Let me explain. No, let me sum up.
The last time Vanderbilt football took three in a row from Tennessee, the Grand Ole Opry wasn’t even called the Grand Ole Opry yet. The coach was Dan McGugin, and we’d just recently moved into the first purpose-built football stadium in the South. And the Vols had just gone out and hired a coach whose mission was to get over on Vanderbilt. Oh, and? There was no SEC.
That last bit was the subject of about 4000 words over at the Vandy blog this week, as I looked at our alternatives. I think depending on how you define success in football, membership of the SEC may be an insurmountable obstacle to success. I think there’s a very real chance that the 8-4 Brigadoon seasons were as good as we’re capable of; we’ve never won all our one-score games and those are usually the difference in bowling or not. (There were two years under Bobby Johnson where the Dores finished with 5 wins and lost three or more games by a single score. It’s the edge of a knife, being a Vanderbilt supporter.) But the plain brutal fact of the matter is that with Bama and Georgia and Florida and LSU and all the other schools with a more flexible approach to classes and law enforcement, we’re never getting a division title or a trip to Atlanta. We’re just not.
Which means you have to look at the question: what would be considered “success” for Vanderbilt? I know I said before that if 3-9 is the price of keeping guys in class and off the police blotter and graduating, then 3-9 forever. But there’s nothing that says we have to stay in the SEC to get our asses pummeled while we do that. You look at plenty of other schools – in the Ivy League, in the MEAC and SWAC, schools that have opted out of the regular championship process altogether and are happy to play in a smaller space – and wonder what’s the percentage in being part of the playoff chase when we have no shot at winning.
I think there’s a really good case to be made that if we can win 6 or 7 a year, every year, that might be enough. The whole world knows we’re playing on the highest difficulty level possible. If we could at least be a .500 team and force opponents not to write down an automatic W in pen, that might be sufficient. Otherwise, it sort of stands in for a whole lot of psychological baggage, a lot of confronting the fact that what people down South say is important flies in the face of what really matters, and that getting a good education and following the rules is no substitute for winning.
The real kicker in all of this, of course, is that SEC money makes up over half of the athletics budget at Vanderbilt. Football is the sacrifice we make so that baseball and bowling and women’t tennis can win national championships and so golf and cross-country and women’s soccer can win titles and basketball can knock off anyone at any time and get into the tournament semi-frequently. And until the Playoff League goes off on its own – and under no circumstances should Vanderbilt follow – that’s probably just the way things are going to be. Maybe when the mighty power teams with “schools” attached finally go into business for themselves in football, we can settle into something between 1-A and 1-AA and finally have what Chancellor Alexander Heard wanted for us when he conceived of the Magnolia League: “big-time football without the excess.”
Wouldn’t that be something.