You saw the games and read the coverage, so you don't need me to recap that part. But last week I went to both of Vanderbilt's basketball thrillers in Albuquerque, N.M. — easy for me because I live in Santa Fe — and I noticed something important that probably wasn't obvious on TV: Vanderbilt fans still don't "travel well," as the ESPN guys in mafia suits like to put it.
In fact, they travel very poorly, especially compared with fans of the team that subdued us: Wisconsin. (I say "us" because I graduated from Vanderbilt in 1980.) I noticed this soon after I showed up for the Harvard game on Thursday afternoon, held in the confines of the Pit, an excellent venue built on a bleak patch of Breaking Bad-style desert two miles south of the University of New Mexico campus.
At the Pit, after you're visually inspected and the Mean Man takes away your bag of sneak-it-in popcorn, you can wander around on a wide walkway that circles the entire arena, which is below you, since the basketball floor sits at the bottom of a huge excavated space. I started looking for Vandy fans and/or students but didn't see any. Then, as an experiment, I started noting all the fan varieties I did see — judging by team names on shirts — before I sighted my first official Commodore.
My list: Wichita State, Wisconsin (in droves), Montana, Tennessee (!!!), Texas, Georgetown, Colorado (many), New Mexico (lots), UNLV, Murray State, Kansas, Colorado State, Texas Tech, Baylor, Harvard, Harvard Medical School, Oklahoma State, Indiana, New Mexico State, Iowa State, Drexel, Kentucky, North Carolina, the City of Española Softball League, Dunder Mifflin, and the Boston Celtics. I'd completed an entire circuit before I finally saw a Vanderbilt life-form: a woman in a white Vandy sweatshirt, fanning herself with a dismantled popcorn box. It was stuffy in there and she looked hot and unhappy, so I didn't try to slow her down to talk.
Not counting the ace reporter from The Vanderbilt Hustler, Meghan Rose, I didn't see a single person who looked like a Vandy student that day or on Saturday, D-Day against Wisconsin. Granted, Vanderbilt's spring break had happened the week before — making long-distance travel inconvenient at best — and Albuquerque is 1,225 miles from Nashville. But Madison is 150 miles farther away and Wisconsin's spring break is coming soon ... and yet a lot of Wisconsin students managed to get their butts in the seats. Not to mention their parents'.
My visual spot-check turned out to be an accurate indicator. The announced attendance by Vanderbilt fans at the Harvard game was a paltry 100 or so, though that figure wouldn't have included people like me, since I didn't buy my ticket through the Vanderbilt Alumni Office. Still, there weren't many of us, and a critical mass of ye olde school spirit was definitely lacking.
The typical Vandy fan I saw was a middle-aged-or-older white guy who looked like he'd decided to come to the game instead of, say, a symposium on Vanishing Bluegrass Cultures — and was now questioning whether he'd made the right call. There were some highly spirited exceptions — including a great contingent of people from the Santa Fe area I met once at an Engineering School mixer — but you know the type I'm talking about. At his most wan and bloodless, VandyFanMan mulls and frowns more than he cheers, and he's ready to retreat to the safety of ironic detachment when Vanderbilt loses. ("Same old Vandy," he'll say.) Deep down, despite the strides Vanderbilt athletics has made in recent years, he still doubts that we can ever really be good at anything.
And, too often, VandyFanMan can be grumpy rather than expansive — quite unlike a drunk guy from Auburn who drives his own War Eagle RV. I tried to interview one of our boys during halftime of the Wisconsin game. Granted, I was a stranger, journalistically barging into his life to ask useless questions. But still. Wearing an expression that made him look like he'd just sucked on a football-sized lemon, he said, "I don't DO that!"
On the other hand, my pestering of people led to a few surprises. At halftime during the Harvard game, I talked to a couple of African-American guys who didn't go to Vanderbilt, weren't there because they were related to or friends with a player, and didn't live in Tennessee. So why? Because they thought the team was cool. "Used to be the underdog, now they're the overdog," one guy said. His friend nodded, and I'm not kidding: He had on this sort of dude outfit made of mustard-colored Vandy fabric.
But there weren't enough people like that. Meanwhile, happy and howling Badger lunatics were everywhere, and since they hailed from Wisconsin — land of bratwurst, beer, and fried cheese curds — they truly occupied the spaces they inhabited. Plus their main team color is an eye-catching red, and did I mention that a lot of them are heavyset? Naturally, they were cheering against Vanderbilt as we battled the hard-hustling Harvard team — a squad I really came to admire that first day — but that wasn't the only reason they bugged me.
The Badger fans also had this ... thing ... about them, this sense of entitlement that fans of successful sports schools often radiate: We're here, we're sure we're going to win, get used to it. For some reason, I've randomly run into herds like that many times over the years — fans from Kentucky, North Carolina, LSU, Alabama — and I always puzzle over what they've got that we ain't. One thing is obvious: many national championships. But Vanderbilt's fan-base problem has deeper psychological roots, I think, and we need to work on it. Especially at a time when Vanderbilt teams are generally pretty good.
I went to Vanderbilt in the late '70s, as a transfer student from a little college in western Kansas that was academically just-fine but not super-fun. During my early months in Nashville, I hung out with a group of transfer students who were horrified by something we'd all somehow failed to notice when applying: Vanderbilt was full of Southern preppies, and the Greek scene could be oppressive. As for sports, ha! Even the Greeks didn't care about our teams, I was told, since we sucked at everything.
That wasn't entirely true. Football? Yeah, not so great. But in basketball, those were the years of the "town and country" duo of Charles Davis and Mike Rhodes, and if you didn't find drama in their performances and travails, you weren't paying enough attention. The Vanderbilt baseball team won the SEC Tournament in 1980, paced by the clubbing of a nice guy I was lucky enough to meet, Scotti Madison.
Like many private universities, though, Vanderbilt had this built-in problem that I imagine still persists: People from out-of-state usually came there more as a business transaction than as an exercise in deep-seated loyalty to the institution. (There are exceptions to this, of course, especially among people from Nashville and Middle Tennessee.) I was an Ole Miss fan growing up, partly because my dad was from Oxford and partly because I never got over my 11-year-old hero worship of Archie Manning. I silently maintained that loyalty when the Rebels played Vanderbilt in football and I'm still "conflicted" about it. Lots of people did things like that.
But I loved Vanderbilt, and it got into my soul in a powerful way, something I knew at the time but have understood better as I've gotten older. Fortunately, my rapid evolution toward becoming a sentimental geezer has coincided with positive developments for both the school as a school — last time I was in Nashville, an administration figure I know described Vanderbilt's future as "incandescent" — and the school as a host to sports teams.
Like virtually everybody, I've been thrilled with our maniacally positive new football coach, James Franklin. Baseball is down a bit this year but will be back up. Basketball has been bouncing along nicely, and one of these years Vanderbilt will go farther in the tournament.
As for this year: No, they didn't go far enough. But I can tell you (with unalloyed non-irony) that it was a thrill to be there watching the Commodores in person, and that seeing them lose hurt in a way that no irony shield could have protected me from. I went with a friend from work, Elizabeth Hightower Allen, who grew up in Nashville, went to college at North Carolina, but still cares about the 'Dores. She used her excellent gal reporting skills to track down another unlikely fan, a Hispanic giant who was screaming so loudly about Vanderbilt that I swear it made me vibrate. She went and asked him why. He roared that they beat Kentucky so they should have been the No. 1 seed. They were awesome!
Vanderbilt didn't play like a one-seed last Saturday, but they never quit, and they almost pulled it out. As far as I'm concerned, that's the Same New Vandy, and I'm going to keep paying attention.
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