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December 2, 2010

Coach search will require use of the ''F'' Word

Former Commodore football coach Bobby Johnson had a no cussing rule. But that didn't stop him or everyone around the program from using the "F" word.

Not the four letter one. The 10 letter one. F-A-C-I-L-I-T-I-E-S.



For decades, Vanderbilt's football coaches have been promised the world, but were delivered a few buckets of paint and a slap on the back. The Commodores' fight song is Dynamite; most fans wish they'd use some to blow up the stadium and start over.

Dark, dingy and decidedly uninspiring, Vanderbilt Stadium is a relic of times long gone by in SEC land. It's hardly the kind of jewel that makes fans' hearts pound, to say nothing of the collective yawn that potential recruits let out when they get their tour on official visits.

Vanderbilt's game day atmosphere has been the butt of jokes for as long as they have struggled through 41 losing seasons in the last 53. Despite having just 41,448 seats -- by far the smallest in the conference -- Vanderbilt rarely fills it. Even less so with its own fans.

This year, many SEC games had more opposing fans than home fans. Including Vanderbilt's game against recent national champion Florida, and arch-rival Tennessee. It wasn't even close. Their fans appeared to out-number Vanderbilt's by at least 3-to-1.

Vanderbilt Stadium is what it is, and that is clearly a big problem for the school's hopes to be as competitive in football as they now are in baseball and basketball. The discussion of the "F" word is one that has hung over that program for decades.

Historically, Vanderbilt has fallen back on the excuse that essentially says, "Fill up the current stadium and then we'll talk about building a new one." But to fill the stadium, any stadium, you have to have a winning program. And to have a winning program, especially in the SEC, you have to have competitive recruiting classes. And to have competitive recruiting classes...well, you get the picture.

So the question is, which comes first: The stadium or the fans? Winning or recruits? The topic is front and center yet again, now that the school is making its first football coaching change in a decade. There can be no doubt that inquiring coaching candidates want to know what the school is committed to do to bring SEC-level football facilities to Vanderbilt University. Can Vanderbilt truly hope to attract the best and the brightest football coach if there's an elephant in every top recruit's living room?

When the school renovated its McGugin Center facilities, it announced a Four Phase plan to upgrade Vanderbilt Stadium. The total price tag at that time was estimated at $50 million, and the first three phases are now complete. But it's the fourth phase -- a north end zone facility -- that looms large, if only because that's the kind of improvement that would be impossible for fans, recruits and the media to overlook.

According to Vanderbilt's web site, that final phase includes "Construction of additional seating, football offices, locker rooms, recruiting facilities, hospitality facilities, and indoor/outdoor luxury suites
in north end zone, with relocation of JumboTron, addition of high-quality synthetic playing surface on Dudley Field." But the web site also states that these additions are scheduled for 2011...and includes the word "planned."

And if you're a football coach on West End, that's another four-letter word that you're plenty used to hearing. Plans are one thing. Doing is another. A north end zone facility could finally put to rest one of the most hated topics in all of Vandy athletics for decades. The question is, will it happen -- and must it happen for Vanderbilt to sign, seal and deliver one of its most desired head coaching candidates?

Baseball, basketball are models to follow

VU knew what it would take to make its baseball program competitive in the SEC. When the school "got serious" about competing in baseball, they rallied support (especially the financial kind) to build what was at the time arguably the nicest baseball park in the SEC. Since then, other SEC schools have upped the ante, and many believe because VU upped it first.

And when Auburn and Tennessee responded with new and updated facilities, respectively, Vanderbilt responded by building an outfield seating area that put another 600 seats in The Hawk's capacity.

And that's in a sport that isn't considered revenue-producing. Call it an arms race if you must, but Vanderbilt "got it," and got it right. And yet, literally within the shadow of Hawkins and Memorial sits Dudley Field. What about the cash cow of college athletics? Is it realistic to believe that Vanderbilt's football coaches can successfully recruit against any BCS-level program with facilities that are unarguably worse than those at competing programs?

Obviously, Vanderbilt felt that state-of-the-art playing facilities were a non-negotiable if they hoped to compete in baseball or basketball. So they made the commitment that went beyond words and beyond promises. They rallied support and raised the money, and built Facilities.

Tim Corbin got Hawkins Field, along with a team clubhouse, plus batting and pitching facilities. Corbin took his program from the bottom to the top of the SEC, due in large part to his ability to sign elite pro prospects like Pedro Alvarez, Ryan Flaherty, Jason Esposito and Sonny Gray.

Kevin Stallings got a renovated Memorial Gym, with a spectacular new locker room and media facility. Now, his staff is making recruiting inroads never before seen in the basketball program, signing blue chippers from as near as Gallatin to as far away as Sydney, Australia.

Bobby Johnson? He got a new entrance, colorful banners (that promoted players in all sports) and a logo painted on the back of the press box. The locker rooms are terrible by any standard, especially those used on game day at Dudley Field. There are holes in the ceiling, cold metal lockers fit for an inner city YMCA, and white boards that look like they were borrowed from one of Peabody's old classrooms.

You want to interview Kevin Stallings after a game, you're escorted into a private, soundproof, and well-lit press room just steps from the media work room.

Interview Robbie Caldwell and you are (literally) pushing desks to the side of a McGugin classroom with garish overhead lighting and sitting in folding chairs.

And then there's the lighting. One would think that, if anything, the school would ensure that photos and video shot at the games would put the program in the best possible light.

But when the school expanded its seating capacity, it failed to consider lighting it. There are no overhead lights in either the north or south end zone, and two of the major lighting trusses on the west side are partially blocked by the press box.

As a result, it takes a photography and Photoshop expert to get publishable photos of any night game. Couple that with the fact that Vanderbilt often wears all black uniforms at night, and it's easy to see why photographers absolutely hate shooting night games at Vanderbilt Stadium.

Compare the basketball and baseball player facilities to football, and there is simply no comparison. It's almost as if two different schools created them.

The reality is, that's not commitment to any 18 year old that is shopping scholarships from Tennessee, Kentucky, or South Carolina. It really doesn't even cut it going against Stanford or Northwestern.

And it sure won't say the right things to potential hot coaching candidates.

Morrow: Former players need to step up

Nate Morrow, a star linebacker at Vanderbilt during the Widenhofer era, remembers making his official visit to campus. He remembers walking through the south tunnel of the stadium, and he clearly remembers what happened next.

"I remember in the summer of 1997 they took our freshmen class out to the stadium and told us it would be enclosed by the time we left. Obviously, that did not happen."

Ouch.

For a school looking to make a dramatic turnaround in football, that's not the kind of support potential coaching candidates want to hear.

"These are 18 year old kids, and no matter how much you want to believe otherwise, facilities is what they want to see when they visit. These facilities are where coaches and student athletes spend many hours, and they want them to be a place that lets them know they matter to the institution," Morrow said.

"Coaches want great facilities because it helps us in recruiting as much as anything. It also will help you attract a new coach and then retain them."

Morrow, who is now working at Nashville's Christ Presbyterian Academy, says it's too easy to just point the finger at the administration. As a former player, he feels the finger needs to also be pointed back at the alumni -- especially those former football players who complained about facilities when they played here, and are now doing nothing to help change it today.

"This is not just the administration's responsibility," Morrow said, "it is something we all need to take responsibility for, myself included. We all need to be a part of the solution, the National Commodore Club only has around 3,000 members, the Dukes "Iron Dukes" has around 10,000."

And by "all," Morrow means his former teammates. They guys who got a $250,000 education paid for by donors who put their money where their heart is. Now, Morrow says it's time for those guys to give back.

Is former Commodore and now Chicago Bears star quarterback Jay Cutler a member of the Commodore Club?

Is 10-year NFL linebacker Jamie Winborn putting some of his paycheck to use on West End?

What about former star defensive back Corey Chavous, who has risen to one of the top NFL Network's draft analysts?

Hunter Hillenmeyer grew up in Nashville, went to high school down the road, and became an All-SEC linebacker. He's built a nice, long pro career with the Bears.

Each of these players has graced the sidelines of Vanderbilt's practices, and have been honored in sideline ceremonies at Vandy football games. But when it comes time to talk facilities, Williams' Rolodex seems awfully thin.

Maybe these now-successful young men are helping the school in ways the fans and media don't see; Vanderbilt, obviously, won't say. But it's time for those who complain the loudest to put their money where their mouth is. Fans can only do so much. Ingram and Rich have already done plenty.

Baseball alums ponied up the cash to help build the baseball facilities that they now enjoy when they return to VU to work out in the offseason. That's a fact that Vice Chancellor David Williams has told me was absolutely essential for the school to press "go" on the building plans.

Without that guarantee, none of those baseball facilities would, or could, have been built.

On Tuesday, Vice Chancellor David Williams publicly stated that the school did it right in baseball and basketball, and now it's time to do it right in football.

But just as in baseball and basketball, progress has to be measured in ways that recruits, fans and coaches can see, touch and depend upon.

It goes beyond fresh paint and banners. Way beyond.

It's going to take a lot of money. And it's got to come from others who care at least as much as they do, and who have diplomas hanging on their wall that were paid for by scholarships that guys like John Ingram and John Rich paid for when no one else cared.

"I think Vanderbilt's facilities need to be on par with other SEC football facilities, or at least close to it," continues Morrow. "We are heading in the right direction but need to have more and we need it faster.

"I know there is a plan, and we just finished renovating the coaches offices and meeting rooms, that is good, but we need to continue the progress."

Vanderbilt has a lot to offer its next head football coach. Nashville's a great city, Vanderbilt is a world class university, and Williams can offer job security that few if any other BCS-level school could match.

But the simple fact of the matter is, if Vanderbilt doesn't present a plan that they are committed to implementing -- and on a set timeline, just as they did with Corbin and the baseball program -- it's likely the school is going to have a tough sell to any top name candidate.


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