Vanderbilt: Where Myths Need To Die
If you had a nickel for every time a commentator or fan said something to the effect of "Vandy is where coaching careers go to die," you'd be able to pay at least a few months' worth of rent. In today's economy, that's very important. Even before Gus Malzahn reconsidered and turned down the Vandy gig, the internet was alive with chatter about how Auburn's highly-regarded offensive coordinator was making a fatal mistake if he went to Nashville to be the big man. Even though Vanderbilt ponied up big money to lure Malzahn, the architect of Auburn's meteoric rise (and Cam Newton's Heisman season) said "no thanks" when the moment of truth arrived. It's that rejection – much more than James Franklin's acceptance of this post – which will likely linger in the public memory for years to come. The first and last theme to flow from this December drama was that Vandy's not a place where you can win or succeed.
Well, not unless an elite coach takes hold of this program, that is.
If Franklin can take a modest body of work from a modest job in a modest BCS conference and make Vandy a consistent winner, you can serve up a heaping platter of crow to this columnist.
The odds are, though, that you won't be dishing out plentiful servings anytime soon. The odds are that Franklin, the Maryland man, won't be able to change the culture in and around Vanderbilt football. This isn't a close cousin of Gus Malzahn, nor is it a relative of Ken Niumatalolo. No system coach took over for Robbie Caldwell; no gridiron guru with credentials that would make other men quake stepped up to be the skipper of the good ship Vanderbilt. A plain-Jane successor, a figure who inspires little imagination and stirs few souls, will now pilot the Dores on fall Saturdays.
The laughter from the internet is now deafening. Twitter is drowning the VU program in derision. The school's promotion of Facebook in connection to the coaching announcement made the Commodores look very small-fry in nature; ironically, the school's big-bucks offer to Gus Malzahn reflected a mature attitude, but the sad thing in all this is that the outside (college football) world never really changed its view toward Vandy. When the school played a bold bit of hardball, the Vandy job wasn't worth Gus Malzahn's time or commitment. When Vanderbilt struggled to land Franklin and prolonged its search in endlessly exasperating fashion, the Commodores weren't worth anyone's time or energy. The program continued to be seen as a joke, with lots of wisecracks filling the World Wide Web due to the flirtation with Facebook.
Before moving on with this commentary, one must get to the heart of the matter and confront the nasty, insidious element of the saying, "Vandy is where coaching careers go to die." It's hard for a statement to be true when it is either a myth or – at the very least – has not been tested to the extent a lot of outsiders think.
Let's get this point straight: If a career dies, the most important implication to be gleaned is that said career had a bright and vibrant life to begin with. If Gus Malzahn – a bright light in the coaching profession – was viewed to be committing career suicide this past Sunday, when he was certainly contemplating VU's offer, the larger point of the anti-Vandy chorus is that the program kills previously prominent or promising coaching careers. That's so much bunk. It's a shame that people are allowed to get away with such a reckless and irresponsible line of argumentation.
Tell me: Was Watson Brown an elite coach? What about Gerry DiNardo? How about Woody Widenhofer? Even Bobby Johnson – for all that he achieved in Nashville – was not an all-world superstar-coach-in-the-making when he took over at Vanderbilt. Robbie Caldwell filled Johnson's seat for one year, and he was no ubermensch in his own right. None of those men were ever distinguished to begin with.
The point is painfully obvious: Vanderbilt isn't a coach-killing job because no elite coaches or coordinators have ever taken the risk of coaching here.
It's not as though coaches don't get a fair chance to win at Vandy; this isn't a three-years-or-else program. This isn't a quick-hook kind of coaching stop. You will get your shot to turn things around, and you won't be cut up the way Mark Richt is being sliced and diced at Georgia, despite making three Sugar Bowls after the program's 20-year absence from the big-time bowl spotlight. However, no coach has been willing to take his stature and attendant political capital to Vanderbilt.
Steve Spurrier took a huge personal and professional risk by going to South Carolina, but now that he's won the SEC East, his already-decorated coaching career looks so much better as a result. Vanderbilt almost had a Spurrier-like figure emerge as its new coach, but now, the Dores are still waiting for a truly respected figure to take hold of the program with high-wattage intelligence and electric charisma. Vandy was just about to get a man who craved the opportunity to do something big at a place where it had never been done before (like Spurrier in Columbia with the Gamecocks), but now, the Dores have been rejected… not only by the brightest minds in the sport, but by a public that plainly doesn't respect the effort put forth to try to land Malzahn. The discussion points never really changed; Vanderbilt was damned when it acted boldly, and it was damned when it made a fool out of itself over the following four days. Vanderbilt was looked upon as a dead-end coach-killing job this past Sunday, and it was viewed in the exact same manner when Franklin's hire was finally confirmed on Thursday night.
Is this anything other than predictable? No. Does this make the whole soap opera any less depressing? Heck, no. It's a tough time to be a Vanderbilt football fan at a time like this, and to understand why this past week has hurt so deeply, one needs to realize why coaches keep passing up this program in a cowardly manner.
Perhaps it's more of a minority opinion than it should be; perhaps it's not the main motivation for most Americans; perhaps it's not the conventional frame or prism through which one is conditioned to see the world. However, the verdict from this vantage point is that it's a special thrill – and the greatest potential satisfaction – to take on the toughest job in any field (not just on the football field) and succeed in spite of the odds.
It's uniquely intoxicating and – if the cards fall right – supremely historic to be the man who does something that hasn't been done before. The heights of professional achievement await the coach or the NFL player who wins at the highest level in a place where winning is a foreign entity. The most praiseworthy hosannas await the college recruit who takes a nothing program and turns it into something. Either in professional team sports or college ball, it should be seen as a much-desired opportunity to be a pioneer or a trailblazer in a previously barren landscape. Yes, most people in American sports don't take this road, but they should. What is a life without risk-taking, after all?
If you're a college basketball recruit, why would you go to North Carolina or Kentucky when you can be remembered throughout history as the man who enabled Northwestern to make its first-ever NCAA Tournament? Why wouldn't you want to be that lauded figure, remembered forever in the history books and in the community of Chicago?
If you're an NFL free-agent wide receiver, why not go to the Cleveland Browns or the Detroit Lions so that you can be remembered throughout history as the man who helped one of those two franchises reach its first-ever Super Bowl? You'll have free meals (ethically, too…) in either city for life if you do that. Why not reach for the stars?
If you're a baseball player, why not help the Seattle Mariners finally reach their first World Series, or enable the Chicago Cubs to break their 102-year title drought? Do you realize the adulation that awaits you if you succeed?
And, if you're a brilliant mind in the world of college football, why wouldn't you want to see if you can make Vanderbilt football a regular winner in the Southeastern Conference? Why NOT Vanderbilt? Why shy away from odds when you can taste history and be revered by a community for generations after you retire?
Does it cut against conventional wisdom to want the head-coaching job at Vanderbilt? Yes. For those very same reasons, is it admirably gutsy and onion-rich in nature to harbor that desire? You bet it is.
Maybe one day, an elite coordinator – a hot commodity in the coaching business – will actually crave a challenge. Isn't that the point of competition? Maybe one time in the not-too-distant future, a talented individual will realize that Vanderbilt – like other low-profile schools in power conferences – is an attractive job.
Naturally, the elite schools are the prettiest girls at the prom, but the moment anything goes wrong in those kinds of relationships, you're in for a big boatload of drama. Vanderbilt, on the other hand, is the young woman whose beauty is not as obvious, but whose smarts and wit make the ideal life partner. With a woman like Vanderbilt, you will be pushed and stretched as a man; you'll be forced to be a better person, but you'll be so much more fulfilled and content once you've run the race. It's a huge challenge to coach at VU, but that's how personal growth and lifelong fulfillment emerge: over an extended period of time, without excessively ravenous demands from an impatient lover, and in a comparatively low-stress environment to boot.
James Franklin is the new man in Vanderbilt's football life. It's really too bad that the bigger names in college football didn't view the Commodores to be worthy of their talents. It's their loss and their cowardice. Unfortunately, Vandy has to absorb the stomach punch as well.
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