"Vandy can't win a NCAA tournament game. They're too white."
Those words, spoken last March by Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan, are now infamous to most Vanderbilt basketball fans. The misguided journalist's words garnered plenty of local attention and some national attention, and four months later Commodore fans still haven't forgotten.
Sadly, it was not the first time we have heard this, or that someone has put forth this perception regarding Vanderbilt's basketball team. We even heard it recently from VU grad George Plaster on his local radio talk show. (Plaster didn't say that VU was "too white," but he did say that Vanderbilt needed to make more of an effort to attract "the black athlete".)
I understand where Plaster is coming from-- but he would do well to come up to speed with recent happenings not only with Vanderbilt's basketball team, but with Vanderbilt University.
One of the reasons many people are so looking forward to the coming basketball season is the stellar incoming freshmen class. Whether it happened as the result of a "concentrated effort" or by default, four of Vandy's five 2004 signees are of African-American heritage. Additionally, Labraun Andrews, a walk-on transfer that had to sit out a year last season, will be eligible to play on the team this fall.
Vanderbilt will have Corey Smith (a possible team captain), Mario Moore (the fans' pick as team leader) and Julian Terrell along with these newcomers, giving Vanderbilt eight basketball players who happen to be black. The following season, Virginia transfer Derrick Byars will be eligible to play, and a quick glance at prospective recruits for the 2005 signing class suggests there will continue to be a steady stream of African-American basketball players coming through the VU pipeline.
Why, one may ask, do there seem to be more African-American players now than in recent years? Sure, Memorial Maniacs have cheered on storied players like Perry Wallace (the SEC's first black basketball player), Charles Davis, Hutch Jones, Barry Booker, Derrick Wilcox, Eric Reid, Ronnie McMahan, Pax Whitehead, Atiba Prater, and current VU assistant James Strong through its storied history. Still, for whatever reason, this does appear to be the first time in history that Vanderbilt's team will be more than 60% African-American.
Is it by design, or is it because of the right young men are making key decisions in their life, and Vanderbilt is opening up the opportunity for them?
Maybe it does indeed have something to do with one of Vanderbilt's top assistants and chief recruiter, Jeff Jackson-- a well-respected and committed man, who searches for the best players for Vanderbilt. And yes, Mr. Jackson is a black man himself.
As a matter a fact, possibly the most important man in Vanderbilt athletics at the moment is Vice Chancellor David Williams II. This accomplished lawyer / educator has become Vanderbilt's de facto Athletic Director over the past year.
Williams wears many hats at VU, and one is that of adviser for the VU Black Student Alliance (a multi-racial organization designed to provide support in academics, provide political support, and increase the enrollment and retention of African-American students, faculty, and staff). Also, "The House", the Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center, has undertaken a grand renovation, and expansion is set to be completed soon.
Largely by design, Vanderbilt has become more diverse than ever, and at a small private university of about 6,000 enrollment, the difference is noticeable. Contrary to what some may think, VU accepts the best students of any race, creed, or religion. Chancellor Gordon Gee has said that the University's goal is to not just make a campus where diversity is a parallel experience, but rather to make a "cross-stitched" community.
Times are, and really have been, changing at Vanderbilt University in all spheres, including athletics.
Maybe soon the perception of Vanderbilt by outsiders, both local as well as national, will change as well.
Jesse Johnson is a lifelong fan of Vanderbilt sports.
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