A typo let Tim Corbin know where Vanderbilt figured in the big picture.
In his first year as baseball coach, Corbin had led the Commodores into the 2003 Southeastern Conference Tournament. The program hadn’t qualified for the league tournament in seven years and it quickly became apparent that Hoover Metropolitan Stadium in Alabama wasn’t used to its presence.
“All the banners were hung up … and Vanderbilt was spelled V-a-n-e-r-b-i-l-t,” Corbin, now in his 11th year, recalled earlier this week. “They didn’t even think about changing it. I told our guys that. It was almost like, ‘OK, they’re only going to be here a couple days so don’t worry about changing it.’ I just like the fact that we’ve kind of moved forward a little bit and maybe gained a little bit of respect.”
Corbin and his baseball program are definitely taken seriously these days. In fact, they present the Commodores’ best shot at winning their first national championship in one of the four major revenue-generating sports — football, men’s basketball, baseball and women’s basketball.
Two years removed from its first trip to the College World Series, Vanderbilt is not only expected to return to Omaha, Neb., but is considered a favorite to leave with a national championship. That title quest begins Friday when the Commodores (51-9), the No. 2 national seed, host an NCAA Regional at Hawkins Field for the third time in program history.
“Who would we be if we don’t win it? We’d still be a damn good [athletics] program I think,” athletics director David Williams said. “If we do win it, it does a lot to say to other people they belong in this club. It would do a lot to send a message to other people. I think it would get them to take notice of something we already know that we’re in the competition, we’re here and you better watch out for Vanderbilt.”
A women’s bowling title in 2007 is the only team national championship in school history. In 1997, Ryan Tolbert claimed an individual national championship in the 400-meter hurdles.
Football has played in only six bowls in 122 years of competition and never has won more than nine games in a season. An Elite Eight in 1965 is as far as the men’s basketball program has gone. The 2011-12 team, with three future NBA draft picks, was believed to be a Final Four contender but failed to make the Sweet 16. The women’s basketball team reached the Final Four in 1993 but hasn’t advanced past the second round since 2009.
Mississippi State and Vanderbilt are the only schools in the Southeastern Conference without a national championship in the four major sports. (From 1959-62, Ole Miss was awarded three football national championships by multiple organizations and shared the titles with several teams, including five in 1960.)
“I’m real pleased with the progress we’ve made,” Williams said. “Here’s the key thing, nobody thinks that we’ve gotten to the highest point we can go right now. Nobody is satisfied with where we are.”
Williams believes the Commodores aren’t far off from hoisting a crown. And it is hard to argue this isn’t the golden era of Vanderbilt athletics.
In Corbin’s 11 years, the program has made an NCAA Regional nine times, including eight straight trips. Before last year, men’s basketball coach Kevin Stallings had led his team into March Madness five of six years, including a school-record three straight. Plus, the 2012 SEC Tournament title (Vanderbilt beat eventual national champ Kentucky) was the program’s first in more than 60 years. The women’s basketball team is one of only eight teams to make the NCAA Tournament every year since 2000.
Then there’s football. James Franklin has taken the Commodores from SEC doormat to two consecutive bowls for the first time in school history. Last year, Vanderbilt went 9-4 for the program’s most wins since 1915.
“I think it is very realistic,” Williams said of winning a major national championship. “If we could go back a number of years and talked about we would have gone to two consecutive bowls, people would have said, ‘No, you’re not. You’re crazy.’ And if we would have said we’re going to have a 9-4 season, ‘Oh man, come on. What are you drinking?’ When you think of it even with the season we had in football, and if you put football as the toughest, we weren’t that far away from being able to play in that championship game. Of course you got to play in it to win it.
“I think every program has the potential.”
Williams admits that wasn’t always the mindset inside and outside of the athletic department.
He recalls running into fans at the grocery store who were wishful of making a bowl game or catching a break against a superior team on a Saturday or just winning “our share.”
Erasing the doubt was the first step and that required coaches with the enthusiasm and passion to recruit and coach top-tier athletes.
“You have to get to the point I believe — this is my philosophy — where you believe in yourself first,” Williams said. “I hate to say it this way but we had to get out of our own way. We had to set our sights to the highest and realize, ‘let’s not get in our way.’ One of the most important things was to have coaches who came in and took those kids to the next level. It not only feeds team to team but it feeds everybody.”
Building top-notch facilities also helps.
Thanks to a huge push from Franklin, a multi-purpose indoor facility is expected to be completed by the end of the year. Both Vanderbilt Stadium and McGugin Athletics Center, which house several sports including the football offices, have witnessed multiple renovations. Ten years ago, Memorial Gymnasium underwent a $25 million renovation.
Hawkins Field, finished in 2002, underwent a huge facelift last summer when the grass was removed in favor of synthetic turf. It was the latest change to a stadium Corbin remembers needing extra bleachers brought in on a U-Haul in order to seat an overflow crowd the first time Vanderbilt hosted an NCAA Regional in 2007.
“Now we’ve got a permanent structure where people can come that are interested and have a care level,” Corbin said. “When something becomes relevant it becomes fun.”
Vanderbilt fans hope fun equals great.
Corbin clearly has given Vanderbilt a national reputation. He has produced eight first-round picks under his watch, most notably reigning American League Cy Young Award winner David Price.
His last two recruiting classes have been ranked the best in the country. This year, his team set an SEC record with 26 wins en route to a regular-season championship and won 50 games for the third time — all in the last seven seasons. Looking ahead, not a lot of drop off is expected for a team with 21 freshmen and sophomores.
But, for once, the Commodore faithful do not have fingers crossed about what might come next year. They hope the long drought ends next month.
“We can definitely play with anyone and we definitely have enough ability to beat anyone,” Corbin said. “It is just a matter of it is not the best team [that wins the national championship] it is the team that plays the best. We’ve got to be the team that plays the best.”