Can Gee's bold plans succeed?

Chancellor Gordon Gee chose to make a national issue of academic/athletic integrity, an area where Vanderbilt has never been deficient. Commodore fans, on the other hand, would far prefer to hear details about his plans to upgrade the school's marquee sports-- which have been missing the mark of "excellence" for what seems like forever. Gee's words and actions were bold-- but putting a winning Vanderbilt football team on the field would make a far bolder statement.

If Chancellor Gordon Gee's aim seven days ago was to draw attention to Vanderbilt and himself, one would have to conclude that he has succeeded wildly. In the week that has followed, Gee's announcement of a restructured athletic department and a "war" on college athletics' jock culture has drawn attention from media outlets around the country. From USA Today to ESPN to National Public Radio, Gee's bold stand has opened a national debate.

Gee said last week that his E-mail has been running around 80 percent positive, and his phone calls were running 50-to-1 that way. But it's safe to say that the response from the nation's sportswriting community has been much more mixed.

To be sure, Gee's ideas have received some impressive endorsements. "It is a major shift in the collegiate sports culture," said NCAA President Myles Brand. "It will be a model for how to embed the operations that have been isolated from the university with similar functions throughout the campus." A prominent USA Today editorial read, "Gee may be a modern-day Don Quixote, but he deserves to be wished well."

But other sources have been less enthusiastic.

"Every family has to have a crazy uncle, and Gee is playing that role for the Southeastern Conference," wrote Ron Higgins of the Memphis Commercial-Appeal. "Gee... is either a genius or a goofus," wrote the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's Wendell Barnhouse. The restructuring has been referred to "grandstanding... a power move" by the Kansas City Star's Blair Kerkhoff, and "self-indulgent" by The Tennessean's David Climer. Radio talk shows have been even more unkind.

Vanderbilt's loyal fan base was initially left wondering whether Gee's fundamental objective was to strengthen the university's sports programs, or dismantle them. The backlash against the controversial initiative was significant enough that Gee and Vice Chancellor David Williams II felt the need to take to the airwaves multiple times later in the week to further explain and defend it.

When Gee arrived on the Vanderbilt campus from Brown University in 2000, longtime Commodore fans could hardly believe their eyes or ears. Where it had once been nigh impossible to locate Gee's predecessor Joe B. Wyatt at a sporting event, it was now almost as impossible to avoid Gee at one. The personable new Chancellor delighted Commodore fans with his refreshing mantra, "Winning begins in my office."

But last week's announcement has forced Black and Gold fans to think about Gee in a new light. Up until Tuesday, he was that fun-loving, bow-tie-wearing figure who remembered everyone's name and showed up to bang the bass drum at ball games. Now, he's banging the drum for academic reform. He's positioned himself not only as a national figure in the eggheads-vs.-jocks war, but also as the one ultimately responsible for Vandy's teams' success or failure.

I'll confess, the announcement initially left this fan shaken and disturbed. I initially thought about sharing my reaction online... but the whole thing was so danged confusing, that I elected to wait until the smoke had cleared. One week afterward, I think I understand it all a little better, and I'm feeling better about it. But a few aspects remain troubling.

Curbing raging abuses is one thing... but the prospect of putting one's own teams and fans at a competitive disadvantage is quite another. Vandy fans are justifiably proud of their teams' spotless reputation for integrity and compliance-- but they also like to win a game occasionally. Surely there's a delicate balance to be struck.

Surely someone should have reread and edited that press release which said Vanderbilt would be combining its varsity sports programs with those of "student recreation and intramurals." The phrasing did nothing but give Vandy's many detractors, in the press and at rival schools, more fodder for snickering.

Gee and Williams tried to reaffirm Vanderbilt's commitment to competing in the SEC and Division I-A, but the damage was already done. Vandy's coaches, who hold the job of selling the school in the homes of recruits, will be fighting that perception for years to come.

Almost buried in the lengthy press release was what amounted to a firing of Todd Turner as Director of Athletics. Vanderbilt fans owe Turner a debt of gratitude, and history will look kindly on the Turner era. He devoted seven years of his life to a noble cause, and was unceremoniously shown the door.

Let's face it, being Vanderbilt's Director of Athletics ain't the easiest job in the world. Turner had gained a high degree of respect throughout the nation and among his fellow AD's. He presided over a period of unprecedented facilities improvement at Vanderbilt, and had brought in some outstanding coaches. (If Gee and Williams succeed right away in bringing a new standard of excellence to Vandy's sports programs, they'll be doing it with Turner's "recruits.")

Fans are left to wonder, what was Turner's unspecified mortal sin? That he once botched the hiring of a women's basketball coach? That he was too reserved? That he made too high a salary in a department that lost money? We'll likely never know. Turner will no doubt land an AD job at another school, possibly in the SEC or ACC. The national movement for academic reform is likely to lose steam without him.

But life goes on. Meanwhile, can a broken-apart, de-centralized Vanderbilt athletic department-- where the various departments housed in McGugin Center now report to corresponding department heads in the central administration-- really make for a stronger athletics department? I don't hold a degree from Owen, but it's hard to see how a nebulous structure like that can make anything stronger.

One thing is certain-- if Vanderbilt is ever going to get its football and men's basketball programs turned around, it's going to require bold, forceful, charismatic leadership from someone at the administrative level. Perhaps Gee thought Turner wasn't providing that, and decided to take on that challenge himself.

Back at home, Vandy's victory-starved fans wonder if the emphasis wasn't on the wrong syllable. Gee chose to make a national issue of academic/athletic integrity, an area where Vanderbilt has never been deficient. Commodore fans, on the other hand, would far prefer to hear details about his plans to upgrade the school's marquee sports-- which have been missing the mark of "excellence" for what seems like forever.

To be sure, Gee's words and actions were bold-- but putting a winning Vanderbilt football team on the field would make a far bolder statement. Until that happens-- until Gee can visibly demonstrate to the world that it's possible to succeed on the field AND run a program with integrity-- his bold words carry little credibility. He's arguing from a position of weakness.

Say this for Gee, he's unwilling to sit on his hands. Ultimately, if his revolutionary ideas restore Vanderbilt sports to a place of prominence within the SEC and nation, and usher in a new era of accountability and respectability for college athletics-- then Gee deserves to be hailed as a trendsetter, a noble innovator and hero.

If, on the other hand, as some have opined, Gee's announcement is merely the first volley in what amounts to a slow withdrawal of Vanderbilt from the SEC and a retreat from Division I sports... then in the end, Gee was no better for Vandy athletics than any of his infamous predecessors. He owes fans more reassurances that that's not the case.

Contact Brent at brent@vandymania.com

Photo of Vanderbilt Chancellor Gordon Gee by Mark Humphrey, Associated Press.


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