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In which VandyImport waxes sesquipedalian about the past and alternate future directions for Vanderbilt football

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Vanderbilt Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

PROLOGUE: The Near Thing

In the course of trying to determine whether Derek Mason is fit for purpose as head coach of Vanderbilt football, I posited that maybe he’s just not lucky. Maybe we just don’t have the knack of getting over in the close games, whereas maybe we did in the Brigadoon era. One play, one call, one moment that could turn things, and maybe we are just the schlemiel who has no manner of luck at all. And while I don’t have the wherewithal to pull all the data to see what the situation was in the last four minutes of games within one score, I did look all the way back to CBJ at our record in one-score games, regular season only, where “one score” is defined as a margin of victory of 8 points or fewer. The results:

MASON:

2018: 2-3 (6-6 overall)

2017: 1-1 (5-7 overall)

2016: 2-4 (6-6 overall)

2015: 3-2 (4-8 overall)

2014: 2-1 (3-9 overall)

FRANKLIN:

2013: 3-1 (8-4 overall)

2012: 3-1 (8-4 overall)

2011: 1-4 (6-6 overall)

ETERNAL MEDIA DAYS KING ROBBIE CALDWELL:

2010: 0-1 (2-9 overall)

JOHNSON:

2009: 0-2 (2-9 overall)

2008: 4-2 (6-6 overall)

2007: 0-3 (5-7 overall)

2006: 1-4 (4-8 overall)

2005: 4-4 (5-6 overall)

2004: 0-4 (2-9 overall)

2003: 0-2 (2-10 overall)

2002: 1-4 (2-10 overall)

Now my thinking is: you would expect the percentage in 1-win games to more or less reflect the overall winning percentage (allowing for the very small-n nature of these samples). The things that jump out at me from these numbers:

1) That 2008 bowl team had to be lucky AND good AND play mistake-free football, because it wouldn’t have taken much to knock them back.

2) We may have been THIS CLOSE to a bowl in 2005 but we were also THIS CLOSE to the same 2-win seasons CBJ had turned in to that point. That man had no manner of luck at all other than in 2005 and 2008.

3) Those 8-win Brigadoon teams, when they lost, lost decisively. The 6-win teams since 2002, when they lost, have lost by a lot less. Our success, like the quest of the Fellowship of the Ring, stands on the edge of a knife - stray but a little bit and it will fail, to the ruin of all. The Brigadoon teams were such because they maximized their opportunities; they were always one play per game from being 5-7 but never one play away from better than 9-3, not that 9-3 wouldn’t have made a significant difference in trying to get a better bowl than could have been had at 6-6. But it’s hard to argue, especially in 2013, that our coach had a shamrock, a horseshoe, and an entire rabbit with four feet intact shoved up his [we’ll mark this up in final pub - ED.]

4) Mason’s first two seasons are the only ones since 2002 with a winning record in close games and a losing record overall. I’m open as to how to interpret this, other than to say that things could have been a LOT worse and the argument that Franklin could have had that 2014 team at 6-6 seems to be less plausible than I previously credited.

But based on these numbers, what I come away with is that Mason is no worse than CBJ and arguably better (two bowls, three wins over UT) and that Franklin was as much lucky than good. Which means coaching may not be that much of a difference-maker in our situation. Which led me to wonder what would be. Which took me down a deep dark hole which I invite you to leap down now...

I. The Conundrum

In my lifetime, these are the Vanderbilt regular-season football finishes of .500 or greater:

2016 - 6-6, 6th place in East, 11th of 14 overall

2013 - 8-4, 4th place in the East, 3-way tied 6th of 14

2012 - 8-4, 4th place in the East, tied 7th of 14

2011 - 6-6, tied 4th place in the East, tied 7th of 12

2008 - 6-6, 4th place in the East, tied 8th of 12

1982 - 8-3, 4th of 10 (!!)

1975 - 7-4, 6th of 10

1974 - 7-3-1, 8th of 10

(Side note: the 1982 Commodores finished in the standings ahead of Florida, Tennessee and ALABAMA. What in the super-amalgamated Hell happened that season??)

Before that, going all the way back to World War II, we went:

5-4-1 in 1968 (finished 8th of 10)

5-3-2 in 1959 (finished 6th of 12)

5-2-3 in 1958 (finished 4th of 12!)

5-3-2 in 1957 (6th of 12)

5-5 in 1956 (8th of 12)

7-3 in 1955 (4th of 12)

6-5 in 1951 (9th of 12)

7-4 in 1950 (7th of 12)

5-5 in 1949 (7th of 12)

8-2-1 in 1948 (4th of 12)

6-4 in 1947 (6th of 12)

5-4 in 1946 (8th of 12)

Clearly, the drop-off for Vanderbilt football hit, and hard, after 1959. Blame Bear Bryant, blame integration, blame television, but it is rapidly becoming apparent that Art Guepe owes much of his success as the last long-term winner at Vanderbilt to the existence of 1) ties and 2) a 10-game season.

Note also that 1959 was the last year in which we ended the season ahead of both of the SEC’s two prodigal teams - we also finished behind Tulane in their last two seasons before they quit the SEC in 1966, and behind Georgia Tech in their last four seasons before they quit in 1964. Since then, Tulane has reeled off an undefeated 12-0 season in 1998, while Georgia Tech has won won three conference titles, a share of the 1990 national championship, and played in the ACC title game four times, winning it in 2009 to go to the Orange Bowl (yes, I know it was vacated later, but good luck finding anyone who remembers…or who mysteriously retroactively didn’t go to Miami).

You see where this is headed. Art Guepe, the last Vanderbilt coach to leave as neither an overall loser nor a flash in the pan, gave us the legendary mic-drop quote: “there is no way you can be Harvard six days a week and Alabama on Saturday.” And since CAG resigned, Vanderbilt has finished higher than sixth place in the conference exactly once. In fifty-five years.

Clearly, pace Andrew VU04, Vanderbilt football is the litterbug on the Group W bench of the SEC, but pace Milton, the powers that be in Kirkland Hall decided a long time ago that it was better to serve in Heaven than to reign in Hell. And so we find ourselves in a conference where the one thing we don’t do well as a university is the only thing that matters to that conference. And since our best run of success in a century got us just past the halfway mark…what if we can never do well at that one thing so long as we remain in that conference?

Resolved: It is the opinion of this article that membership of the Southeastern Conference is an insurmountable obstacle to greater football success at Vanderbilt University, moreso than coaching, facilities or present levels of investment.

So - before you all have me shot at dawn by the hired Auburn man, and assuming for the sake of argument that the choices below are somehow magically revenue-neutral and do not require any changes to budget or facilities or staff or anything - what are the realistic alternatives to staying in the same league we helped found in 1933?

Let’s start with the one that’s obvious to the point of cliche by now:

II. The Apparently Completely Compatible option

For time out of mind, people have been speculating that Vanderbilt should go to the ACC. It’s not without precedent, obviously; Georgia Tech did it and doesn’t seem to have suffered inordinately in the process. The notional move usually takes the form of a trade, in which Clemson or NC State or more recently Louisville comes to the SEC in return. (To which I can say: of those, only NC State is viable, as the league shows no inclination to add new teams in states that already have a presence. If freakin’ Florida State isn’t an SEC school, forget about Clemson or Louisville.)

Things this accomplishes:

  1. It probably completes the SEC-ACC Challenge in the East, giving everyone an out-of-conference dance partner for that last week of football. UT and NC State against Vandy and UNC rounds it off nicely, and I’ll be dead in the cold cold ground etc.
  2. It moves Vanderbilt into a conference with multiple private institutions. Let’s face it, no offense, but Duke and Wake Forest and Boston College and Notre Dame (just admit it to yourselves, guys, you’re in the ACC) are probably better cultural fits for Vandy than anyone in the SEC right now. And when they’ve already added BC, Pitt, Louisville and Syracuse, it’s impossible to argue that Nashville is somehow too far afield for the Atlantic Coast Conference. (Although for Nashville to have one baseball team in the ACC and one in the PCL would be a remarkable feat of geography.)
  3. See above. Maybe Notre Dame might not want to join a football conference now, but if the Power 5 is consolidating into the Playoff League, they might be willing to be in the 16th seat on somebody’s starship, which would make a swap unnecessary.
  4. The ACC isn’t going to be a soft touch for football, not with Clemson and FSU around, but Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, Duke and BC have all previously made it to the title game, and 8 or fewer wins has occasionally been enough to get you there. Hell, Pitt is in there right now waiting to be sacrificed to Clemson off a record of 7-5. SEVEN WINS. We haven’t broken past 8 regular season wins in a century, but that’s against SEC opponents - any reason to think switching schedules to bypass Georgia or Florida wouldn’t have been worth one more win in 2012?
  5. Actually, let’s look. A regular season finish of 8-4 in 2012 could have had us tied for 1st place in the Coastal with UNC, not 4th in the SEC East. 8-4 in 2013 would have been 3rd place in either division. Hey, the Sun Bowl isn’t the worst place in the world - beats going four miles down Broadway again.
  6. It’s possible to win the College World Series from the ACC (damn you Hoos), and it obviously gets more love than any other basketball conference. If anything, a move to the ACC would improve the national profile of our hoops teams (along with the degree of difficulty, in fairness), and Tim Corbin would be a winner if you put him in charge of Hufflepuff Quidditch (he’s already got the black and gold), so it’s not like we’d be sentencing the rest of our teams to die.

Looked at in this light, one may wonder why the hell we haven’t long since done this already. But it’s not the only option on the board. Consider other possibilities:

III. The Notorious B1G option

Throwing in our lot with the Yankees has been kicked around on the low for a long time, almost ever since Penn State (spit) first exposed the innumeracy of the Big 10 [sic] back in 1993. The NOBLE WARRIOR POETS OF THE MIDWEST broke the seal by going into the land of Punxsutawney Phil for an 11th team, and then didn’t complete the move until taking Nebraska away from a flailing Big 12 (sic…the moral is, don’t put a number in the name of your conference if you can’t count) - and then they had the ass when Nebraska lost its membership in the American Association of Universities, a high-class consortium of research institutions to which all B1G members belong…as does Vanderbilt University. Hmmmmm.

Again, this would be a complicated move; probably not one with a swap involved as there is no way to make it work, no matter how “Indoor Vols” the Hoosiers are. More likely this would be part and parcel of another realignment tilt-a-whirl around 2023, albeit one that depends heavily on Vanderbilt deliberately choosing to chase big-time football. (You’ll see the 2023 number a lot, as that’s when the major conference TV contracts start expiring...which is what set all this off the last time.)

Things this accomplishes:

  1. Rose Bowl. Northwestern made it in 1995, and they’re one game away right now with a record of 8-4. More to the point, it’s only been a few years since a 7-5 Wisconsin team lollygagged into the B1G title game, caught Nebraska napping and won their way to Pasadena in the ultimate “any given day” result. Honestly, take my word for it, Colorado Avenue on January 1 is bucket list stuff, and it can be done.
  2. Yes, Ohio State and Penn State were both on hella probation in 2012, but that’s not an impediment this year. Think about it: we went 8-4 in 2012 and made the same Music City Bowl we made at 6-6. Wisconsin went 7-5 and got one shot at the title game, and succeeded. Meanwhile, 8-4 would have had us no lower than third in either B1G division in 2013 and could arguably have had us in the B1G title game this Saturday.
  3. We would finally have conference leadership as willing and able to be pious windbags about academics as us. If not more so!
  4. Seriously. Northwestern, Indiana, Penn State, Michigan, how many more instant immediate rivals do you need?
  5. B1G basketball is pretty legit. Indiana is one of the Mount Rushmore programs (don’t take my word for it, ask them) and the Michigans are always pretty damn good, plus no one has ever created the hashtag #B1GBasketballFever.
  6. Think about how awesome it would be to go against a baseball league where everyone else is trying to chisel the bases out of the frost until April! Not going to lie, this would be a really rough move for baseball and might drive Corbs to take that Hufflepuff job.
  7. As much as I crack on, there are some pretty damned impressive schools in the B1G if you want a graduate degree in political science; when I was applying, Michigan was regarded as better than Harvard and Wisconsin was right on its heels. Illinois gave us Netscape. Northwestern gave us half the sportscasters. It ain’t bad.
  8. As long as Rutgers is around, we’ll never be the worst football team.

Broadly feasible? Maybe? Why not get completely wackadoo with it?

IV. The Airplane Magnolia Conference option

In 1959, following the pay-for-play scandals that disintegrated the Pacific Coast Conference, the California schools and Washington began kicking around the notion of a new national conference - literally called the Airplane Conference - that would take Cal, Stanford, USC, UCLA and Washington and match them against other academics-friendly institutions. To wit: Duke, Georgia Tech, Penn State, Notre Dame (!!) and all three service academies (!!!), creating a national super conference as early as 1960. The Pentagon vetoed it hard, and that was an end of it.

Similarly, in 1950, Chancellor Alexander Heard reached out to the likes of Duke, Tulane, Rice and SMU about forming a “Magnolia Conference” as a Southern counterpart of the Ivy League (which didn’t exist as a formal athletic conference until 1954 and itself once reached out to Northwestern). The Texas schools didn’t want to give up the Cotton Bowl money, and Duke didn’t want to risk its rivalry with UNC, and it went nowhere.

Still, CAH’s notion of “continuing big-time football without the excesses already creeping into the sport” sounds like the sort of thing that almost 70 years on might provide a FBS-ish opt-out for conscientious objectors who don’t want to chase the Playoff League. First, look around for available teams. OK, overlook SMU’s past, and take them with Rice and Tulane. Add Vanderbilt and that’s four. Throw in the service academies and that’s seven. Duke, Stanford and Northwestern aren’t moving, probably, but if the Playoff League happens assume that at least one of them (probably Northwestern) will slough it off. At that point, you’re looking to poach anyone who needs a football affiliation in a world where big-time football is no longer under NCAA governance, so maybe you can peel off a Wake or a Boston College.

Things this accomplishes:

  1. A new league in which we have a chance to more or less roll our own, optimizing for the kind of schools where the cliche about “going pro in something other than sports” is probably true.
  2. Since this league will almost certainly be on the outside of the Playoff League looking in, the money won’t be rolling in, but neither will the financial outlay be as high - certainly not as high as keeping up with the Top 32 of the world would require.
  3. Since the Alabamas of the world, and the teams whose schools want them to be Alabama, will all decamp to the Playoff League, we have a much better opportunity to do well in a world where we never have to go against Florida AND Georgia AND Tennessee AND Ole Miss AND some other SEC West school AND a Power 5 opponent every single year. Math that up and see how many times we’ve done better than .500 and the appeal should be obvious.
  4. If we do the kind of athlete facility improvements everyone keeps clamoring for before this split happens, rather than spending $100M on the stadium, there’s a real chance we could be left with a serious structural advantage in this reduced-scope conference. Caveat, though: Tulane’s already voted out of the Power 5 and their new 30,000-seat on-campus stadium set them back a slick $75 million. Pay to play, no matter where.

(Side note: the ultimate Hail Mary here would be to just join the Pac-12. Hey, if the Predators can be in the West and the Sounds can play in the Pacific Coast League, why not? We already have a recruiting pipeline, they have strong academics and private schools, Nashville is already the Hollywood/Portland of the South…I’m grasping aren’t I?)

V. I Am A Patriot, or, the White Flag option

This is the last-ditch choice, the least we could do for football and still be in Division I for other sports. The Patriot League, as currently constituted, is a Northeastern league of schools in FCS that only recently went back to offering scholarships for football; previously it was a non-scholarship counterpart to the Ivy League. Remember Army and Navy? Both Patriot League (in everything else but football now). Also: Lafayette, Lehigh, Holy Cross, Colgate, Bucknell, Boston U, American U in DC and Loyola-Maryland, plus Fordham and Georgetown just for football.

Beyond just the Patriot league, Section V here is sort of the catchall for things like a highly unlikely move to the Ivy League (and don’t you know Zeppos would move heaven and earth for this??) or a resort to Division III athletics in the University Athletic Association or something similar. All the considerations below apply to more or less any move out of FBS-level football as constituted in 2018, with the caveat that non-Playoff-League FBS and FCS would probably be consolidated if the Playoff League secession were to actually happen.

Things this accomplishes:

  1. Well, this cuts down the football expenses but good. Although travel costs will probably eat up the cost savings.
  2. This keeps us in Division I for all our other sports, in what should be a highly winnable league from a basketball (and baseball, but see point 4) standpoint.
  3. In the event we do find ourself in a league without scholarships, Opportunity Vanderbilt should give us a nice recruiting edge. You’re welcome, SEC conspiracy theorists!
  4. No two ways about it: this is probably a murder blow for baseball as we know it, and probably not the best thing for basketball. If there’s one lesson that should be learned from the last 20 years, it’s that Division I realignment for the sake of football has been destructive to the organization of every other sport. Maryland in the B1G, the Big East hyper-inflated and destroyed, whatever happened to the WAC/Mountain West/WAC/whatever is left now, the perpetual revolving train wreck of the G5 leagues...

VI: A Conclusion, Just So I Can Use Those Particular Roman Numerals

Looking at this lineup, it’s pretty transparent what they’re thinking up in Kirkland Hall. Membership of the SEC pays the freight for more than 50% of our total athletic budget (I assume David Price and John Ingram are paying for the rest) and football, miserable as it tends to be, is merely the sacrifice to the money gods in Birmingham so we have the ability to keep fighting in baseball, in basketball, in tennis and golf and bowling, in soccer and cross-country. This is the golden age of non-football Vanderbilt sports, and football pays the freight to keep it there, and football can pretty easily win 5 or 6 a year nowadays. As long as no decision hasto be made, no decision willbe made. But the new Athletic Director will almost certainly be expected to make the big choices about where we go from here, and hopefully will have a plan for what we do in four years when/if the realignment abattoir starts up. But at the end of 2018, it’s very difficult to shake the impression that we are still in the Southeastern Conference for the sole purpose of exploiting inertia to spare Cornelius from spending as much of his own money as possible.

So the question is: better to serve in Heaven or reign in Hell? Would you rather pin your hopes on maybe hitting the FCS playoffs once a decade or 7 wins in the SEC once a decade? Is dreaming of a Rose Bowl we can almost certainly never reach better than dreaming of a Sugar Bowl we definitely cannot reach? Is battling Georgia Tech for the Cowbell every year an acceptable alternative to the Grove or the Hedges or the Swamp? If it’s true that being in the SEC creates a hard ceiling for football, is that something we can live with? Or are the possibilities of a new conference ultimately just a band-aid on fifty years of neglect?

I don’t have an answer. But it’s a question we’re going to have to think about a lot in the next four years.