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It’s Not About The Sport Any More, Just Us

Georgia v Vanderbilt
The high water mark of Brigadoon
Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

(NB: I spent almost the entire offseason struggling with whether I was even going to bother writing this, but I feel like if I’m going to jerk the curtain on a football season for the last time at Anchor of Gold, I should at least explain myself and show my logic and lab work. If you will indulge a load of old wank, this is about me, how I got here, and where I have finally landed.)

It’s not like we don’t know what we’re letting ourselves in for.

It’s been 60 years since Coach Art Guepe hung it up for the Commodores with the parting shot - supposedly without rancor, although one could forgive him for being acerbic - that there is no way you can be Harvard six days a week and Alabama on Saturday. And for sixty years, Vanderbilt has worked like Hell to prove him right. Along the way, we’ve won quite a few conference titles in other things. Men’s basketball got to the Elite Eight, women’s basketball to the Final Four, we’ve played in the final game of the College World Series four of the five times we’ve gone and won it twice - but none of that makes a difference; the SEC is defined by football, and Kirkland Hall long ago made the deliberate decision that Vanderbilt is not.

It wasn’t so terrible through the 60s and 70s - the Tennessee upset in 1964, or Alabama in 1969, or the Sloanaissance, or even George MacIntyre’s 1982 team which in retrospect was the high water mark of the last six decades: eight wins from eleven games and fourth place in the conference. But after that, we had two and a half decades of a whole lot of nothing. Beat Tennessee once, beat Bama once (twice if you count a forfeit after the fact), won as many as five games two or three times, but no winning records and no sign things would ever get better. Meanwhile, the conference expanded and stadiums expanded and the haves began separating from the have-nots.

And then we got good for a little bit. Won six games, which at the time felt like a miracle. And then after another couple seasons of “normal service has been restored”, we had Brigadoon, and won six, eight and eight in three years. And then naturally our coach decamped to a higher profile job, but not before saddling us with a humiliating player scandal and leaving the cupboard empty for the next guy - who caught Tennessee down bad, but looked and coached like a deer in the headlights for the better part of seven seasons and left under his own cloud.

Here’s the thing: we’re not out here trying to win a national championship. We’re not even trying to win the league - hell, there’s very little point in trying to win our division. The 2013 Vanderbilt team that beat Georgia on CBS, beat Florida and Tennessee on the road, that had 8 wins in a three-way tie for best regular-season record since before radio, finished in only fourth place in the East. We’re not measuring ourselves by how many titles we put up and how many players are drafted and how many trophies we stack. All we want, at the end of the day, is to feel like we have a chance to maybe win as often as we lose and not be sorry we invested a day in watching or attending the game.

That’s it. That’s all. That is all Vanderbilt football can ever hope to be in a league full of NFL prep academies and coloring-book state schools. There is every case to be made that we should have followed Georgia Tech and Tulane out the door in the 1960s - Georgia Tech has a national championship and a couple of New Years Six bowl appearances, and Tulane went 12-0 one year and probably claims a piece of the national title, and why not - but for better or worse, we didn’t. Instead, we became everybody’s homecoming tackling dummy, the team you bray about kicking out of the SEC right up until it’s a guaranteed conference win every season. We know the deal - half our entire athletic program is paid for as long as we keep feeding Moloch every Saturday. It’s nothing to be proud of, but it’s been standard practice for half a century. Nothing new there.

That’s the funny thing: it doesn’t take any wit or insight or talent to come up with “HURRRRRR DURRRRR VANDY SUCKS.” This is not news. Please stop pretending that it is. We know it perfectly well, and we’re acclimated to it. Any other school would have fired ten coaches in a row with the record we’ve had since television switched to color. I can assure you that your team, no matter what team it is, would also have empty tailgate lots on a rainy Saturday night if you’d clocked only four total winning seasons since Gerald Ford was President. No one else at the I-A level has ever dealt with this caliber of futility for this long. Show me another team that suffered a twenty-two year losing streak to its arch-rival. Show me another program that ever kept a coach after three consecutive two-win seasons.

So why would you do this to yourself? Why have I done this to myself?

Literally half my lifetime ago, I left Vanderbilt University having washed out of the PhD program in political science. My failing stemmed from one fatal misapprehension: grad school is not the place to try for a do-over on your disappointing college experience. (There was also the whole discipline-wide “hard shift into quant analysis” at the expense of the Hargrove/Graham/Birkby case study approach, and a girl back home who tried to “overdose” on the last week of birth control pills, but that’s as may be; in the end, it was my fault and no one else’s. Time has proven that I was not cut out for a career in politics or the classroom. The fact that I later found myself in academic IT is proof Loki always wins in the end.)

Thing is, having washed out the way I did, I felt I was on very thin ice to claim Vanderbilt as anything but a tremendous feat of resume laundering. Having a terminal MA degree from a top-25 university was very helpful looking for entry-level work in a world where being 25 and making $21 an hour basically made you feel like Tony Stark. But after graduation, I didn’t have anything much to do with the school for a long time. The Sweet 16 run in 2004 led me to notice a talk being given in DC by the immortal John Lachs, the day after which I found myself proposing to my wife in the NYC apartment of a National Geographic television host (again, long story for another time), and that was it for Vanderbilt again for a couple of years.

And then, in 2006, my former undergrad institution - where I had been a faithful supporter of basketball and baseball through NAIA national championships in both sports - promptly killed off its scholarship athletics, allegedly for want of money. And then added football, which put the lie to that rationale, because football is the most expensive sport you can play even if you don’t build a new on-campus stadium. And having fully and utterly disavowed them, I also gave up on the football team of my upbringing, and decided that from now on my personal college allegiance would be given over solely to Vanderbilt, with a loophole for my wife’s California Golden Bears. (The team of my upbringing promptly hired Nick Saban four months later. Ain’t that just about a bitch.)

And honestly, not much changed even after my decision. Baseball was definitely exciting in 2007, but it wasn’t easy to keep up from California. Bowling won a national title, but good luck keeping up with that sport from two time zones away. Basketball had another Sweet 16 run, followed by the breathtaking season in 2008 that crashed and burned against Siena, and I was going up to the city to attend basketball game-watches at Momo’s or Pete’s Tavern, or actually see live games at St Mary’s or in San Jose (the less said about the Murray game the better). And having spent far too much time on California Golden Blogs and Every Day Should Be Saturday, I was shocked and pleased to find an actual Vanderbilt presence on SBNation. It was, of course...Conquer And Prevail. I don’t know the backstory there at all, but it quickly went dark. And then, in the comments of EDSBS, I spied someone’s link to Anchor of Gold.

The reason I have spent over a decade stuck with VandyImport as a handle was because my very first SBNation blog was California Golden Blogs, where I had been imported into the Cal fandom from Vanderbilt, hence the name. If I had it to do over again, I would have come up with something better, but then, it probably would have been badly dated already (probably a stupid reference to the “V Party” or something like that). In any event, VI became a commenter at AoG, and then, after a fiery and spirited defense of Jay Cutler (yeah, yeah, different times), James and Christian took me aside, put me on the masthead, and gave me what Neal Stephenson described in The Diamond Age as “an equity stake in the tribal enterprise.”

This was a bigger deal to me than anyone (me included) realized. Having crashed and burned as a student, I had been re-invented as a supporter. No one questioned the validity of my fandom, no one was looking askance at my failure to show up for a home football game since Notre Dame in 1996 - I was, in the high church phrasing, received back into Vanderbilt. And honestly, it couldn’t have been a better time for it. The onset of Brigadoon, the assembling of the eventual SECT champion basketball team, the first CWS trip for the was the perfect time to be brought in.

Well, you know what happened after that, because it’s pretty much all here over the last eleven years. We lost the Goldfather - a name I will maintain to my dying day I invented on Instagram at the Rogue Tavern party the weekend of the Birmingham Bowl - and his last couple of decisions did kind of come a cropper, even if we loved them in the moment. And then the Malcolm Turner experiment, whose ramifications have yet to fully play out. And along the way, the SEC grew to 14, and now apparently 16, and now the bagman is a “collective” and we’re all paying players over the table, and everyone got an extra COVID year and nobody has to sit out when they transfer any more, and and and...

Somewhere along the way, we gave up on the tribute vice pays to virtue, and replaced the hypocrisy of shamateurism with the most ass-backward professionalization imaginable. No other American sport has this kind of money poured into it with absolutely no regard for competitive balance or financial fair play. The closest thing you’ll find to the modern college football landscape is the Premier League in English football - and like the English variety, college football has landed in a place where only six teams actually matter year-in and year-out. And if you aren’t one of those six, you’re basically an NPC.

The thing is, football has always been the only thing Vanderbilt couldn’t do well at least some of the time. Basketball was a flagship sport for decades, between Roy Skinner and Jim Foster and Eddie Folger and yes, even Kevin Stallings. Baseball...well, that’s a rags-to-riches story that suggests Schnellenberger at Miami more than anything else. From bowling to golf to tennis to cross-country, there have been conference and national titles to go around in the last decade. And all of that, every bit of it, sits on the edge of a knife, because we are on the verge of bending all of major college athletics in the United States to the needs of the twenty biggest football programs and to Hell with everyone and everything else.

A year ago, Vandy United - a quarter-billion dollar injection into an athletic program sorely in need of it - seemed like a possible game changer. Now it feels more like table stakes in a world of NIL collectives and insane TV money sliced ever more thinly. As I said last year, it does very little good to get another $60 million a year if all fifteen of your conference mates are also getting that money, on top of their sixty year head-start in culture, in funding, in fan support and media attention. Vandy United is the biggest and most serious push for Vanderbilt sports in my lifetime, and the net result may well end up being a football team that with their best regular-season record in a century might - might - break into the upper half of a 16-team SEC.

College football was the first sport I loved, before I understood how 1st and 10 worked or what exactly a Wishbone meant. It doesn’t exist any more. I don’t know what this is we have now, but the BCS and CFP have butchered it in the name of finding some One Real True Non-Mythical National Champion. Nobody wanted Missouri in the SEC. Nobody wanted Pittsburgh in the ACC. I assure you nobody wanted UCLA in the Big Ten. But we’ve rushed to make a world of most highly-salable TV properties without regard for history, tradition, regional interest, rivalries or fun. “College football” stopped being fun for me a long time ago. It’s been a long time coming, and yet not a moment too soon: I am done with college football.

But here’s the thing: I am not done with Vanderbilt.

I will continue to follow and support this team - all our teams - whether it’s in the SEC, the Super League, the ACC, the Magnolia League, the Sun Belt or the UAA. My weekends will still be that little bit better for knowing they unexpectedly got over one opponent or another, or that some stone wall left tackle or sure-handed defender or even a surly egocentric quarterback has somehow found their way into that Sunday league. I might even find it in my heart to acknowledge that damned new V, though probably not.

To the class of 2026 and the classes yet to come: It doesn’t matter what kind of bullshit is being ginned up in Bristol or Birmingham or Los Angeles to turn the sport from a Saturday pastime tradition into a fully salable commercial content product. Tune out everything they do to screw it up. I don’t give a tenth of a metric milli-damn about the SEC, or the Super League, or any of the rest of it. I’m not there for college football. I’m there for Vanderbilt. I have an equity stake in the tribal enterprise. So do you.

Anchor Down. Sink the foe. All of them. Forever.