My great-uncle Jim passed away in 1995. He was a carpenter by trade, living in the the town he and my grandfather had helped build for Uncle Sam back when “Oak Ridge” were words that would bring the FBI to your door. He introduced me to baseball, pitched me windfall apples to swing at in the church parking lot. And when he died, the picture at his bedside was not of his children, his family, or even his patriotic youth - but of Neyland Stadium from overhead, in 1982, on the day that the Vols beat Alabama at home for the last time of his life.
I say that to say this: that was the same year that Tennessee lost to Vanderbilt for the last time of his life. The Dores finished 4th in the SEC and wound up losing the Hall of Fame Bowl to the Air Force in Birmingham. It was also probably the last time anyone in the SEC took Vanderbilt football seriously. Bear Bryant was retiring. Auburn had sprung to life under Pat Dye. Whit Taylor was a serious problem. We were less than 10 years removed from the Sloanaissance. It was possible, however briefly, to conceive of something different. Before long this was no longer a concern.
My mother’s people are all from the Oak Ridge-Clinton-Farragut area. They are sensible folk, the kind who will never go on Twitter or read a message board, and whose most ferociously held Hot Sports Take was “how come they can’t let Pat Head Summitt coach the boys too?” When I was accepted for Vanderbilt for grad school in the spring of 1994, one of them crocheted a black-and-gold afghan that I still have. They all hated Alabama, from time immemorial, but they had nothing in particular against Vanderbilt, because they did not take Vanderbilt seriously as a football program.
This is a problem that has held up for about six decades now. It remains impervious to facts on the ground. In a private moment, most Vol fans will quietly concede that losing two or three in a row and going .500 for the ‘10s against Vanderbilt is a genuine comedown for their program, and that in performance they are realistically far closer to a peer of our program than Bama’s, but try getting that out of someone in public. At one point in the past decade we had beaten Ole Miss five times out of seven, and Steven Godfrey had to publicly remind his fellow Rebs of the fact when they insisted on writing down a W in ink against Vanderbilt before the season began. Our most successful run of football in a century did not lead to “is Vanderbilt for real?” but rather to “where will Franklin inevitably decamp to next?”
No one has taken Vanderbilt football seriously for half a century - Vanderbilt least of all, in many ways. This has not been all bad. It has kept the fan base small but mighty, with people who mostly have a good sense of perspective and genuinely value the extent to which we manage to keep our players in class and off the police blotter (and who take the correct attitude on the rare occasions we don’t). It has kept us from taking ourselves too seriously, an attitude which this blog epitomizes and displays well by contrast to most of the other blogs we have heretofore interacted with. It has kept us a university, which happens to have a football team - a wholly unique arrangement in the SEC, of which more momentarily.
But it has also led to spectacles like this past season, where we ran a shorthanded team into a wood chipper en route to an 0-9 record for the sake of preserving the conference paychecks that make trips to Orange Beach and Hoover and Omaha possible. It has led national media to dismiss any football success, from a mere ATS-upset to nine wins for the first time in a century, as utterly irrelevant to the Narrative of hapless hopeless Vanderbilt, who should take its championship-grade baseball and soccer and golf and tennis and cross-country and leave the SEC because only football matters. And for years - decades - it led the university to treat investment in football as good money thrown after bad, and coaching vacancies as inconveniences to be filled by the cheap and available, valuing continuity over exceeded expectations. It became a truism that if you weren’t successful by your fourth year, you weren’t ever going to be successful or someone would have hired you away by now. People didn’t leave Vanderbilt football to climb the ladder, for the most part - they left for coordinator jobs, or retirement, or the insurance business, or the occasional toll booth.
And then, at the beginning of 2021, ADCSL formally and publicly rolled the dice. A proposed investment in athletics in the low nine figures, much of which was already in the barn before it was even announced. A unicorn hire for head coach - the highly regarded alum who comes closer than anyone to that mythical “Tim Corbin but for football” that we’ve been dreaming on since 2014. And last week, the curtain finally pulled back on new facilities for that $200+ million investment. And it all comes at a moment where we need that quarter-billion cash infusion - because yet another pointless SEC expansion west of the Mississippi is about to bring the money truck crashing through the doors of McGugin again, or so we are promised. But what good does it do for us to get another $60 million from the 16EC when everyone else in the league is also getting another $60 million? What have we done other than just raise the table minimum? The eternal catch-22 has been: why spend money on a program that isn’t taken seriously by anyone, and how are you going to be taken seriously if you don’t spend money? Especially when anyone who loses six or fewer games twice will get hired away by someone else?
In 1982, there were 10 teams in the SEC. We won eight and beat UT, and finished fourth in the league. In 2012, there were 14 teams in the SEC. We won eight, beat UT, and finished fourth...in the East. Which we repeated the next year. 8 wins, beat UT (and Florida and Georgia all in one year!), and finished fourth in the East. Meanwhile, Missouri, which rode into the league as a throw-in so we’d have an even number of teams after taking Texas A&M, won the East in 2013 in their second year. And again in their third. Come 2025 (or sooner if lawyers), we’re looking at the prospect of a 16-team SEC, with who knows what kinds of divisions or pods or clusters (they should absolutely call them clusters), in which we could conceivably win 8 games and not even finish in the upper half of the conference. The constant expansion of the SEC and ever-rising cost of competing has given us a cornucopia of cash money wealth, but it has made our membership of the conference a structural obstacle to improving our football fates. An insurmountable one? That’s what Clark Lea is here to find out.
So what are the goals? I’m not going to sit here and talk about winning a division, or a pod, or making it to Atlanta, or a New Year’s Day bowl, or some kind of trophy. I don’t even know what is realistic anymore. Nobody does. I’m not going to draw some arbitrary line and say this number of wins in year two is a failure and this number of wins in year three is a success. I’m not going to speculate on who we might upset, or whose lack of vaccine might free-roll us a win (cheers, Wolfpack, how’s that cough?) I have one goal for this program. It’s the same goal in game one, it’s the same goal for year one, it’s the same goal for every game Vanderbilt plays for the rest of time:
Will I be sorry I watched this team?
Will I feel guilty about watching overmatched students getting crushed by the AFC South champs down at Bama? Will I want to tear my hair out when lions led by donkeys are trapped by play-calling that would embarrass the computer in Tecmo Bowl? Will I be frustrated that the game was lost as soon as we stepped on the grass? Will I throw the remote through the screen again and punch out until spring baseball practice starts?
Or will I see a team that scares the evangelical Hell out of far better ranked opposition in the fourth quarter? Will I see a team that reliably executes and never quits? Will I see a team that will make the other coach stand at the press conference after the game with sweat on his brow trying not to admit that it wasn’t a win, it was an escape? Will I see a team and an organization that makes you forget about the scoreboard, win or lose, and be proud of how we fought, proud of exceeding expectations, proud of who we are?
I want to believe that Clark Lea is tearing up the old Narrative, starting from first principles, and asking “if we were to begin Vanderbilt football anew, how would we do it?” I want to believe that Barton Simmons and Casey Stangel are the harbingers of a new way of operating the team, with an eye toward a world transformed by realignment and NIL and the unique value proposition of a top national university in a so-called It City playing in what is halfway to the College Super League. I want to remember the words of a sign that I saw a new boss put up in the basement computing dungeon a quarter-century ago: “No Matter How We Used To Do It, THIS IS HOW WE DO IT NOW.” I want to believe that the uniforms reflect the program: simple, timeless, clean, effective. I want my wife’s old roommate to call us up and scream about how many touchdowns her former student is catching (give ‘em hell, Pierce). I want the block V on my cap to get scowls about what happened in Shallow Alto instead of praise for Yaz and Casali. I want my relatives in Anderson County - and Chattanooga, Mobile, Kazakhstan and everywhere in between - to ask me at the holidays “what the Hell has that Lea got going over there at Vanderbilt?”
To the classes of 2024 and 2025: I want to believe in that team. And so should you.
Anchor Down. Sink the Bucs.