One of the most telling things about Vanderbilt Athletic Director Malcolm Turner’s decision to retain head football coach Derek Mason for the 2020 season was the reaction from other fan bases in the SEC, perhaps exemplified by this tweet from Roll Bama Roll:
That is as full-throated a defense of a program as you will see.— Roll ‘Bama Roll (@rollbamaroll) November 19, 2019
Turner seems to be on board with Mason’s tough truths and know-thyself approach: Vandy isn’t a yearly bowl team and likely won’t be; take the bad years with the good ones. https://t.co/iAedu6CEFC
And from the outsider’s perspective, it’s true. Vanderbilt has had exactly three winning seasons in my lifetime, and three more bowl appearances that ended with 6-7 records. They’ve had exactly three seasons since 1960 with more than seven wins: James Franklin’s back-to-back 9-4 finishes in 2012 and 2013, and George MacIntyre’s 1982. In short, to the outside observer, there’s little evidence that Vanderbilt can do a whole lot better than what Derek Mason has done, 2019 notwithstanding.
And that’s fine. The problem is that anybody who really pays attention to the Vanderbilt football program knows that many of the problems have been of Vanderbilt’s own making. Malcolm Turner is right when he says that Vanderbilt needs to make the investments in the football program to move forward instead of simply making a coaching change every few years and hoping that will fix the problem, when with one exception it’s never fixed the problem. Vanderbilt spent 1986 through 2001 with Watson Brown, Gerry DiNardo, Rod Dowhower, and Woody Widenhofer piloting the program. DiNardo was seen as good enough to land the LSU job; the others are the coach who set the record for most career losses in college football history, a guy who had previously been fired by the Indianapolis Colts after starting a season 0-13, and a guy who’d won 12 games in four years at Missouri. Bobby Johnson managed to break the bowl drought in 2008, but that was his only winning season in eight years.
In other words, the lack of investment has been a problem, but coaching has been a problem, too.
Malcolm Turner is right that the lack of investment needs to be fixed, but that’s only half of the problem. The other half has been a mentality of a university that’s far too willing to simply accept its place in the SEC, a university that listens to the Alabamas and Georgias and Tennessees of the world telling them that they will never be better than this, and it’s not worth it to try.
I didn’t necessarily agree with the decision to terminate Bryce Drew after the 2018-19 season (though I’d more or less made peace with it after Senior Night), but I certainly agreed with the message. That message was: We’re better than this. We’re not a program that tolerates 20-game losing streaks.
What message is being sent now? Vanderbilt fans have watched a team that’s lost eight games, and the closest of those was a 17-point loss to South Carolina. The coach’s most recent response was to blame the players on the team for the performance, as though he and his staff were not the ones responsible for recruiting and developing them. In short, there is one person responsible for the team getting to this point.
There is nobody who has watched the Vanderbilt football team this season and thought that this performance is in any way acceptable. Except, apparently, for the person who has the final say. Accepting a football team like this is the most obvious manifestation of “Same Old Vandy.” It is the manifestation of a mindset that doesn’t even attempt to compete with the rest of the SEC, instead gladly cashing its revenue distribution checks from the conference and only making a halfhearted effort to compete.
Malcolm Turner had the opportunity to change the mindset, and instead, he showed through his actions that regardless of what he says about investing in the program, Vanderbilt hasn’t really changed. In fact it may have gotten worse. After all, there was a time when even the old Vanderbilt got rid of Woody Widenhofer for fielding a team like this. I’ve said before that Malcolm Turner has a lot of work to do to win back good will from the fans, and a tacit endorsement of the current product on the field just made that job a lot harder.