The Grass Ceiling 

Finally competitive, Vanderbilt still has one big problem: playing in the SEC.

Finally competitive, Vanderbilt still has one big problem: playing in the SEC.

They're called measurables. Things you can see with your eyes. Qualities that don't need explaining. Height. Weight. Speed. These are the attributes that get you noticed in college football.

It's the first of August. Vanderbilt's first practice. A low, late-afternoon sun sits under the tree line, gone but not forgotten as the last remnants of day cast resplendent against a sea of gold helmets. Split between two practice fields are a dozen roving units, bureaucratic packs of position players and the men assigned to lead them.

Offense in white. Defense in black. Coaches in wide-brimmed hats and tube socks pulled taut to midcalf. Everyone in mesh of some kind. All moving to the hurried cadence of shrieked commands.

"10-2 steps!" "Shade left!" "How many fucking times do I have to tell you, put your hands up!"

And always, always the sound of a ball being snapped.

"Hut!"

"Hut!"

"Hut!"

In the middle of the field are the linebackers. The quarterbacks of the defense. Ringed around their coach they form an ascending staircase. On the far end stands the tallest. Number 49. Sophomore John Stokes.

Instructions are given and the drill begins. Each player squares himself, knees bent and hands out, in front of a hitting pad held at arms length by the coach. At "Go!" the player reaches out and grabs the dummy, holding it for a second to simulate engaging with a blocker. Then the player bursts past the coach with an exaggerated uppercut, an explosive motion meant to break the blocker's grip.

In the time it takes to blink, Stokes is past his coach and on his way to the imaginary ball carrier, a 6-foot-5 blur ready to deliver a breath-stopping punishment.

Off to the side, a decidedly less athletic group leans against a tackling sled. Practice isn't open to the public. These men are press—except for one, a self-described Friend of the Program. He's been watching Vandy since 1945.

"With Vanderbilt football, you used to have guys who couldn't walk and chew gum at the same time," the man says. "You don't see that anymore."

Stokes is the embodiment of that thesis. Smart enough to go anywhere, talented enough to play anywhere, he's the highest rated prospect ever to enroll. The blue-chipper Vanderbilt never could land. The kid with all the measurables. If you're a 230-pound, 4.7-40-running kid from Memphis, chances are you'll wind up singing Rocky Top in Knoxville. If you get a 1530 on your SATs, you're more likely headed for Stanford, the Harvard of the Left Coast.

But a string of big victories and near-breakthrough seasons has changed the way Vanderbilt is perceived. The Commodores are no longer a doormat. They've reached that rarified air of teams that might actually pull out a conference victory every now and again. And with higher expectations have come prospects like Stokes. The recruits coming to Nashville today are bigger, faster and stronger. The end of The Drought—25 years without a winning season—now seems at least within view.

But the one, most important thing, about Vanderbilt hasn't changed. It still plays in the Southeastern Conference, which is no place for an egghead school to call home.

In whatever direction you look, it's clear that college football's most competitive conference is the SEC. It features the past two national champions, nearly half of the preseason Top 10, and is home to the No. 1 ranked recruiting class in the country.

"I don't ever remember a time when the SEC was this deep and this balanced," says Chris Low, a writer for ESPN.com. "It's the closest thing to professional football in the country."

Vandy's fight with these Goliaths begins during recruiting season, when the Commodores are working with the smallest slingshot. Four of the six biggest recruiting budgets in the country belong to SEC teams. The nation's No. 1 spender, the University of Tennessee, sets aside $1.3 million for football recruiting alone. That's nearly double Vandy's budget for all sports. While Vandy coaches fly business class, Vols emissaries face a less taxing predicament. The school recently made news when it announced that it was trying to cut down on expenses. Among the suggestions: doubling up on flights so assistant coaches might have to share their chartered jets in the future.

Even if Vandy could go living room to living room with the likes of Tennessee, it still has the problem of taking that whole "student-athlete" thing literally. The Athens of the South's academic jewel is the only SEC program to use the same admissions standards for students and athletes alike. So while the rest of the league can recruit pretty much anyone who can read—and even that's not a concrete requirement—Vandy must troll from the rather shallow pool of bruisers with brains.

While a Florida recruit with a 3.0 GPA only has to score 620 on his SATs, Vandy's must measure up to something closer to the 3.5/1300 minimums it requires of all applicants, even the ones who can't pancake a 300-pound lineman. And those select athletes don't always make their way to Nashville.

Two years ago, Vandy was on the short list for Anthony Castanzo, a promising offensive lineman from a Virginia military academy. Castanzo had the grades and wanted to enroll before the end of the spring semester. But midyear transfers aren't allowed for any Vandy student, star athlete or not. Castanzo found a school that would take him early. He ended up at Boston College, where he started as a freshman last year for a nationally ranked team, protecting quarterback Matt Ryan, the No. 3 pick in the NFL Draft.

Then there's Kareem Jackson, named to the All-SEC freshman team as a cornerback for Alabama. In a previous life, Jackson was an unheralded kid from a Macon, Ga., magnet school. His grades weren't high enough to get him into Vandy right away, so Jackson spent a year in junior college getting them up to snuff.

Unfortunately for Vandy, during that year in JUCO he went from well-kept secret into a known commodity. That's when Alabama coach Nick Saban came calling. Jackson couldn't resist the courting of a far more glamorous suitor. Last year, Vandy was forced to watch from the sidelines as Jackson made five tackles against the Commodores at Dudley Field.

Holding football players to the same standard as every other student is admirable, but Vandy's model isn't exactly catching on. Especially in the SEC, regarded for having among the loosest definitions of "student-athlete" in the country.

For three years Ole Miss tried unsuccessfully to enroll Jerrell Powe, a 330-pound beast ranked among the Top 5 defensive tackles in the country. There was just one problem with the idea of him taking college classes, best illuminated by his mother: "Jerrell really is a good child," she said. "He just can't read."

"At Ole Miss, you're talking about a team that is trying harder to admit players, get them on the field and win now," says Spencer Hall, a writer for The Sporting News. "They'll take kids who are labeled learning disabled. They may not be able to read, but they can hang clean 500 pounds."

Powe, of course, wouldn't have gotten a second look from Vandy. The rest of the SEC, however, has built in well-worn Jock Majors that offer light workloads and nothing too mentally strenuous that will interfere with practice. There's criminal justice at Ole Miss. The ever-popular leisure studies at Florida. And the now defunct urban studies at Tennessee.

In 2006, one of every four Alabama players majored in general studies. That same year at Auburn, a Sociology Department professor was found to be taking on a workload three times the size of his colleagues, largely due to "teaching" a handful of football players in independent study, courses that did not actually require the Tigers to attend class.

The easier course loads do not add up to higher graduation rates. Despite the occasional complicity from faculty, only about half of Auburn and Alabama players end up in cap and gown. The Commodores, meanwhile, graduate at a handsome 90 percent clip.

But the win-at-all-costs SEC doesn't stop at grade inflation. All manner of sin is accepted in the name of preserving The Program.

In August, the Florida Gators reinstated Ronnie Wilson, an offensive lineman who last April punched and spat on a South Carolina fan, then, in a highly effective form of conflict resolution, fired a warning shot from an AK-47.

This June, Alabama linebacker Jimmy Johns was busted for selling cocaine on campus. The operation occasionally made the team parking lot its storefront.

Arrests have become so common that college football blog Every Day Should Be Saturday has a USA Today-styled ranking system tracking felonious misadventures.

Dubbed the Fulmer Cup after Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer, a man infamous for turning a blind eye to character issues, the site grants points to each team based on its players legal travails. For example, a DUI brings in three points, while murder counts for five.

Thanks to Johns' multiple charges, Alabama is currently lapping the field with 28 points. Fellow SEC schools Arkansas (16), Georgia (15), and Tennessee (11) all cracked the Top 10.

Vandy, meanwhile, has managed a meager three points. They all came courtesy of running back Jermaine Doster, who kicked the window out of a Tampa Bay police cruiser after his arrest for disorderly conduct.

True to Vandy's well-earned law-and-order reputation, Doster was suspended for a year. It's a distinction that doesn't mesh with typical SEC protocol, where coded phrases like "We'll handle it internally" mean nothing more than a slap on the wrist. "Hell no, I'm not going to sit him.'" says ESPN.com's Low, paraphrasing the mind-set. "If we do that, we might lose!"

Which leaves Vandy to play the perennial mathlete, sent each Saturday to do battle with ex-cons wielding machetes.

But before we get too carried away, there is precedent for the egghead rising up to slay the ogre.

For a couple years, Stanford played its way into the top half of the Pac-10, winning a conference title and going to the Rose Bowl. Northwestern, a school known for both rigorous academics and the record for most losses in Division I football, won two Big 10 titles in the mid-'90s. More recently, the Ph.D. factory of Wake Forest won the Atlantic Coast Conference.

"It's easy to say Vanderbilt's fighting an uphill battle and if they ever get to six wins that's a victory," says Olin Buchanan, a writer at recruiting site Rivals.com. "But you never want to paint something as being impossible. Because two or three years ago, who would've thought that Wake Forest would be an ACC champion?"

College football's dramatic turnaround narrative is almost always precipitated by the hiring of new blood, and the eggheads-made-good schools are no different. Stanford brought in Tyrone Willingham and won more games in seven years than it had in a quarter-century. Northwestern signed Gary Barnett and went to its first bowl game in nearly 50 years. And five years after signing Jim Grobe, Wake Forest won its first conference title in three decades.

Due to young players and vastly differing levels of talent, success in college football is predicated heavily on quality coaching. Unlike the NFL, where they're overseen by a battery of front-office types, college coaches enjoy a level of autonomy unknown to all but Third-World dictators.

"Unlike in the pros, you don't have a general manager and you don't have to keep players for 10 years," says Buchanan. "The college coach's persona, the shadow he casts, is magnified because he has to recruit. He doesn't get to draft his players."

Coaching is, however, a ladder-climbing profession. There are always bigger and brighter lights to fly toward, especially for the guy who makes his name turning a never-was into a legitimate contender. And the coach who creates the winning ways usually packs it with him when he leaves for greener pastures.

The year after Barnett was signed away by Colorado, Northwestern went 3-8. Since Willingham accepted an offer from Notre Dame in 2001, Stanford has yet to return to a bowl game and has lost twice as many as it's won. Despite off-season offers from deep-pocketed schools like Arkansas, Grobe is staying at Wake—at least for the time being. But he's the exception, not the rule.

If the measuring stick for a Brainy School coach is the prominence of the teams trying to lure him away, Vandy's Bobby Johnson comes up short. While other SEC programs are quick to praise him, none has been willing to put its money where its mouth is. Thus far Johnson's suitors have been limited to a brief off-season flirtation with Duke.

"How good Johnson is, whether he's just a really good coach or an SEC-caliber coach, the verdict is still out on that, given what he's done post-Cutler," says Hall.

Cutler stands for Jay, Vandy's All-Time Mr. Everything whose first season behind center happened to coincide with Johnson's first as coach. Recruited by Johnson's predecessor, Woody Widenhofer, Cutler came to Vandy largely because it was one of the only schools that didn't want him to play safety. By the time he was taken by the Denver Broncos with the 11th pick of the 2006 NFL Draft, Cutler held every major Commodore passing record.

With the star of the program gone, Johnson managed to maintain the momentum he'd gained with Cutler. Last year's five wins tied for the most for Vandy since 1982, and included a victory over No. 6 South Carolina, the highest-ranked team the Commodores have beaten in 70 years. But all signs indicate this is the year Vandy falls back to Earth.

Gone is Earl Bennett, the SEC's leader in career receptions. Gone is the entire O-line. Gone are all but three starters from last year's offense. Vandy may still be the runt of the league, but as it's elevated itself to respectable competitor, it's no longer guaranteed to be playing against second-stringers after the half. And for a coach coming into his seventh year, this relative success may be the biggest thing working against Johnson.

"Coach Johnson has raised expectations up to the mediocre, the average, but this is going to be a very rough year," says Hall. "Realistically, he could be gone by the end of it."

The scrimmages don't feature a lot of contact. Coaches want to see how their players are learning a system; they just don't want to do it at the expense of team health. Still, it doesn't take much imagination to see how this one would play out.

At the snap, the ball carrier heads to his left, half a field away from linebacker John Stokes. But in a handful of long strides, Stokes reaches him in an instant, abruptly pulling up a moment before contact.

"That's how you close!" yells linebacker's coach Warren Belin.

The first man to catch a glimpse of that closing speed was Bobby Alston, Memphis University School's head coach, who had Stokes as a rangy sixth-grader in his football camp. To Alston, the young man seemed a perfect candidate for tight end. But watching Stokes catch a spiral ("He had bricks for hands") ended those dreams. So Alston moved him to the other side of the ball and found that the unfailingly polite kid took immense pleasure in lowering his helmet and running full speed into people.

Stokes would eventually help Alston win two straight state titles. Halfway through his junior year, he got his first scholarship offer from Vandy. It was a recruiting pitch that should have been well-received. Stokes' grandfather was a Commodore. So were his parents. They raised him in Memphis rooting for the black-and-gold.

But his parents didn't push him toward their alma mater. They remembered their son before football—the little kid with a temper who'd make a mess of his room if things didn't go his way. They knew what it was like to root for a last-place team, and they weren't sure their son was built to handle that kind of misery.

"We watched (Vandy) struggle for 20 years," says father Jack. "We just weren't sure (John) was ready for that level of losing."

By the time Stokes' senior year rolled around, Vandy wasn't his only suitor. Rivals.com ranked him as a four-star recruit, and he had his choice of scholarship offers from a handful of the biggest schools in the country. Stanford. Tennessee. Alabama. Michigan.

"His friends who knew how much he wanted to win said, 'Go to Alabama!'" says mom Carol. "His friends who knew how much he valued school said 'Go to Stanford!' "

In years prior, Stokes would have been the one who got away. But he had seen enough to be convinced that what Coach Johnson said was true: They may not win every game, but they'd always compete.

"Coming to Vandy meant I could get a great education. Something to set me up for life," says Stokes, still in pads after practice. "What I wasn't sure of was, ya know, are we going to suck? The coaches had to convince me."

But the path of heralded recruit Stokes ended two weeks before last season's opener, when Coach Johnson made a call to his father. Vandy had wanted to red shirt Stokes his first year to give him an extra year to put more muscle on his 225-pound frame. But the team's long snapper had just quit. Stokes, who'd snapped in high school, was the Commodores' backup option.

Blowing a red shirt year on a prize recruit because you need a long snapper? This would be folly at any other SEC school.

Stokes saw action in every game, but played sparingly behind Jonathan Goff and Marcus Buggs, two main contributors to a defense that finished ranked 16th in the nation last year. Now that Goff and Buggs are gone, Stokes has become a starting strong-side linebacker.

"John was born to play outside linebacker," says Ron Higgins, a sportswriter for the Memphis Commercial-Appeal. "To me he could be one of the best pass rush ends in the SEC."

But one linebacker does not a good team make. Yes, Vandy has talent. Players like Stokes, fellow Memphis linebacking recruit Chris Marve, and John Cole, a speedy wideout who rewrote the Kentucky high school record books.

Yes, this year's class does feature eight three-star recruits, more committed talent by August than the Commodores have ever had. But when Vandy plays Tennessee, Auburn and Florida this year, it'll be lining up against squads with three-star recruits on their bench, whole teams full of measurables.

It's Fan Appreciation Day at Vandy. Two weeks after the first practice. Two weeks before the first game.

On a crispy, sunny Sunday, you'd forgive Commodore fans for their optimism. If they showed a little enthusiasm.

But after 25 years, they're too smart to get their hopes up.

Near the practice field, a father rubs his little girl's back. She's standing next to a row of trash cans, depositing a steady stream of creamsicle-orange vomit onto the curb below.

"Geez," says one black-and-gold bedecked man to his friend, "I hope we don't look that bad."

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