Vanderbilt is going to its second bowl in four years. Its new head coach immediately turned the program around after two really dismal seasons that somewhat inexplicably followed the previous bowl trip. Three months out from National Signing Day, Vandy's commitment list is ranked in the top 25 nationally by Rivals and ESPN. Plenty of other programs are on the prowl for young, energetic head coaches right now.
So what does Vanderbilt do? This.
In short, Vanderbilt made a very public commitment to winning in football that we seldom see from the school.
Vanderbilt has lots of wealthy alumni, a huge endowment, and large revenue from the SEC's TV contracts. It has money. Maybe it doesn't have Texas money, or Florida money or Alabama money when it comes to regular athletic department revenues. But it has money. The ghost of the Commodore himself would expect nothing less.
What it has seemed to lack the will to field a consistent winner. It's not a new phenomenon; Vandy hasn't been consistently competitive since the days before the Southeastern Conference existed. Its fifth bowl appearance this season means it will only be nine bowl appearances behind Kentucky for 11th place out of 12 in the SEC. Its stadium is the smallest in the league with an official capacity of under 40,000. When it does sell out, opposing fans make up half or more of the crowd more often than not.
It's not hard to understand how the situation got to be this way. The deck is stacked against Vanderbilt, the SEC's sole small private university. It has the highest academic standards in the conference, and indeed among the highest in I-A football, so it cannot recruit a lot of the players that go on to star at other programs. The gap has widened over the years too; I don't know the exact numbers, but I wouldn't be surprised if at this point UF graduates more students per year than Vandy has enrolled.
However if Stanford can win 11 games in back-to-back years and Northwestern can find a coach to get the program to a bowl annually and Duke can tie for a conference title once in the last 50 years, why can't Vandy? I don't know if James Franklin is the guy who can get them there, but he looks a lot more promising than some of the coaches they used to hire. Bobby Johnson did yeoman's work laying a solid foundation there, and through one year at least, it looks like Franklin can build on it.
And why not now? The SEC's contracts give the school enough money to start making these moves, and it's likely that the addition of Texas A&M and Missouri will result in even higher annual payouts for everyone. Vanderbilt Stadium won't resemble Bryant-Denny any time soon, but the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
Vandy took several good steps forward today. The administration finally seems committed to end VU's status as the conference's perennial doormat. I'm sure there will be more 2-10 to 4-8 seasons in the program's future, but that can become more the exception than the rule. It's up to Franklin to continue the momentum he's building and for Vandy fans to dial up their support of the program likewise.