NASHVILLE, TENN — Crammed between the Bulldogs of Athens, Ga., and the Gators of Gainesville, Fla., Vanderbilt University's golden Commodores have, frankly, been out of their league in the football-crazed Southeastern Conference (SEC). [Editor's note: The original version misidentified the home of the Florida Gators.]
Perennial losing underdogs, the team often arrives at its own stadium to find it awash in Volunteer Orange or Roll Tide Red, a morale-buster that has played into a dismal 64-179-1 record since the squad's last winning season in 1984. It's the only SEC team not to get a bowl berth in the past two decades.
But thanks to a bow-tied chancellor who seems to take his fashion cues from Orville Redenbacher, a crackerjack quarterback, and the memory of a fallen teammate, Vanderbilt, sometimes called the "Harvard of the South," is now an egghead squad with brawn. With its best start in 21 years, even after losing a nail-biter to Middle Tennessee State 17-15 Saturday, the Commodores, at 4-1, are suddenly at the top of the heap in the SEC East.
It all happened not by lowering admission standards, but by a decision to recast Vanderbilt football - to the horror of SEC stalwarts - basically as an intramural sport and to reward a losing coach for his good attitude.
In so doing, the school scrapped the athletic department's annual $30 million budget. But under the new plan, college athletics now have direct access to the school's multibillion-dollar endowment, which has actually increased the number of sports and resulted in $56 million worth of sports facility upgrades. [Editor's note: The original version mischaracterized where Vanderbilt University made budget cuts.]
Since then, the football team has gone from the perennial underdog to the squad everyone seems to love. It also offers a poignant counterpoint to how many big-time football programs are structured and what it really takes to compete.
"It's got to be gratifying for Vandy to now experience some winning and maybe be held up as a model because of it," says Peter Robey, director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston.
Past disappointments run deep at a school that has just over 6,200 undergraduates in a 12-team conference where the average enrollment is 23,500. Coaches who've come in hoping to revamp the program usually have left by their third season. And once-hopeful freshmen are ready to cut ties by the time they graduate.
They've had to squeeze some lemonade out of the fact that the school leads the SEC in the number of footballers who actually graduate (90 percent) and that it regularly fields strong soccer, basketball, tennis, and golf squads. Yet that's shallow comfort to fans, who have found other sports-watching options in the Music City: the NFL's Tennessee Titans and the NHL's Nashville Predators.
"Vanderbilt football has declined and declined and declined after so many years of utter desperation, dejection, and any other adjective you want to put in there," says veteran Nashville sports columnist Joe Biddle.
So it was with scoffing skepticism that sportswriters considered Chancellor Gordon Gee's decision to fold university sports into the academic budget. And while it would have been heresy at a school like Florida or Michigan, Mr. Gee not only gave coach Bobby Johnson, who had won just six games in three years, a new contract, but also a raise.
It all didn't fit a heavyweight conference that filled 98 percent of its seats last year and drew over 5.8 million pigskin-crazy fans, especially as the team continued to lose late-quarter heartbreakers.
Yet this year, Vandy has put away Wake Forest, Arkansas, Richmond, and Ole Miss. Seeing such success, critics of "corporate" college football have found a new reason to question the necessity of sequestering big football budgets from academic programs.
"[Big football] schools don't want to have to compare budgets and salaries of the athletic side to the academic side, so they hide it behind a facade of a totally independent entity, and that's disingenuous," says Mr. Robey.
But SEC commissioner Mike Slive disagrees. "It's great for all of us to see them win and compete," he says, but "while this may work for Vandy, it's a way of administering a program that may not work for a program that's much larger."
Gee, former president of football factories Ohio State University, Colorado, and West Virginia, admits that Vanderbilt is "spiritually attuned to academics more than athletics," but that his decision was a philosophical one, meant to challenge the status quo. "A separate football program is a waste of energy and money. We need to put a cap on this arms race," he says while watching the game with the plant operations crew.
Gee has become more than the program's architect. He's also its head cheerleader, sometimes beating on drums in the bandstand and sending congratulatory notes to players, all in an effort to raise enthusiasm - and fund-raising - on campus. "I haven't seen Gordon make a play yet, but I was impressed by his ability to come bounding out of the stands at Wake Forest, two steps at a time, his bow-tie twirling around," says Mr. Biddle.
To be sure, fans put more of this year's success on poised quarterback Jay Cutler, whose decision to stay at Vandy instead of joining the NFL draft has had a big impact on the locker room. He returned just a few weeks after the shooting death of running back Kwane Doster last December.
But even with a stadium filled with gold Saturday, a fired-up MTSU won with a dramatic blocked field-goal attempt that would have sealed the game for Vandy with three seconds to go. Suddenly fans fear another heartbreak season. The team will be tested as the schedule gets tougher starting next Saturday with an ESPN broadcast primetime bout against conference rival Louisiana State University.
"Whether we're playing the lowest ranked team or the national champion, we're going to put ourselves in a position to win," says Mr. Cutler.