Just as there are immutable physical laws of the universe, there are well-accepted laws of football. Coaches and teams violate them at their peril.
Football Law No. 1, as almost any coach will attest, stipulates that no team can win a championship without a fine kicking game. Phil Fulmer, whose Vols might be 9-2 instead of 11-0 were it not for an accurate field-goal kicker, would be the first to bellow an amen.
Football Law No. 2, so often repeated by coaches that it has become a mind-numbing mantra, says you have to establish the running game first. Unless, of course, you’re Florida or Florida State.
To this body of gridiron statutes, I’d like to propose a new eternal principle, of particular interest locally: Fans won’t pay good money to see a team regularly lose unless they can buy beer. Commodores and Oilers, consider yourselves busted.
I submit as evidence the strange sight of Vanderbilt’s Commodores running into their own overwhelmingly Orange stadium Saturday amid a ringing chorus of boos. All afternoon, Vol fans whooped and swaggered and carried on at Neyland-on-the-Cumberland as if they owned the placewhich they pretty much do.
You have to feel for Vandy’s bumfuzzled players, who must have been scratching their helmets, wondering how they could fail to draw a supportive crowd for a game against their biggest rival.
In fact, Vanderbilt can’t achieve a home-field advantage against ANY of its SEC rivalsnot Alabama, not Georgia, not even Ole Misswhose fans routinely fill a significant percentage of Vandy’s 41,000 seats. The Commodores enjoy an overwhelmingly black-and-gold crowd, ironically, only when they host an opponent like Duke or TCU and the stadium is half full.
Limiting the number of tickets available to visiting teams, as some schools do, wouldn’t help. For one thing, Vanderbilt needs the money from a full house even worse than it needs a full-throated crowd.
From Vandy’s point of view, the problem is with Vandy fans, who, whatever their other shortcomings as rooters, are neither utter masochists nor morons when it comes to household economics. Rather than witness their team absorb another hiney-kicking at the hands of Tennessee, many Vanderbilters simply give their tickets to their Vol brethren in a gesture of goodwill. Other black-and-gold fans, appreciating the imbalance between the supply of UT-Vandy tickets and the demand of wild-eyed Vols, sell out for a quick C-note or two.
Notably upholding my proposed law, by the way, are Vanderbilt students, who are not allowed to purchase beer at the stadium but for whom the game serves as a nice mid-afternoon siesta before the all-day keg party resumes.
Our own Tennessee Soon-To-Be-Titanswho have paralleled Vanderbilt this year not only in venue but also in underachieving habitsmight also profit from observing the No Winning + No Beer = No Sellout law a little more closely.
In contrast to Vandy, the Oilers aren’t so much afflicted by their history as the lack thereof. Having only recently escaped from Houston and then from Memphis, the team has no winning tradition here that will sustain attendance through less fortunate times. Instead, the Oilers can draw Nashvillians based only on what they’ve done for them latelyand much of what they’ve done lately is vexingly, bucktooth ugly.
Despite a roster of ripening talent, the Oilers can’t muster much consistency or win their most winnable games. They sweep the Steelers but allow the Jets to roll them like the town drunk. Against the Bears, they brilliantly drive the field for a tying field goal, then can’t find their field-goal kicker.
Sunday’s denouement in Seattle was vintage 1998. In the closing minutes, the Oilers overcame two bonehead penalties to score a go-ahead field goal. Then they committed another bonehead unnecessary-roughness infraction to allow Seattle to move into field goal range. The Seahawks, ever the gracious hosts, promptly committed two knothead penalties of their own and removed themselves from FG range.
But the Oilers, as if reprising the old Chip and Dale cartoon routine (”After you.... No, after YOU!“), obligingly allowed Seattle to complete a final pass and boot the winning field goal. End of game. End of playoff hopes.
Maybe I’m just underestimating the allure of the NFL, but I don’t know a huge number of fans willing to plunk down $48 (or even $36 for a dismal end-zone view) to view this kind of fingernails-on-chalkboard performance without the consolation of a few cold ones. Of course, there’s an effective though difficult way to get around the ”no beer“ law, as hiply articulated by the NFL’s Mr. Huggable, Al Davis: ”Just win, baby.“
Fortunately for the Oilers, help appears to be on the way, thanks to the team’s imminent escape from a suds-free environment to the new East Bank stadium. The team, by the way, should be better, too, as McNair continues to mature. (See Football Law No. 4: QBs rarely blossom before their fifth year in the league.)
Go on and snort, but there’s even hope for Vanderbilt.
This year’s Commodore team was more purple and green than black and gold, riddled with injuries (especially in the secondary) and plagued by inexperience. (Eleven freshmen started against Tennessee.) But it is not bereft of talent, and nervous, young players have a way of becoming canny juniors and seniors. Remember that Jamie Winborn, the SEC’s leading tackler, has three more years of eligibility.
Remember, too, that with any luck, Vanderbilt actually could have won four games, improving on last season’s mark. The Commodores are no threat anytime soon to the supremacy of Tennessee and Florida, but it’s not unreasonable to imagine that they could post a winning season within the next couple of years.
Meanwhile, for the fans’ sake, someone at Vandy needs to find a way to bring in the beer.
How it looks from the La-Z-Boy
Oilers 20, Ravens 17
Tennessee 27, Mississippi State 14
Kansas State 20, Texas A&M 14
UCLA 31, Miami 24