Hi kids. Greetings and salutations and a warm welcome to the most beautiful campus on Earth, especially to those of you whose house sits on top of what used to be my old apartment. You’ve come to us at what may be the beginning of the pivot point for Vanderbilt football. The time has come when powers that outrank us are going to start making decisions that will shape the long-term future of this sport at our institution, and the decisions may not be things we like.
For starters, let’s concede that this game is not what it was. Conference realignment breaks up rivalries, the need for constant in-stadium advertising mutes the band, the best seats get held for big-ticket donors instead of rabid fans, the students get stashed in the corner somewhere (which begs the question of why they should show up at all when there’s beer and a 95-inch TV at the frat house), and ESPN dictates everything from start times to prevailing narratives. The traditions that make college football are being routinely mutilated on all sides.
Into that, inject the peculiar problems of Vanderbilt. Until the Second World War, we pretty much punched our weight or better in the fledgling SEC, having been a regional power in its predecessor well into the 1920s. But after the war, when our head coach decamped to UCLA and his top prewar assistant (some fellow named Bryant) took the top job at Maryland, the slide began. It was about that time - late 1940s, early 1950s - that Chancellor Alexander Heard (yes, the one whose name is on the library) attempted to come up with a way to continue big-time football without the excesses that were already creeping into the sport. But Duke and SMU and Tulane weren’t having it, and the Magnolia League died on the vine. There’s a good case to be made that from the resignation of Art Guepe to the hiring of James Franklin, you could say without fear of contradiction that Vanderbilt University, as an organization, simply didn’t care about football.
Well, people started caring once we started winning. We have more wins against our arch-rival in the past five season than we had in the three decades before. We’ve beaten Florida at the Swamp. We’ve knocked off Georgia more than once. We finished with back-to-back 8-win seasons for the first time in ninety years. It got us two bowl trips: one four miles down the road and one to Birmingham. And now, with a coach who has slowly rebuilt the program and positioned us to grow once again, on the eve of a promising season, we are consumed with the news that we might soon find ourselves sharing an off-campus soccer stadium that barely meets the conference’s minimum requirements.
Attendance all over college football is down, because television is not only available, it’s damaging the in-person experience. When games get moved to Friday nights and take four hours with endless media time-outs, the experience suffers. There was once a time when the only games you saw were whatever ABC put on for a Sunday afternoon - and then, the top conferences formed the CFA and sold their rights separately, and thirty years on, you have (deep breath) ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, SEC, SEC+, Fox Sports 1 and 2, CBS Sports Network, NBCSN, the Big Ten Network, seven Pac-12 networks, and more regional Fox and Comcast channels than I can think of, and that’s before considering the one-offs and syndicated packages and streaming options.
We don’t know what football will look like in twenty years. We don’t know what college football may look like in ten years. And we definitely have no idea what Vanderbilt football will look like in five years, because as late as the eve of the 2011 kickoff we were coming off back-to-back 2-9 records and starting our third head coach in as many seasons, and we had one year in the past thirty with a winning record.
I say all that to say this: this is the moment. Right now. You have the rest of your lives to worry about the rest of your lives. Nothing lasts forever, whether it’s your youth or your stadium or the ability to survive entirely on SATCO and Munchie Mart for an entire semester. (Totally doable, though.) There will be plenty of time later to fret about the mortgage, or your lipid count, or about how the teacher caught little Taylor peeing in the sink again, or how the tailgating experience isn’t what it used to be. The things set before you at this moment in your lives are ephemeral, and if you don’t seize them now, you’ll regret it - maybe not today, or tomorrow, but soon, and twenty years from now as you dictate content into your wrist for whatever half-assed Vanderbilt sports feed Weibo-Facebook is offering.
So embrace now. We have this moment. We have this autumn. You don’t know how many times you’ll get to wake up in the dorms, stagger toward the stadium, borrow a few refreshments from sympathetic tailgaters and spend the day yelling yourself hoarse for your friends, your classmates, all your fellow Commodores out there in one kind of uniform or another, planting the anchor and raising the flag for the simple reason that we are here, we exist, we’re going to carry on and, as the man said, Vandy ain’t worried ‘bout nothin.
Go. Now. Scream. Shout. Run out of the tunnel and into the light. Choose this. Earn this. Anchor Down. Beat Middle.