Postcard From Vanderbilt: New Hope And Old Fear In Nashville

Aug 30, 2012; Nashville, TN, USA; Vanderbilt University students plant the Vanderbilt Commodores anchor at midfield before a game against the South Carolina Gamecocks at Vanderbilt Stadium. Mandatory credit: Don McPeak-US PRESSWIRE

Even as the Commodores keep winning -- or least coming close -- Vanderbilt's fans still haven't bought in because of a mind set that's not supposed to exist in the mighty SEC.

They are small gains by SEC standards, and so in Vandyville, things haven't changed. But at Vanderbilt Stadium banks of brand new stadium lights eliminate shadows on the brand new synthetic field turf, adorned with the "ANCHOR DOWN" branding at each end zone. The 50x72 foot video board was just connected this month, broadcasting HD hype clips and towering above a new hillside seating area that pushes stadium capacity to a robust 40,550. There are newer, bigger football offices, a renovated weight room and an indoor practice facility that's been promised down the line.

They're welcome improvements at Vanderbilt, but they almost belie the mission at hand for second-year head coach James Franklin, at least according to the minuscule longtime Commodore hardcores. According to them, Franklin will achieve the unbelievable and take Vanderbilt to the top of the SEC momentarily before bolting town for a bigger job. Or, they reason, their savior coach will leave West End Avenue because of apathy, when he notices the empty seats and football fundraising coffers smaller than his division rivals, even after his third or fourth year of bowl eligibility.

Or, the third option: he'll just lose a lot and eventually leave, because this is Vanderbilt.

This is the mindset, even after Franklin's rookie bowl season, a 4-2 home record in 2011 and losses to Georgia and Arkansas that, at their very least, proved the program was capable of competing at the top of the conference.

If Franklin keeps winning, the "Vanderbilt problem" will have nothing to do with the yarn about admissions standards creating 3-9 seasons and everything to do with attitude. Thursday's opponent was a No. 9 South Carolina team that outlasted mistakes and injuries to hand Franklin's Dores what's become a signature close conference loss on Thursday night.

But just over a decade ago, the Cocks went 1-21 over the 1998 and '99 seasons yet still sold out every home game. Even at perennial SEC football have-nots like Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Kentucky, it's easy to find fans delusional enough to boast that they can find, hire and keep any coach who wants to win, and then go reel off a run of SEC championships. But not at Nashville, at least not yet.

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Tailgating, Vandyville on Natchez Trace.

Thursday night's announced attendance of 38,393 fell short of a sellout, but it was arguably the strongest, loudest and most Vandy-friendly Vandy crowd in the facility's history, or at least since their upset of Auburn in 2008, and before that, sometime before polio vaccines. However, in the days leading up to the kickoff the lagging sales became a talking point denouncing or confirming the program's growth, depending on your vantage point.

Single-game seats were still available entering Monday afternoon, and while VU officials wouldn't number a specific amount remaining, it was estimated to be between 4-7,000, as South Carolina added to the vacancy when they returned 2,000 tickets from their allotted 6,000. Demand never exceeded supply, as by 3 p.m. Thursday a pair scalpers standing in a Wendy's parking lot yards from the stadium lamented that they couldn't sell $50 end zone tickets for $25 each. One source said that between 1,800 and 2,200 tickets were sold at the gates Thursday night, proving the buzz of a game enjoying a whole offseason of hype bit a few curious locals.

Franklin acknowledged he was aware of sales numbers moments before he boarded the bus to the team hotel on Wednesday, almost 24 hours before kickoff. As his team loaded up under the shadow of cranes connecting ESPN's wire-controlled SkyCam, Franklin expressed a greater sense of calm as Year 2 began, although he admitted he's having to teach a team uninitiated to hype how to close out the distractions that lead into an ESPN night game.

"It's the same old deal. If people want to focus on whether this is a sell-out or not, great, that's fine, that's what you want to focus on. Me? I'm focused like I am with everything else in this program, in the improvements we've made," he said. "I don't think there's too many teams across the country that have improved as much as we have in single game sales from last year to this year."

Vandy's sales are deceptive, but it's hard to argue that local interest from 2011 hasn't sparked sales. In May the school announced that it had already topped its previous season's total of 12,489 with 12,700 season ticket packages confirmed. Director of sales and marketing Steve Walsh declined to update that total, citing a desire to not create to the consumer an image of tickets running out. Even after the South Carolina game, Vanderbilt will continue to market season packages in campaigns aimed specifically at non-alumni locals, young alumni and Vanderbilt employees.

Franklin won big at home and came two scores shy of two mega-upsets, but 2011's average attendance was actually down compared to 2010, even though Robbie Caldwell managed only two wins (one at home) that entire year. The culprit? LSU, Florida and in-state rival Tennessee. All three schools played at Vandy in 2010 and juked sales stats with crowds of visiting fans that routinely took over the stadium with ease.

It's even common for opposing schools' fans to buy a Vanderbilt season ticket package just for one game in recent years. If you're an Alabama fan, one sideline view Commodore season ticket package is only $261, or roughly the cost of a single lower bowl ticket to a conference game in Tuscaloosa. They're so affordable -- "an entertainment value that the sidewalk fan can connect with," according to Walsh -- they were named a great entertainment buy by the local newspaper's "Ms. Cheap" consumer column.

Vanderbilt's 82.65 percent of capacity was the worst in the league last year, and despite residing in the biggest city in the SEC, the Dores were the only school that never met 100-plus capacity (a sellout) for a single game in '11. But after years of countless invasions, that wasn't the case on Friday night, and Franklin's opening comments after the game touted the atmosphere as "a picture of what Vanderbilt can be." In a stadium so routinely empty for so long, that meant not only fans, but fans wearing black and making noise on the right set of third downs.

So while giant video boards are cool, what the self-defeating fan culture of Vandy needs most is Billy Pritchett, something of a unicorn in SEC fandom.

On Thursday that unicorn hustled with a wife and a cooler in tow straight from the office to his assigned tent in the "Vandyville" tailgating area, a school manufactured tailgating scene set along Natchez Trace on the heart of VU’s main campus. Pritchett has been chattering about the potential of the 2012 team for months, and, gushing about Franklin's mental makeover of expectations, absolutely believes that the 'Dores stand a chance against South Carolina.

Prichett’s fan bio is a truth that ends up stranger than fiction: an alumnus of the University of Georgia, the Nashville native was born and raised a Commodore fan by his father, a Vanderbilt graduate, one of a staggering minority of VU graduates that don’t flee permanently from middle Tennessee after graduation. It’s an entirely unremarkable story until the 30-year-old mortgage banker -- who attended UGA from 2001-’05 at the height of Mark Richt’s SEC title runs – returns home to Nashville to become an even bigger ‘Dores fan. He’s had season tickets since college, and this summer recruited three coworkers – two of whom had no ties to Vandy – to buy season tickets as well.

"Obviously I became a very big Georgia fan when I was there... but as soon as I graduated and came back, just being back here, I remembered loving the possibilities, because at Georgia, if we lost we were upset and it killed the night," he said. "It was the end of the world. Whereas here, growing up, it was the hope of trying to win that game and the one random that we did it was such an amazing, awesome feeling, but it didn’t happen that often."

Pritchett said his natural loathing of Tennessee crested during the Dores' 28-24 upset of the Vols in 2005. Combined with his newfound gushing adoration of Franklin's confidence is all it takes to lay down Bulldog loyalties for his ... beloved Commodore football.

Pritchett had a legitimate out -- one of the best in the SEC, at the time -- and came running back to 2-10 seasons with a passion.

"But when they would play Vandy, I would cheer for Vandy," he said.

An admirable, delusional passion. Hence, an SEC football fan with a path so illogical by the very logic of our standards that he can only be considered a unicorn among football fans.

"At Vandy, losing doesn’t kill your expectations for next week, for what’s to come," he said.

A head football coach might appreciate that kind of mentality, but by "Speed Country" standards, Pritchett's last statement is considered heresy by all 11 other sibling fan bases and even the two newcomers (not to mention the second-year Commodore head coach himself, we'd suspect). Non-Vandy fans would be stunned to think that in a melting pot of conference rivals like Nashville that a fan like Pritchett would refuse to move up in status and lay claim to the team that's won a hell of a lot more. To the rest of the SEC and Franklin's new regime, it's unthinkable that he and so many other VU fans would embrace the long-held and almost cheerful ennui over winning football games, because anything other than the end of the world after a bad Saturday just isn't business as usual in the SEC.

It's a disposition that seems to hang over this fan base, one that's entirely unique to Vandy after decades of absolutely no sustained hope compounded by the diametric culture of a private school's admission standards in "King Football's" top conference, topped off by a national alumni base spread far and wide from Nashville and the Southeast in general.

Certainly there are fans. They just don't come close to numbering that of rival Tennessee (who averaged over 94,000 a game in 2011). But even in black and gold, there are sidewalk alumni Paul Finebaum could appreciate. Roy Burrows, a 48-year-old hotel engineer, moved to Pulaski, Tenn., in 1994 and has been a season ticket holder ever since ("It's a good school. I like the underdog," he says.) A few yards from the Pritchett's tailgate, Burrows sits on a grassy slope wearing a furry replica hat of the Commodore Vanderbilt mascot. He's also sporting a fresh, homemade tattoo in case his outfit doesn't convey his support. ("I was bored. I love Vanderbilt. So I did it myself.")

Around the corner, a group of Beta Chi Theta fraternity members hailing from places like California, Massachusetts, and Illinois ready a tailgate of canned Natural Light and burgers while openly admitting that Franklin will likely have a short stay in Nashville, and that's likely the best case scenario.

On this opening day of the season, the most hopeful one in decades for this team, you slowly realize the malaise isn't from the stereotyped indifference of elitist out-of-town rich kids, but incredibly self-aware sports fans. They're all a little shy about their pride in their academic standards, but they're no fools. It's not as if Vandy hasn't been playing football for the last 100 plus years -- they have -- but that they've trailed or never been a part of almost every facet of its evolution off the field.

Sean Johnson is a 32-year-old alumnus living in Nashville and originally from the town of Cleveland, Tenn.:

"I don't know if we can ever win the SEC. I wouldn't let you play that quote for Franklin or anything, I'm not saying it's not possible, but look, the competition's too tough in the SEC to win a conference championship. Another conference? Sure, I can see that in the next 10 years. But for us to have somewhere to go every New Year's, as an option to cheer on Vanderbilt in a bowl every year, that's all we can ask for and I don't think I've ever met a Vanderbilt fan who expects more than that."

There are also excuses -- nearly everyone interviewed justified the tepid sales by citing a cluster of excuses: traffic, the start of a holiday weekend, the weeknight strain for families, the 6 p.m. CT kickoff and the Tennessee Titans' preseason game just a few miles downtown. Never mind that three SEC fan bases will skip work and life in general to migrate to neutral site kickoff games this weekend, and number well over 40,000 in each instance.

At the end of the night Vanderbilt has just missed another upset win. Counting last season's home scares and routs of inferior teams, they've sent notice enough to the league and a nation of viewers that the new Vanderbilt is a foreboding venue to visit, and for one night nearly packed to the limit in black T-shirts. Franklin's words measure a product on the field, but that particular rehabilitation is much further along schedule than the support around it.

"We're trying to build a culture of winning, Franklin said. "And when you have that, guys find a way to get the job done by finding a way to make the play, and you don't make the mistakes early on that put you in a situation in the first place. It's a combination of everything."

Until he sneaks off to that next supposed gig, he's at least got that unicorn behind him.

For more on Vanderbilt football, be sure to check out SB Nation's Vanderbilt blog Anchor of Gold and SEC blog Team Speed Kills.

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