For much of the country, Vanderbilt’s rise to the middle of the Southeastern Conference over the past couple seasons is a nice story.
After all, there is no shortage of folks who like to root for the underdog. The bigger the better, in fact, and the Commodores traditionally rate as something of a Great Dane of underdogs. Factor in the academic demands, and there is a lot to like about Vanderbilt’s storyline.
Yet there are examples — an increasing number, in fact — of how Vanderbilt’s improvement has closed the book on coaching tenures as well.
Just last week Kentucky fired its coach, Joker Phillips, the day after a 40-0 loss to the Commodores. It was a little over a year ago that Ole Miss canned Houston Nutt fewer than two months after his team lost 30-7 in the first conference game for the new VU coaching staff.
The carnage is not likely to stop any time soon either.
It’s been a foregone conclusion for weeks that Gene Chizik won’t make it to next season at Auburn. Part of the problem is that this year his team lost 17-13 to Vanderbilt. There is talk at Army (a 44-21 loser last season) that coach Rich Ellerson will suffer a similar fate, although a recent loss to winless Eastern Michigan was particularly damning.
With the University of Tennessee headed to town this weekend, it seems safe to wonder how much time the Volunteers’ 27-21 overtime victory last Nov. 19 in Knoxville bought Derek Dooley. Had that thing gone differently, he might have been long gone long ago.
The point is this: Everyone likes to have an opponent on the schedule they feel like they can kick around. For years and years and years that opponent was Vanderbilt, which as the joke goes is one of the nation’s all-time leaders in homecoming games.
When that expected easy victory doesn’t happen, boosters, alumni and university presidents feel like the best thing to do is to kick their coach to the curb.
The undesired result, in their view, can’t be because Vanderbilt has made steady progress toward respectability over the past decade or so under three different head coaches. It can’t be because the overall talent level and depth of the program have improved, or that the belief level within the locker room hasn’t been this high for almost three-quarters of a century.
A bowl victory following the 2008 season signaled a change, but no one wanted to believe it. Thus, they still can’t believe when their team actually falls to the Commodores.
Brian Reese, the athletics director at Presbyterian College, might be the only one with real perspective in the wake of such a defeat, in his case 58-0 back on Sept. 15.
Football Championship Subdivision programs such as Presbyterian used to schedule Vanderbilt as a “what-if” game. That is to say, they looked at the contest and thought “What if everything goes right and we get a couple breaks?” The hope was they might actually pull a shocker.
That probably was the case for Presbyterian as well, but when it did not happen — or even come close to happening — Reese didn’t sweat it. As the final seconds counted down on that contest, he stood behind the end zone and remarked how much size and speed Vanderbilt has these days. It was clear to him why the final score was what it was.
Reese, of course, was the director of football operations under Bobby Johnson in addition to several other roles he filled in eight years along West End Avenue. So it was clear to him just how far the program has come.
If others don’t figure it out soon, there’s no telling how many coaches will lose their jobs in the coming years.