for most of the last 50-plus years, the lack of investment in the program on the part of the Vanderbilt administration has been at least an equal problem. So long as Vanderbilt is a job where you’ll probably get canned after a few three- and four-win seasons (or worse), and where the university pretty clearly does not intend to make the investments required to improve the situation, Vanderbilt will be trapped in a cycle of poverty in which second-rate coach after second-rate coach tries and fails to get the Commodores over the hump.
The only way to end the cycle was either for a coach to come along and have enough sustained success to force the university to make investments back into the football program, which James Franklin might have done if he had stuck around — but once Franklin left, the football program immediately reverted back to normal. That reversion could have been met with a collective shrug of the shoulders from the administration, and an acceptance of the Same Old Vandy, but the subtext of Friday’s announcement is that the university is now going to do its part. The announcement that a new stadium is in the works is a signal to prospective coaches that Vanderbilt intends to do what it can to make the university a place that isn’t a dead-end job for washed-up rejects to collect a big paycheck for a few years before they go back to being a coordinator.
And after Saturday’s performance, the subtext of the announcement of a coming new stadium becomes even starker. David Williams might as well have said:
The current state of the football program is unacceptable, and if the current coaching staff is not going to get the program to where we’d like it to be, we will find a different one who will.
It would be wrong to say that Williams explicitly said that the university will make a coaching change at the end of the season, but it’s now clear that Vanderbilt does not intend to accept its place in the world as a 4-8 team (if that.)
Because if Vanderbilt is fine with a four-win team that only the diehards show up to watch, why bother with a new stadium?