If anyone has wondered whether Vanderbilt needs an athletics director, the recent search for a football coach proved that the answer is a definite yes.
Things could have — and should have — gone much more smoothly, not to mention quickly. From the moment that Bobby Johnson retired in July and Robbie Caldwell was named the interim coach, someone — an athletics director, for example — should have started the search process, quietly, of course. Assuming that person is immersed in the world of college athletics, he or she could have contacted peers, reached out to agents, watched and listened.
By the time the decision came that Caldwell was not the right guy for the long term, a list should have been formed. Then, within days of the final game of the season, a replacement should have been in place.
David Williams, Vanderbilt’s Vice Chancellor for University Affairs and Athletics, is not such a person. Athletics is only a part of his job description, and there are multiple days each week when he does not even show up in the university’s athletic offices.
Contrast him with Florida AD Jeremy Foley. It took Foley three days to hire a football coach when Urban Meyer recently announced his retirement. In fairness, Foley’s job opening was an easier sell to prospective candidates than Williams’ was. Still, it was clear that Foley, generally regarded as one of the best in the business, was prepared the moment he needed for a coach.
Within three days after Caldwell’s final game, Williams reached out to an executive search firm to help him identify candidates. So roughly two months before national signing day, Florida recruits didn’t have to wonder about the future of that program, while Vanderbilt recruits endured an extended period of uncertainty in which one person turned down the offer to coach the Commodores and another took several days waiting to receive a finalized deal.
It was September 2003 when then-chancellor Gordon Gee famously eliminated the athletics department at Vanderbilt. The move was designed to accomplish two things: to circumvent the university’s governing board, which was loathe to expand the budget for athletics, and thereby plug the athletics programs into the much greater university budget; and to fire then-athletics director Todd Turner.
Since then, the men’s basketball team has been to the Sweet 16 twice, the baseball team spent the vast majority of one season ranked No. 1, and the football team made its first bowl game appearance in decades. The tennis, golf and lacrosse teams all have made their respective national tournaments — most more than once.
Through it all, Williams has been the primary voice of authority for all matters pertaining to the athletics department while concurrently wearing numerous other hats. To many, that is proof that the Vanderbilt model works, and there is no need for a traditional athletics department and director.
What most people don’t see are the times like November 2007, when the university agreed to hold a professional boxing card at Memorial Gymnasium. Two days before the fights, the men’s and women’s basketball teams’ practices were scheduled to start at the same time — one on the main floor and one in the practice gym. But there was a boxing ring and equipment on the main floor, and Kevin Stallings and Melanie Balcomb were left to sort it out on their own.
Such moments are not uncommon at Vanderbilt, where no one oversees all aspects of athletics on a daily basis. Likewise, there is no one who looks to the future and prepares for what is to come.
This was the first time during his Vanderbilt tenure that Williams had to make a major coaching hire. It was Turner, an athletics director, who brought in Johnson, Stallings, Balcomb and baseball coach Tim Corbin, all of whom were or have been successful in their own ways. Maybe Williams picked the right guy, but an athletics director would have done so much more efficiently.