Last August, Adam Sparks’ excellent piece of investigative journalism into the workings of the Vanderbilt Athletic Department completely changed the conversation about Vanderbilt athletics, and specifically Vanderbilt football. The tenor of said conversation went from “Vanderbilt has a tough time competing in the SEC” to “Vanderbilt really isn’t even trying here.” That was something that a lot of people who follow the program closely had suspected for a while, but Adam really put that out in the open for everyone both inside and outside of the Vanderbilt community to hear.
With few answers forthcoming from then-Chancellor Nick Zeppos or then-Vice Chancellor David Williams, Sparks began calling up members of the Board of Trust, and Williams’ sudden retirement followed shortly thereafter. In came new Athletic Director Malcolm Turner, who — after a month on the job — terminated the employment of head men’s basketball coach Bryce Drew, who in an interview with Yahoo’s Pete Thamel after the firing seemed to suggest that he didn’t mind going 0-18 in the SEC (which he, in fact, did) so long as he got to keep his job.
In other words, the new Athletic Director made clear that abject failure from Vanderbilt coaches would no longer be tolerated. (Whether mediocrity will be tolerated is still an open question.) But the biggest challenge that Malcolm Turner faced was always going to be winning back some of the goodwill that’s frankly been lost over the years. It’s seven months into Turner’s tenure, and the attitude toward Vanderbilt making a commitment to competing in the two major sports among a large portion of the fan base remains “I’ll believe it when I see it.”
And to the idea that nothing has really changed in McGugin, stuff like this really doesn’t help matters.
For the pregame festivities, the LSU band has lined up in the south endzone while the Vandy band is in the north endzone. Just a small size differential. pic.twitter.com/hfbNijgNhp— Taylor Martina (@olmec26) September 21, 2019
There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with letting the visiting team’s band play on the field before the game. It’s certainly unusual: at most college stadiums, the home team’s band plays its pregame show, and the visiting team’s band does not.
Of course, there’s a difference between Tennessee allowing Arkansas’s band onto the field for a couple of minutes to play for the handful of visiting fans who made the trip, and Vanderbilt letting LSU’s band play for a stadium that’s at least 75 percent filled with LSU fans. The reaction from Vanderbilt fans was swift and severe.
Absolute disgrace to let the LSU band out on our field before the game. Lifelong season ticket holder and the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen. We fight to keep Vanderbilt football from being a joke and then this. You should be embarrassed and ashamed @VandyAD— Steve Byrum (@TheSteveByrum) September 21, 2019
Frankly, this is the same logic that led to Vanderbilt letting Tennessee State’s Aristocrat of Bands take the place of the Spirit of Gold during the halftime show at homecoming a couple of years ago.
Now, in all fairness, there is only so much that Vanderbilt can do about visiting fans from other SEC schools invading Vanderbilt Stadium. Vanderbilt has a relatively small undergraduate population that mostly doesn’t stay in the area after graduation (and, of course, a large portion of the student body can’t be bothered to show up for games while they’re attending Vanderbilt), and mostly doesn’t come back to Nashville for football games. Locals in Nashville are mostly indifferent to the Commodores — years and years of losing will do that. And, of course, Vanderbilt is located in Nashville, which unlike Knoxville or Starkville is a place that people actually want to visit for reasons other than attending a football game. For people in Georgia and Louisiana and Kentucky and South Carolina, it’s a weekend trip to Nashville with a chance to see your team play thrown in. And it’s gotten worse, if anything, in recent years, with StubHub and its ilk making it far easier for out-of-town fans to score tickets to the game (and simultaneously making it easier for Vanderbilt season ticket holders to unload their tickets for a profit) and with Nashville becoming a much hotter destination for tourists.
There is nothing that Vanderbilt can do about a lot of that; about the only thing that the Athletic Department can change is doing greater outreach to alumni and locals to try to get them to buy tickets — and not sell them when a school with a large traveling fan base comes to town. Putting a better product on the field would probably help a bit, but most of the fundamental problem isn’t going away.
Instead, though, the Athletic Department is sending the message that they don’t view Vanderbilt Stadium as the home of Vanderbilt’s football team, but as yet another tourist trap for out-of-towners visiting Nashville. That might not be the message that they intended to send — they were probably just trying to be nice — but it’s the message that we’ve received. Upping the single-game ticket prices in response to demand from LSU fans sends the same message.
The absolute worst part of being a Vanderbilt fan is seeing pictures of Vanderbilt Stadium filled with opposing fans, or — worse — for games against G5 teams, pictures of entire sections of the stadium that are empty. And the jokes from opposing fans that Vanderbilt fans don’t exist, or even that games at Vanderbilt are home games for them. And the Athletic Department has responded by saying, essentially, not only that it doesn’t care that such a large portion of the stadium is filled with the other team’s fans, but that the Athletic Department welcomes them.
This is the kind of attitude that permeated McGugin for years, if not decades, before Malcolm Turner came along (after all, sold tickets are sold tickets whether they’re to Vanderbilt fans or LSU fans), and the latest volley from the Athletic Department suggests that it’s going to be hard to change. But it needs to change. Because increasingly, Vanderbilt fans don’t feel welcome in their home stadium. Not when it’s filled with the other team’s fans, and when the Athletic Department goes out of its way to make the other team’s fans feel welcome.