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Where We Go From Here

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What kind of future do we want for Vanderbilt football?

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

I.

What’s it going to take?

If you believe our fans, it’s going to take coaching. Derek Mason spent the year depleting his goodwill to the point that the UT win still hasn't mollified part of the fan base, Andy Ludwig is fast approaching his historical sell-by date as OC, and we just staved off finishing with 4 wins or fewer for the third time in four years. “4 of the last 6” might keep the hounds at bay, but another season like this one could have the long knives out again, and if Arizona State came for Mason, a lot of folks would say “here’s your hat what’s your hurry."

If you believe our alumni players, it’s going to take facilities. Not just a stadium improvement but all the other stuff that goes along with a football program - locker rooms, training facilities, the works. Maybe not to the Oregon-Alabama-waterfall-holodeck level, but then, we don’t have Nike bankrolling us or the blind fandom support earned with more than a dozen national championships (three or four in the last decade alone). But as with the rest of the college experience - rec center with a lazy river, gourmet dining options, palatial dorms - the same drafty dull buildings you had 30 years ago aren’t going to get it done for Generation Z.

If you try to read the mind of our administration, the problem is simply that we can’t pour tens of millions of dollars into one sport alone when there are so many other things to fund that cost less and bring a greater return. Even looking at sports, it’s easy to make a case that our bang-for-the-buck from basketball and baseball is far greater than in football. And chasing football greatness is the road to ruin; while you may luck into a Rose Bowl at Northwestern or stumble across a Harbaugh at Stanford, trying to make it an annual pursuit is the stuff of insanity and leads to the kind of scandals you get at Auburn or North Carolina, or the kind of financial implosion you get at Cal, or worse - like you apparently get in Knoxville this week.

And if you ask me - or to some extent that other bald guy, the one who used to start with “I love you” but went North at the first opportunity - the structural disadvantage of not caring about football for 50 years simply creates an insurmountable gap. In public perception, in sidewalk fandom, in media coverage, in a fan base conditioned to expect the worst of everything. Unless you are somehow able to go back in time and then either change some minds about the Magnolia League, or join Georgia Tech and Tulane in exile, or convince the AAWU to become the Airplane Conference instead of the PAC-8, or co-found Apple or Amazon and then spray money out of a firehose at the ‘Dores, you’re just not ever going to see a 10-win Commodore football team. Ever.

There was a time when winning 5 games at Vandy was enough to bring other schools sniffing around your coach. That was in an 11-game era. I don’t remember exactly when the SEC went from 7 conference games to 8, but the 12th game was a winnable non-conference one, meaning that Gerry Dinardo probably would have had Vandy bowl-eligible. Or alternately, that CBJ in 2008 and last year’s squads would have been the same disappointing 5-win close-but-no-cigar teams. Depending on who you believe, Arizona State is even now sniffing around Mason.

And the big problem is that it *seems* like a fast fix should be easy. Nick Saban took Alabama from a 6-win team to a national title in four years. Jim Harbaugh took Stanford from one win to the BCS in four years. Hell, we’re after going from back to back 2-win seasons to back-to-back nine win seasons not so long ago...

Hold up.

The SEC is not what it was. Right now it’s Alabama (which as it turns out can be had), a couple of pretenders, and a bunch of skells. The SEC East alone is on two mid-season firings. We have become the new-age Big 12. In theory this should be a ripe time to capitalize on the weakness around us. And for whatever reason, we simply have not done so. Florida should have been a win. South Carolina should have been a win. Tennessee was actually favored. Maybe we were never going to pass Georgia, but on paper we should have easily matched the 4th-in-the-East finishes in the Brigadoon era...

The problem with Commodore football is: you have to get it right every time. Your recruits all have to work out: on the field, in the classroom, off the police blotter. Your game plan has to be right: no penalties, no turnovers, no mistakes. You have to get sympathetic bowl committees and scrupulously fair officials and a media that doesn’t punch your coach’s ticket out of town the moment the sixth win is done. And if you can line all that up and catch a couple of breaks, you can luck-box your way all the way to...eight wins and fourth place in the East. Twice.

What if Brigadoon is as good as it gets? What’s it going to take to make that sustainable? What would it take to get to being a regular, say, 7-5 team year in and year out?

The way I see it, there are only literally only three things we could do:

1) Open the checkbook. Spend millions upon millions. Throw good money after bad. Match Stanford’s athletic budget of $110 million a year. Build palatial facilities, rebuild the stadium as something like the Apple spaceship, invest in absurd amounts of promotion, stroke the check required to lure some proven top-5 coach for an ironclad 9-year deal with an insurmountable buyout. And hope it doesn’t end with having to cut other sports like Maryland or have the university assume the debts of the stadium like Cal.

2) Throttle back. Join the ACC where there are other private schools plying their trade, where we could still exist in the fringes of the Power 5 without compromising baseball or basketball. Or if you really want to roll it back, join the Patriot League, what the hell. Bucknell gets in the tournament all the time. Schools from the Big West play in Omaha. Coastal Carolina has a CWS title since us. Leaving the SEC doesn’t have to mean burning the rest of our sports to the ground, even if SEC money pays 54% of our current budget for athletics.

3) Do nothing. Step out of the box. Wait for the flop. Whatever. Better to serve in Heaven than reign in Hell. 4-win Vandy football on an annual basis is the cost of being a National Power in baseball and women’s tennis and a rising force in basketball and golf and competitive in the conference almost everywhere else. Football is the sacrifice zone, football is the selected tribute from District 14, football dies that the rest of our programs might bank the SEC money and live and fight and avenge them. Football is the big blind we pay to stay at the table.

So…what’s it going to be?

II.

The athletic director at Vanderbilt would criticize those alumni who viewed educational institutions as athletic franchises. “They’ll get the message,” he said, “when coaches begin side-lining star quarterbacks because they’ve flunked English literature exams.”

Morris, Willie. The Courting of Marcus Dupree (p. 103). University Press of Mississippi, 1983

It’s an unfortunate trick of fate that we wound up in a conference where the one thing, the one thing we can’t reliably do with any competence is the only thing that matters to that conference. But here we are. And the choice is simple: pay to play, bugger off, or live with it.

What I need to know is this: what is the dollar figure associated with getting to a median state? If we have some sense of “this is the football budget required to average 7-5 every season for a decade and go .500 against UT in that span” and can compare that to what we currently spend, we would at least know whether it takes just an Ingram boost or maybe striking oil under Alumni Lawn or it needs for me to be revealed as Jeff Bezos. (Though probably not because I would have spent the money by now.)

According to data from the US Department of Education, the total expenses of football at Vanderbilt are $22,154,178. This represents 31% of total athletic expenses of $71,253,541. In the last-but-one issue of the NCC’s magazine, it is asserted that the SEC revenue share accounts for 54% of our athletic budget, which I find mostly credible based on the 2015 share figure of $31.2 million per school plus our bowl share in 2016. Since we’re comparing so often with Stanford, their total football expenses in the same DOE survey are $23,724,407. Their revenue from football is over $43 million, but no small part of that is going to pay for their varsity teams in archery, quidditch, backgammon, tiddlywinks and piss for distance, so it’s probably a wash. Nevertheless, the fact remains that their annual outlay last year is not significantly greater than ours. Duke’s total football expenses are $23,468,721. Northwestern, our onetime nemesis, spends $24,629,741. Hell, our erstwhile season-ending rival Wake Forest is spending a mere $16,611,110 on football. Meanwhile, our revenue from football is $26,782,777…and is exceeded, sometimes greatly, by every other institution I named. Duke football revenue is almost $31.8M, Northwestern is $36.2M, and Stanford, as mentioned, is over $43M.

So long story short: we are not going to save money by moving to a different Power 5 conference. Below that? Well, I assume the Ivy League is not expanding, so who else plays Division I sports, FBS or FCS, and is generally in the same ballpark as us? Well, Rice. That’s the list. Everyone else in the USN&WR top 30 (yes, I know it’s a terrible metric, but it’s all I have readily to hand) is either Ivy League, division III, or playing in a Power 5 conference (or is Notre Dame). And even Rice, half the size of Vanderbilt, has a football expenses line of $22,154,178 playing in Conference USA.

So from an annual expenditure standpoint, we would need to splash out all of an extra $1.6M to pass Stanford. That should be pretty easy for John Ingram to find in the couch cushions of Gold Force One, right? Only thing is, that’s just annual expenses. Which probably doesn’t factor in the cost of renovating a stadium or building a palatial new McGugin Center. Stanford’s stadium remodel cost over $100M ten years ago. Cal’s combined stadium remodel and Student Athlete High Performance Center cost $320M, but then, they were rebuilding on top of an earthquake fault rather than move football to Santa Clara, and it almost bankrupted the athletic department. Even Tulane’s new on-campus football-only facility cost $75 million. And that expense list doesn’t include things like “a buyout” or “a new coaching staff.” Standing mostly pat is cheap by comparison. The question becomes, what are you standing on...

III.

Here’s the take-home: nobody else you can name has as far to come as Vanderbilt. Since I started applying to colleges in 1989, Duke and Wake Forest and Georgia Tech have won the ACC and all but Duke went to BCS bowls (and Georgia Tech split a freakin national championship). Northwestern won a share of the Big Ten twice and went to the Rose Bowl. Tulane went 12-0 in 1998. Hell, Stanford went to the Rose Bowl on the back of an 8-3 season in 1999 long before Harbaugh ever showed up. Schools as diverse as (deep breath) Purdue, Kansas, Syracuse, Illinois, Maryland, Washington State, Iowa, Kansas State, Pitt, Louisville, Hawaii, Cincinnati, Boise State, TCU and UConn all went to at least one BCS bowl each in the years between “WTF is Monica Lewinsky?” and “WTF is James Franklin?”

So when I say nobody has as far to come, I mean it. Find me one other Power 5 football program in 2017 without a conference title, a Big Six bowl berth or so much as a ten-win season since 1933. (I’ll save you the trouble: Iowa State. That’s the list.)

And here’s the thing: look at Tennessee. Look at Texas or Nebraska. Look at Oregon without Chip Kelly or Florida without Meyer or Spurrier. A gargantuan stadium, millions of crazed rednecks wearing your colors (looking at that list orange is starting to seem like part of the problem), seven conference networks or even your very own personal cable channel - none of it guarantees you’ll win. We could dump a half a billion into this program tomorrow and still wind up with a busted flush. Or paying three head coaches at once.

And even if you do win - what is considered the success condition? Win the SEC? Get to the conference title game? Play in a bowl on January 1? Force teams not to write down a W in pen on the schedule every year when they see our name? Fill the stadium every week? Just keep the APR high enough to make a bowl at 5-7 and keep Metro Nashville PD off speed dial?

Ultimately, the answer to “What’s it going to take?” is to ask “To do what?” Once we know what that is, we can have a plan for how to get there, because the answers look radically different. If the goal is to win the conference and play on January 1, it’s time to find a different league. If the goal is just to stay clean and play honorably, we can do that pretty much as is for no extra money. If the goal is to win a national title and have junior-high kids in Seattle and Boston and El Paso wearing Commodore black and gold, it’s gonna take some serious, serious cash and a lot of patience and maybe a ten-year contract for a known good superstar coach.

So now I turn it back to you, in the cold light of morning:

What do you want?