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November 13, 2012"Turning the corner" and "game changer" have been floated around a lot in the last several days following Vanderbilt's recent victory at Ole Miss.
Not only did the Commodores make a thrilling comeback against the Rebels on Saturday- creating a buzz in both living rooms, sports bars and social media- but the win also ensured a second straight bowl trip for a football program that has struggled considerably over the last 60 years.
Praise has come from all over for the Commodores climb from the near abyss at the end of 2010 when the program experienced the sudden retirement of Bobby Johnson that July and the disappointing 1-year interim tenure of Robbie Caldwell, to a program that has been competitive, entertaining and above all, successful in just 23 months.
Vanderbilt enters its final two weeks of the season as likely favorites and a good possibility for an attractive bowl. A strong finish, and the program could be looking at its best win total in over 96 years.
The program is also in unfamiliar waters when it comes to recruiting, ranking as high as 15th nationally while competing against the likes of Alabama, Florida, Florida State, Miami, Michigan, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Southern Cal for prospects. Recruiting is going so well that the program already has a four-star quarterback for the 2014 class in the fold, not to mention two local rising stars in both the junior and sophomore classes.
Other things such as facility upgrades, construction of a new indoor practice complex, flexibility in scheduling and several innovative marketing campaigns have nearly catapulted the Commodore program into a new stratosphere of future possibilities, potentially creating a new identity within the college football world.
But between the wins on both the football field and recruiting landscape, one area in which Vanderbilt still needs improvement seems to be fan support.
The Commodores have sold out a few SEC games this season, and may sell out a third game this weekend when Tennessee comes to town. While it's progress, the attendance still seems to be dependent on other rival fan bases to secure a packed house.
Perhaps even more important, Vanderbilt is still looking for a comparable atmosphere to that of the other 13 Southeastern Conference schools in which the Commodores compete against both every Saturday as well as every recruiting period.
"It's very, very important to have as much black and gold in the stadium as we can on Saturday night," Commodores coach James Franklin said in his Monday press conference. "We've overcome a lot of hurdles since coming here, but that's still one we're still working on. It's been impressive to me, traveling to all these SEC venues and seeing the kind of support everyone has. We need that."
The smallest school within the SEC, and the one with the least positive tradition, Vanderbilt may never have a 70-80,000 seat stadium to fill out or a ingrained mindset passed down since birth for gameday activities like other schools.
That could, however, change with better participation and planning.
The Commodores do have one of the loudest possible stadiums within the conference due to its unique dimensions and field level. Vanderbilt also has a student section that could hold the entire student body on any given Saturday.
Student seating has become a discussion in recent weeks as the Commodores have struggled for early and repetitive attendance over the years. This weekend, as the Commodores get set to take on rival Tennessee inside Vanderbilt Stadium, students will have to make a choice between staying in Nashville to support their Commodores or go home due to Thanksgiving break.
"Things are changing, people shouldn't be making plans. We have a game over Thanksgiving," Franklin said. "The dorms are going to remain open so kids can stay around to support the team. We want to be their plans. If they already made plans, change them. Be here. I might actually take a bullhorn on a golf cart around campus to make sure everyone knows how important it is that they're here to support their team."
Simply attending the game isn't the only thing Franklin and the rest of the Commodores are looking for. Most schools throughout the SEC will have fans inside the stadiums cheering during early walk-throughs and warm-ups. Most will have full student sections eagerly awaiting to chant the school's fight songs, scream at the players or dance to the stadium sound system.
Above all, the fans and students will typically be inside the stadiums within 45 minutes to an hour prior to kickoff. This creates a "big game" feel, an anticipation and a general atmosphere that can not only be attractive to other fans as well as players, but also to perspective recruits that are at the games.
"You just got think about how it is for the players, us coaches, everyone. Think how you as a fan are, when you walk into a stadium, be it high school, college, whatever and it's sold out, it's packed, a bunch of people there. They're screaming, going crazy, passion everywhere. Everyone feeds off of it whether you're in the stands, on the field, or on the sidelines," said Franklin.
"Now imagine that you're a 17-18 year old player. They are the guys that live and breathe it, that care about it day in and day out. If they go to a place and see a bunch of people in the stands that care about what they do, how they play, and all that, it's going to impress them and they are going to want to be a part of it."
Atmosphere can play a huge part in recruiting. Every year, prospects from around the country will take unofficial and official visits to various games throughout the season. It's no surprise that it tends to be the biggest games with the highest amount of atmosphere that will draw the most attention from recruits, both locally, regionally and nationally.
The atmosphere at VU has not been a recruiting tool in the past, and though it's improved over the last two years since Franklin came in, it still needs to improve overall.
A large majority of the Commodores current commitment class should be in town on Saturday. Some prospects, though committed, are still being approached by programs such as Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Ohio State, Wisconsin or even Tennessee.
A good turnout and crowd interaction might not be what guarantees they sign with VU in February, but it wouldn't hurt while those other programs are trying to sell them on playing in front of 80-100,000 crazy fans.
Vanderbilt may not have a 100,000 seat stadium. It may not have an alumni base that is all centrally located within three hours of Nashville, but it does have Nashville and several of the greater middle Tennessee counties that can fill up its 40,000 seat stadium and create the kind of atmosphere that Franklin refers to during six or seven weekends in any given fall. And an active crowd, regardless of size, can help attract many kids, not to mention many other potential fans.
Franklin and his coaching staff have seen the importance of building up the fan base and community. The 40-year old coach has instituted several beliefs and mottos since becoming the head coach nearly two years ago, including Changing the culture and Anchor Down.
One of his most recent mottos has been "VanderBUILD", a obvious movement to build the program through all facets, including fan support.
Vanderbilt creating its own unique atmosphere, one with both an anticipation of the upcoming game and enthused spirit for the program overall, could be another way for the Commodores to take the next step up the competitive evolutionary chain in college football.
Commodore fans made the trek to campus in February to celebrate the school's best signing class in modern history earlier this year.
VU fans packed the house at the Vanderbilt Barnes & Noble bookstore for the football team's uniform unveiling this July. Fans showed their support for the program with various viewing parties around middle Tennessee last weekend, not to mention actual travel to Oxford to witness the win in person.
Fans can pack the house for the Coaches Show every Thursday night during the season to interact with the coach and bond with fellow fans.
So progress is being made, but there's still plenty that the fans can do to help elevate the program to new heights, and the first thing is to show up and show out on Saturdays.