Vanderbilt will wrap up its regular season this afternoon when Wake Forest visits what was once known as Dudley Field.
I doubt the game will attract the 40,000 needed to fill Vanderbilt Stadium.
There are some extenuating circumstances: Students are away on Thanksgiving break, shoppers are scrounging for Black Friday leftovers, football fans are heating up the Thanksgiving leftovers while getting ready for the Iron Bowl, it’s too cold...
But I suspect that even if it were a normal fall weekend, Vanderbilt fans would stay away in droves. That’s not true. Because there would have to be a lot of Commodore boosters to start with.
James Franklin has done what many of us thought we would never see in our lifetimes – Vanderbilt football becoming successful year in and year out. He’s cocky in some circles, but he has a confidence and charisma I haven’t seen in a Commodore coach.
In short, he has the IT factor.
So why is it Franklin has had to beg the Nashville community and bribe students to come to Commodore games?
Seems to me back 30-40 years ago the Nashville media generally gave Vanderbilt and Tennessee equal play. Outside of Nashville was painted more Big Orange, but inside the city the allegiances were more even.
UT was mediocre in many of those years while Vandy was generally bad.
George MacIntyre coached the Commodores to eight wins and a bowl game in 1982 and it seemed to me then the Nashville community was genuinely excited about the team.
Fans filled the then-new Vanderbilt Stadium and bowl committees were excited to court the Commodores, whose supporters would flock to wherever they played.
MacIntyre’s team couldn’t sustain the success and his successors couldn’t bring it back.
Meanwhile, Johnny Majors was gradually building the Vols back to an SEC contender which eventually upset Miami in the Sugar Bowl. He had UT on the verge of being a national championship contender before he was fired. His successor, Phillip Fulmer, got the Big Orange Ship back on course to the first BCS championship.
Vanderbilt, meanwhile, was capsized and couldn’t get back on course. While fans were frustrated over football, they turned out to pack Memorial Gym to watch the teams of C.M. Newton and Eddie Fogler make runs deep into the NCAA tournament.
I’ve always maintained Gerry DiNardo did damage to Vandy football which Franklin is still trying to repair today. On the field, DiNardo was probably the most successful coach between the eras of MacIntyre and Bobby Johnson, whose ‘Dores finally beat Tennessee and later got back to a bowl. DiNardo’s teams did neither, but they did finish a season or two just a game below .500 and seemingly on the verge of turning the corner.
But DiNardo tried to turn up the heat on the rivalry with Tennessee by banning orange from the premises and referring to the Vols only as “That team to the East”.
In short, he demanded fans support one school or the other. Those fair-weather fans who rooted for both teams before picking one in the season-ending game were no longer welcome.
That was a mistake. This wasn’t Alabama where people don’t have a choice to root for Alabama and Auburn before picking one for the Iron Bowl. It’s all in for one or the other. But in Tennessee, the Big Orange and the Black and Gold could translate into green at the West End box office.
But when DiNardo said the Big Orange wasn’t welcome on West End, it didn’t take a Vanderbilt education to figure out more fans without a deep connection to either school were going to go with the state university that was winning.
Meanwhile, DiNardo’s secretary drank her boss’s Kool-Aid and got into an altercation with UT fans who dared to sit near her while the Vols were wiping out the Commodores 65-0 in what turned out to be his final game on West End.
Vandy returned to the doldrums and soon the Titans came to town to shrink the Commodores’ share of the media pie. Hard economic times in recent years haven’t helped, either.
Nearly two decades after DiNardo’s ultimatum, Franklin is trying to repair the damage.
To be fair, others also deserve success in Vandy’s football turnaround. Previous coaches had to deal with administrations which weren’t particularly friendly to athletics. That changed with Gordon Gee, the whacky chancellor who abolished the traditional athletic department but transferred David Williams over to oversee it.
Williams hired Franklin and kept baseball’s Tim Corbin and basketball’s Kevin Stallings and Melanie Balcomb around for years after it was feared the school was going to de-emphasize athletics. He’s done it by raising money to upgrade facilities, salaries and budgets. Across the board, Vanderbilt sports have never been more successful.
But football coaches who win at places like Vanderbilt become in demand at places like, well, Tennessee, which isn’t in the market for a new coach right now with Butch Jones just finishing his first season.
Fans who want an in-person look at Franklin and his team may ought to head over to Vanderbilt Stadium today before he turns up on TV coaching somewhere else in the near future.