The monkey’s paw is the archetype. You make a wish, and it get interpreted in the most literal and damaging way possible. Wish for your loved one’s suffering to end, and they die. Wish for vast wealth, and find yourself a drug lord with the DEA on your back. Wish for something you want, and get it in a way that makes everything worse. You’re not even supposed to tell your wish when you blow out the birthday cake candles, because then it won’t come true. All the stories work out like this. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. King Midas. Making a wish only gets you misery, so be content with what you have and accept your lot in life.
Down South, they are pushing ahead with football for all they’re worth. A thousand C-19 cases at the University of Alabama, sixteen just among the Auburn football players, or even the plethora of issues at Vanderbilt – none of it is enough to make people say “hey let’s call this off,” even after the Big 10 [sic] and Pac-12 already have, along with just about everyone below FBS level (including the MEAC, the Ivy League and more). At some level, there is some kind of primal need driving the SEC and its cousins in the ACC and the Big [sic] 12 [sic], and if I had to narrow it down, I would attribute it to a line that literally came to me in a dream:
Football is huge down South because it’s the most violent thing to which the Scotch-Irish can legally affiliate themselves as tribes.
And this is where you have the problem Vanderbilt football cannot escape. Only private school out of 14 in the SEC (which in retrospect never should have grown beyond 10 once Tech and Tulane decamped). Does not have the same sidewalk fan culture as any of the other 13. Plays in a metro area where there are actual major league professional teams competing for the dollars less than five miles away. Overshadowed by other teams in the same school in a way unlike any other SEC team bar Kentucky. Vanderbilt football’s fans are few but mighty, but it’s still not on a scale with even the Kentucky or Mississippi school football fandoms. And as a result, Vanderbilt doesn’t generate the kind of income necessary to punch at equal weight with those programs. And as a result of that, Vanderbilt doesn’t have the kind of success on the field that would change minds about what Vanderbilt football is.
And yet. In 2017, Vanderbilt’s football budget was $22.15 million. Which ranked it…44th in the Power 5. More than TCU, more than Oklahoma State, more than Mizzou, more than West Virginia or K-State or Georgia Tech or Purdue. There are other programs having more success for less money in our own damned division. So clearly, it’s not enough to spend money – it has to be spent well. Granted, most of these programs have probably been spending more for longer, and don’t have as much ground to make up as Vanderbilt – but nevertheless, it reflects cold reality: merely shooting money out of a firehose won’t get this done.
It’s a catch-22 and a vicious cycle: Vanderbilt football will never be taken seriously until it is successful, and Vanderbilt football will never be successful until it is taken seriously. Not only by the fans, not only by a college football media that classifies teams based on how good they were in the sportswriter’s youth, but by its own university administration. And one of the things that matters there is finding a coach who can have some modicum of success without immediately flying the coop for bigger and better things. David Cutcliffe has been at Duke since 2008, David Shaw at Stanford since 2011, Pat Fitzgerald at Northwestern since 2006. All have had more than six wins in the regular season and none has taken off for another gig after three years. Vanderbilt ought to be able to find a coach who can at least see a full class of recruits through to graduation without having to accept four-win seasons as the cost of doing business.
A decade ago, we wished for better. We wished that we could at least be good enough to win more than we lost. And we got that, for three years, and then wound up right back where we started, layered on with creeping damage to the culture of the program and the bitterness of knowing that it was possible to do better than four or five wins. But even at the peak, Vanderbilt’s best success in a century added up to 8-4, beating the arch-rival, and being under-slotted for a non-prestige bowl bid.
You don’t want to just accept what is. You want to dream, you want to hope – but in the end, there’s a reason they say “be careful what you wish for.”