The season was finally almost here. I had grown weary of scouring magazines, media guides and scouting reports. Tired of all those stories about Bobby Johnson. Tired of reading about the switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 (or was it the other way around?).
It was time to talk to someone with a truly objective opinion. Time to check in with Vandy Lance.
"Haaaw man, I'm excited!" wailed Lance, in a drawl that's not quite as pronounced as Jerry Clower's. "We've got us a coaching staff now that is serious about it. They're not promising the moon right now, but I'm gonna tell you what, they're going to promise effort.
"Have you been to a practice yet this year?" continues Lance, who's been to several. "They get after it. It's all in-your-face stuff out there, buddy. I guarantee you.
"There ain't no golf carts out there any more."
For the one or two Commodore fans who may not know him, "Vandy" Lance Smith is the undisputed No. 1 Vanderbilt fan in the universe. The title was retired a few years back. If you've ever sat near Lance during a football or basketball game, you know. He's loud, he's obnoxious, he's wickedly hilarious. He's a one-man home-court advantage. He's the epitome of a devoted fan.
Or perhaps you've heard his ubiquitous voice on the Commodore Call-in show, or on Nashville talk radio stations. While typically caller after caller blathers on about the Vols or Titans, Lance occasionally breaks the boredom by dialing up the hosts to preach a little Commodore gospel.
Lance is fearless-- the trees in his yard are commonly rolled with orange toilet paper after a loss to Tennessee. But what sets Lance apart from the average fan is his unwavering optimism. Some folks might be discouraged after a 2-9 season and a fire-the-coach kind of year. Some fans find it difficult to get fired up about a football team that's a consensus pick for the SEC East basement. Not Lance. Not ever.
How widespread is Lance's fame? Reporters for other SEC schools often contact him to do human-interest stories. Amazingly, Bobby Johnson, who had lived his whole life in South Carolina until last December, was familiar with Vandy Lance long before accepting the Vanderbilt job.
"He told me he had heard me on the old 1510 WLAC Sports Scene," said Lance. "That station would go out to about 32 states. He knew who I was before he met me.
"Yeah, he knows to shake my hand. He knows I'm gonna be here whether he ever wins another game or not."
Meanwhile Melanie Balcomb was also familiar with Lance before she accepted the head coaching job for women's basketball last May.
"She knew who I was for the way I acted when they were in our gym last year," laughs Lance. "When I first met her, she called her assistant coach over and pointed to me and said, 'There he is!' She said I literally moved their offense out ten feet on the court. I'm on the front row, and every time they got the ball in the corner, I'd holler at her.
"She said I moved that girl about five or ten feet away from the sideline. They had to change their offense because of me."
The stereotypical perception some outsiders may hold of Vanderbilt fans-- stuffy, elite, well-to-do, highbrow-- just doesn't wash with the down-to-earth Lance. A graduate of Antioch High School-- "the alma mater of future star Mario Moore," he brags-- Lance never took a single class at Vanderbilt. He speaks with a pronounced Nashville drawl, and refers to strangers as "Bubba". He loves to hunt and fish. He is now in his 25th year of driving a delivery truck for United Parcel Service.
His devotion to Vanderbilt athletics can be traced back to games he attended as a young boy with his father, who passed away two years ago. Lance's first football game 33 years ago was a memorable one-- the night game when Watson Brown quarterbacked the Commodores to a stunning upset of Alabama and Bear Bryant.
Lance has seen football coaches come and go, and he's gotten to know them all-- Bobby Johnson is the ninth coach in Lance's lifetime of fanatical fandom. Despite the prevailing low expectations for Johnson's Commodores, Lance's excitement for the 2002 season has been building for weeks. He was overwhelmed by the turnout three weeks ago at Dore Jam, Vanderbilt's annual Fan Day. Nearly 5,000 showed up.
"We've never had that many people," exclaims Lance. "I got there 30 minutes early, and we had a line that stretched all the way up past the old soccer fields. Usually you can be there 30 minutes late for Fan Day and walk right in.
"It's really exciting. Vanderbilt spent some money on those practice fields, thanks to John Rich and the Ingram family."
Lance keeps up with all of the latest scoop on Bobby Johnson's recruiting too.
"We've got five commitments right now, and it ain't even September yet," he says excitedly. "Hey, they've turned down Michigan State. They've turned down Notre Dame. They ain't turning down Duke, they ain't turning down Furman! They're turning down these big schools 'cause we're selling them on Vanderbilt.
"And we're gonna educate 'em too." He's on a roll now. "That's what it's gonna take. It's about recruiting. We've had some decent coaches here in the past. You can lead the horse to the water, but the horse's going to have to drink the water. They're going to have to do the tackling and the hitting and the throwing. The only thing the coach can do is tell them where to throw it and tell them who's supposed to catch it.
"Hey, we're gonna have to recruit a couple of years-- but that's OK. I'm not expecting the Sugar Bowl this year... matter of fact, if we win four games, I'm gettin' me a goalpost!
"But it's still Vanderbilt. We still do it the right way. 'Course we're dealing with a bunch of cheaters.
"But hey. They've spent a lot of money. You don't spend money like that and not be dedicated. Gordon Gee-- that's where it starts.
"I'm excited. I really am."
By the time you finish talking with Vandy Lance, you're ready to go out and knock somebody into next week.
Lance, you are going to make it to Atlanta for the opener, aren't you?
"You better believe it, Bubba."