The first thing you have to know about college football is the line attributed to many coaches. Former Vanderbilt assistant Paul Bryant supposedly said it as “Winning isn't everything, but it sure beats coming in second.” But there’s a good case to be made that it in, in fact, the only thing.
Think about the big stories from outside the world of the Great Historic Powers in the BCS-and-CFP era of football. Boise State. Utah. Stanford. TCU. Central Florida. The only thing that gets interest, attraction, favorable consideration? Winning. It does not matter who you beat. Let me repeat: it does not matter who you beat. Boise State. Utah. UCF. In the last fifteen years, all three have attempted to claim the crown as America’s Undefeated Untied Uncrowned Rightful National Champion at some point based on a record than ended with “-and-0”, despite schedules that were rightfully regarded as risible by comparison to 8 or 9 conference games against the SEC or B1G or ACC.
I’m not being funny, but I am almost positive we’re not ever going to go undefeated. That’s fine. We haven’t done it since 1904, and we only got away with it because there were only 9 games in a season then.
So if you aren’t going to win all, where’s the bar? If you look at Steven Godfrey’s last Banner Society newsletter, he quotes the president of the University of Houston setting the bar at 10 wins and saying TO HER FACULTY “we’ll fire a coach for 8-4.” Which sort of tells you the difference between Houston and Vanderbilt, on multiple levels. Other programs are saying that 8 wins is unacceptably low? That’s our best performance since 1915.
So in theory, we have to get more wins. Consensus is that you need 10. That’s what it takes to have some assurance you’ll play on January 1, to have a crack at a conference title game, to attract the attention of the wider college football world. Northwestern in 1995: 10-1. Northwestern under Pat Fitzgerald: three 10-win seasons and two more with 9. Duke’s breakthrough under David Cutcliffe and go to the Chik-Fil-A bowl? 10-4, and winning seasons every year since but one. Stanford’s turnaround didn’t get acknowledged with 8 wins in 2009, but with 12 wins in 2010 and only one season with fewer than nine wins since. Win 10 games, and you’ll get people’s attention, but then you have to keep winning in order to change the narrative.
So all we need is one more win in the regular season than we’ve ever had. Ever. Vanderbilt football has played since 1890 and has reached double-digit wins exactly never.
Look at the other programs.
David Cutcliffe at Duke took over and had four losing seasons before going .500. The sixth season, he won 10 games. Since then they’ve only had one losing season, even if they haven’t reached 10 again.
Pat Fitzgerald at Northwestern started from a higher base, having taken over after Randy Walker’s tragic death from a heart attack. Walker’s teams were finishing over .500 about as often as under, but Fitzgerald went over .500 in his third season in 2008 and has only had two losing seasons since (2013-14 back to back), while finishing with 10 wins three times (2012, 2015, 2017). Given the omnipresence of Ohio State and the various rises of Michigan, Wisconsin and Groundhog State, that’s fairly impressive.
David Shaw took over from Jim Harbaugh at Stanford and basically never looked back, doing just as well or better. Harbaugh got to 12 wins his fourth year, left for the pros, and since then Shaw’s worst season is 8-5. His season win totals are 11, 12, 11, 8, 12, 10, 9 and 9, three Rose Bowl appearances (two wins), and not one single loss to his arch-rival, plus the routine approbation of the college football press as the warrior-poets of the sport. Meanwhile, faculty and staff are already being offered four free tickets to their rivalry game against Cal this November.
Wake Forest had three winning seasons and a BCS bowl berth under Jim Grobe (an era which just happened to coincide with us taking them on as an annual opponent, isn’t that sweet) but had come well back to earth when Clawson took over. While his teams have not broken 8 wins, he got over .500 in year 3 and has stayed there ever since, and won three straight bowl games into the bargain.
Tulane has had a wobbly few years since that 12-0 run in 1998. Curtis Johnson seemed to have a Derek Mason sort of career with one bowl appearance but is back to being an NFL position coach (foreshadowing?) while Willie Fritz is on the upward path there; in his third season they finished 7-6 and appear to be doing very well for themselves this season. Their prospects from here on out are unclear.
So from the look of things: it can be done, but you have to either be taking over from someone who had at least moderate success or be willing to stick around long enough to see the thing through. Neither condition has obtained for Vanderbilt until recently.
Art Guepe. Five straight winning seasons from 1955-59 (including our only bowl win until 2008) before three lean years and famously hanging it up with a quote I won’t bother repeating here, as it is seared on our memories.
Steve Sloan. Two seasons. One season where he won 7 and tied a bowl game, then abandoned the Doors to take over the very program he’d just tied. His successor won 7 games, didn’t get a bowl bid, and sank like a stone thereafter.
George McIntyre. One successful season in 1982, a team that looks more impressive with every passing year. 8-3, beat Tennessee, put up impressive numbers and finished fourth in a 10-team SEC.
Bobby Johnson. Moved the floor from “win 2” to “win 5”, salted the mine for Franklin, broke through with the first win over UT in two decades plus and then the first bowl in two decades plus (and the first bowl win since “Sixteen Tons” was at the top of the Billboard chart).
James Franklin. You all know how this went.
And now Derek Mason, who was left a record of unprecedented success and an empty cupboard, and struggled to improve on both. If Brigadoon had never happened, Mason would probably be the subject of extensive grumbling for sinking back to SOV levels after it seemed like our baseline might be going from 5 to 6 wins. But I don’t think the pitchforks would be sharped quite as much as they are now. 2-10 this year and 3-9 next? Yeah, sure, but without the Franklin era, it would be damn hard to look askance at anyone who had three straight wins over UT and two bowl bids in those seasons.
This is not to defend Mason. I think we’ve probably got all we can out of him at this point. These are his players, this is his system, this is his staff, and we’ve seen the flop and the turn. At some point, you are what the record says you are. The question is, what does it take to get beyond that and be successful?
Structurally, if you want 8 wins, that means that you have to win all your non-conference games AND go .500 in the SEC. To do one seems like an accomplishment, especially as we insist on scheduling multiple Power-5 non-conf opponents (2012) or going on the road to a CFP semifinalist (2018) or booking one of those nemesis teams above (Stanford 2021). To do both...gets you to 8 wins, which gets you to Birmingham. Or Shreveport. Or right down the road to stand around with Nate Bargatze for three hours before kickoff. (“I did not go to Vanderbilt...Vanderbilt asked me to say that”) Eight wins in the regular season is a generational level of success for Vanderbilt, and a fireable offense at seemingly a third of the schools in the FBS.
So if it takes the moon and stars aligned to get eight, and we’ve never gotten above nine ever in 129 years of trying, what does it take to get ten? Changing conferences? Vast amounts of bribery? All six Infinity Stones? I put it to you this way: if it takes a 10 win season to get the attention of the college football world in a positive way, it cannot be done at Vanderbilt under present circumstances by anyone. Anyone. I don’t care. Nick Saban, Bear Bryant, Bud Wilkinson, Knute Rockne. You could put Don Shula in charge of this team with Bill Belichick as his coordinator and the Angel Gabriel as strength coach and you still won’t ever sniff ten wins, because everyone else you have to play has the ability to bring in more talent with fewer limitations.
The question, then, is: what counts as good enough? Do you want to field a clean team with everyone in class and nobody in jail and be able to look yourself in the mirror? We’re actually all right under Mason for that (and setting aside his other shortcomings as coach, you cannot deny that he seems to be a fine gentleman and has run a program you don’t have to feel morally compromised about, and if you don’t think that counts for something then the Titans or Vols are right over there, go on). Would you actually like to have a winning season, or just to be able to go into a home game feeling like there’s an above average chance of winning it? That would be nice, and it might even be enough depending on circumstances. If I were still in Nashville and a season ticket holder, knowing I could go to seven games a year and expect to win five of them routinely would be more than enough to keep me happy.
Or do you want to do what these other programs have done? I would love to. But then you have to consider the possibility that there’s no amount of money or talent that will do it as long as we have to line up against eight SEC opponents a year. If it could be done, you have to think it would have been done at least once since 1933, but it hasn’t. Georgia Tech and Tulane still have more SEC titles in football than we do. And if you notice, not one of the teams cited above is in our league.
Or do you want the rest of college football just to treat us as something other than a joke, an automatic W even when we’ve been beating you lately (looking at you, Vols and Rebs), do you just want to be taken seriously? Seriously takes ten wins. It’s not good, it’s not right, and it’s not fair, but the fact remains that fair is where you go to see the pigs.
So I put it to you: where is your marker for success and what are you prepared to do to reach it?