(NB: I don’t have the traditional call to arms for the class of 2022 in me this year. After this offseason in college football, and the absolute vacuum of leadership from Kirkland Hall regarding the future of football, I just had to unload about why being a Vanderbilt supporter is the toughest job in FBS. So frosh, this is what you’re letting yourself in for. Also, thanks to James and Christian for letting me have a corner of the sandbox all those years ago. The following non-binding primal scream is mine and mine alone and does not intend to reflect the editorial opinion of AoG.)
“Et facere et pati fortia Romanum est.”
It’s hard. It’s so damn hard.
It’s hard because the BCS and the New Years Six and the College Football Playoff have created this new definition of success, whereby you have to be a national title contender in two years or you aren’t really trying. Bad enough that ESPN’s proliferation of ever-less-interesting bowls has made a failure to reach some bowl game a sign of abject moral defect, never mind how unattractive the bowls may be - and of course, you’re locked into the bowl ladder, so never mind what your actual record is; eight wins won’t get you more than 5 miles from home and #5 in the nation won’t get you out of the Holiday Bowl.
It’s hard because when the season starts, nothing matters other than how good you were when sportswriters were kids. Tennessee will always be this close to turning it around, and Notre Dame will always be either a sleeping giant or a contender, and Texas will always be primed for a breakthrough, and unless you can somehow keep delivering Rose Bowls like Stanford or cheap undefeated seasons like Boise State, you will drop off the radar the minute it’s time for a Name to get right. Never mind Penn State’s outrages or Ohio State’s malfeasance or Auburn almost losing its accreditation as a university, there’s always a bounce-back in the offing whether it actually bounces or not. And if you aren’t a Name, then any and all success you might ever enjoy is a fluke, a mirage, Brigadoon, something for the Names to strip-mine when it’s time for them to rebound.
It’s hard because you have to throw millions and millions of dollars at it. Far more than you get back from the ESPN money firehose, such as it is. Especially if you’ve deferred development of your program for fifty years and haven’t got the sidewalk alumni, the friendly press, the equity built up as a competitive program among the sort of people who gladly buy your merchandise and name their kids for your coach without ever having set foot on campus apart from the stadium. And also because you haven’t poured tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars into building the palatial stadium that is apparently a prerequisite to showing you care about the sport.
It’s hard because none of that firehose of money is going into the hands of the kids who play. Coaching salaries are hitting NFL levels and assistant coaches are the new arms race and you’d better be building mallpark stadiums and chocolate fountain lazy river facilities, but actual payroll cash or appearance-licensing money in the hands of the student athletes is beyond the pale, and student had better never clash with athlete. God help you - or more specifically, God help Bryce Love over at Stanford - if you actually try to get in some courses over the summer and have the temerity to skip Media Day.
It’s hard because you have to fling yourself every year against other programs who abjectly don’t give a third of a damn about the classroom or the courtroom. Who send athletic department representatives to the police interrogation. Or who just have the cops on speed-dial to say “don’t worry about it.” Or cover for the misdeeds of players, or assistants, or coaches, for years at a time. Who then go on to brazen it out and get the media attention, get the recruits, get the wins, get the titles anyway, while your best efforts - fairly played and attempting to be decent human beings - get you scorn, mockery and a losing record. Again.
It’s hard because the of dirty little open secret that everyone knows: nobody cares about your APR. Or your graduation rate. Or your USN&WR or Washington Monthly or ARWU rankings. Or your AAU membership. Or whether you kept your guys out of jail and off the police blotter. All that matters is wins and losses and whether you’re willing to play your role in the Narrative. There’s nothing wrong with kabuki, but it’s not a sport. Supposedly college football is the latter, even if everything suggests it’s far closer to the former.
It’s hard because concussions are real. Torn ligaments and broken bones are real. CTE is real. The running joke in this space is that college football has no god but Loki, but that’s not true. College football’s other god is Moloch, and his roasters demand the blood of youth, and it’s getting tougher to deny with every passing season. Basketball doesn’t have a bodycount. Baseball doesn’t have a bodycount. College football has taken two dozen lives since 2001 and that’s just active players. Tennis and bowling and the Vandy Boys manage to win us titles without our having to worry whether the men and women clutching the trophies are going to be dead or insane in thirty years, while the guys in the helmets bash each other senseless for the bare promise of “maybe we’ll actually reach .500 this time” for the (checks notes) fifth time in the last 35 years, all in the last decade.
It’s hard because of that last sentence. Vanderbilt’s been at or over .500 in the regular season for half the seasons in the last ten, after twenty-five years of never once reaching that mark. Maybe half the time, we now win as many as we lose. That’s our great achievement. Double-digit wins? That’s Tir-Na-Nog, that’s the Big Rock Candy Mountain, that’s Never Never Land. Nine wins is the best Vanderbilt’s ever done, and the last gap between nine-win seasons was from 1915 to 2012. Success is fleeting and it leaves you with more trouble than you had, because now you’ve tasted the milk and honey and you want more.
It’s hard because if you’re lucky, you can maybe keep your guys in class and out of jail, maybe try to pay coaches upward from the middle of the road without breaking the bank, maybe stay in a competitive conference without bending the rules or going cupcake-crazy, completely abjure the mindless search for titles and the wallet-be-damned cost of chasing the pinnacle, and maybe if everything breaks your way, you can be good enough to fall ass-backwards into six wins and a bowl berth four miles from campus. Or you can push the envelope and do things you’d never done and say the future is now…and watch your best record in a century deliver you into fourth place in the division and the exact same bowl berth four miles from campus. You could also plan for a new stadium, or even just a renovation, and hope it delivers you success and not just an eight-figure note that sandbags your other sports while your team grasps to get a winning record. Call over to Berkeley, ask them how that worked out.
It’s hard because you remember what your last successful coach who stayed more than three years said, during the Kennedy administration: “there is no way you can be Harvard six days a week and Alabama on Saturday.” And then you see Northwestern in the Rose Bowl. And Stanford in the Rose Bowl. And Stanford in the Rose Bowl again. And Duke - Duke! - with five bowl appearances in the last six seasons. Which we’ve never had. And a 10-win season in 2013. Which we’ve never had. And a division title and conference title game appearance in 2013. Which we’ve never had. And a coach who actually stuck with the program after back-to-back seasons of unprecedented success in the television era. Which we’ve never had.
It’s hard because you have to ignore fans of other teams, equally or even more benighted at present, who nonetheless assume a win over you every year, even when back-to-back or four of six or six of eight say otherwise. You have to ignore the media that piles on as soon as you have the temerity to try for more than two wins a year. You have to ignore the broadcasters who forget you’re on the field, who get your players’ names wrong, who won’t stop talking about the bowl chances of the team you’re destroying in front of them. You have to ignore history. And medicine. And logic. And theology.
It’s hard because you have to make yourself believe that Sisyphus is great because he kept on pushing that boulder, rather than that he’s cursed because it always rolled back to the bottom, and that the memory of getting it two-thirds of the way up the hill once or twice is enough to sustain you. You have to defy everyone else and say that yes, the kind of men you graduate and what they accomplish in the classroom and the real world matters more to you than what happened on a muggy night in Columbia or Gainesville or Murfreesboro when one play would have made the difference between home for Christmas and off to Memphis or Birmingham, or maybe even between yet another Music City Bowl and a chance at playing on New Years Day. You have to be satisfied with the effort, not the outcome, and be willing to keep making that effort when you know damn well what kind of outcome is coming out. You have to believe that greatness is not in the victory, but in the fight. You have to believe, pace our friend Mucius Cordus, that acting and suffering bravely is the attribute not of a Roman, but of a Commodore.
If you can do all that - if you can shut out the entire world, shut out the history, shut out the results, steel yourself to the fight and count it a success that you showed up and didn’t fold - then you’re ready to be a Vanderbilt football fan. It’s not for everybody. Safety is not guaranteed. There’s no assurance of a reward. This isn’t some 90s kid’s sports movie with a happy ending. I’m not saying don’t do it, I’m not saying give up, I’m not saying give in - but for heaven’s sake, don’t come into it with your eyes shut.
Anchor Down. Sink the Raiders.