Here are two predictions that don't require much of a venture onto a limb: 1. Vanderbilt won't win the SEC championship in football this year. (OK, I'll really go out there and say they won't win it the following year either.)
2. Vanderbilt will come closer to winning the Sears Cup championship than at any other time in its history.
What, you've never heard of the Sears Cup? You're at least in good company. Most other casual fans of college athletics have never heard of it either. Yet the Sears Cup is the best measure of a school's overall athletic excellencebetter than a BCS Championship in football, better than a Final Four appearance in basketball.
The Sears Cup standings, a concoction of the National Association of Collegiate Athletic Directors (NACAD), measure a school's performance across the spectrum of men's and women's varsity sports. Winning a title in football counts no more than winning a title in golf. A Final Four appearance in women's lacrosse gives you as much of a boost in the standings as a Final Four berth in men's basketball.
When you measure things that way, the top 10 still include many of the usual suspects: Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Florida, Texas. But the perennial big dog in the Sears Cup standings is Stanford, a school that has not represented the Pac-10 in a Rose Bowl since 1972, when it was still just the Pac-8 and before any of today's college football stars were even born.
Stanford's formula? Respectability in football, excellence in everything else. The Cardinal reach bowl games often enough to keep fans coming and to keep opponents from penciling in their scheduled dates as a W. In men's and women's basketball, they're regulars in the round of 16. In tennis, baseball, swimming and golf (remember where Tiger Woods went to school?), they're regularly champions.
Little wonder that, when Vanderbilt's brain trust publicly reassessed the athletic program a few years back, with visits to several schools around the country, the program they identified as a role model was Stanford's. Like Vandy, Stanford is an elite little private school swimming in a pond filled with enormous state universities. Unlike Vandy in the 1990s, Stanford athletics were the envy of all the big fish.
Something strange, however, has happened since then. Quietly, almost stealthily, Vanderbilt has started to look more and more like Stanford athletically. Vandy's reputation for football futility, earned and steadily reinforced over the past four decades, still dominates the perceptions of the athletic program. This year's Stanford-like successes, however, may begin to turn a few heads.
Check the standings. The most recently updated Sears Cup rankings show Vanderbilt at a respectable 44th.
That places Vandy seventh among SEC schools. They're behind Florida (6th), Georgia (7th), LSU (10th), Tennessee (21st), Auburn (22nd) and Arkansas (27th). They're ahead of South Carolina (46th), Alabama (47th), Kentucky (61st), Ole Miss (64th) and Mississippi State (110th).
They're ahead of Final Four participant Georgia Tech (49th), football giant Miami (56th) and such big-name schools as Boston College (55th) and Virginia Tech (63rd). They're way, way ahead of defending men's hoops champion Syracuse (147th). And they look to climb several spots higherperhaps surpassing state-school powers Iowa and Missouribecause the most recent standings do not factor in baseball, where Vandy now can finish no worse than 16th in the nation.
Baseball is perhaps the most visible of the spring sports that have represented Vanderbilt's best successes in emulating the Stanford model. (The Cardinal, by the way, are again perched atop this year's standings.) Sports like baseball may not pay their own freightat Vandy, they've euphemistically referred to them as "future revenue sports"but it's amazing what a relatively small amount of cash and attention can do for a moribund program.
Todd Turner, the last person at Vandy to hold the title of athletic director, had the sense to upgrade the baseball facility into a place that was an attractive venue for recruits to play and fans to watch the game. Then he hired an energetic young coach, Tim Corbin.
The results, though perhaps surpassing expectations, were not unpredictable. Riding a late-season surge, the Commodores reached the championship game of the SEC tournament (and were one base-running mistake away from winning it all). Then they swept through their regional round in Virginia to earn a berth in the Super Regionals in Austin this weekend. If they can take two of three games from highly ranked Texasnot as long a shot as some of the Geniuses think, given Vandy's strong and deep pitchingthey'll attain another first for the program: one of eight spots in the College World Series.
No matter what happens in Austin, however, Corbin has laid a foundation for success. Winning begets recruiting successes, which beget more on-field successes, which beget programs that can remain on a higher plane over extended periods. Though the 'Dores will lose pitcher Jeremy Sowers (the sixth overall pick in this week's professional draft), they have received commitments from two of the country's top high school pitchers (though one of them is entertaining a lucrative offer from the Minnesota Twins).
Meanwhile, Vandy's women's lacrosse team this spring gained a spot in the Final Four and finished third in the country. The women's golf team finished fifth in the NCAA tournament. The men's tennis team, though unable to duplicate its national runner-up performance of a year ago, still contributed Sears Cup points. So did the women's team.
All of these sports built upon the successes of men's and women's basketball. Both improved throughout the season, both reached the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament (the women lost at the buzzer to, um, Stanford), and both have a strong returning nucleus that give them a viable shot at matching or improving upon this year's models.
Vanderbilt's position in the all-sports standings is all the more surprising when you consider that the school managed to place so highly with at least one arm tied behind its collective back. The Sears Cup is calculated using a formula that counts the top 10 men's point-earners and top 10 women's point-earners from a list of 13 sports for each. Vandy fields varsity teams in only six of the listed men's sports and in only five of the women's sports.
What remains to be seen is whether, in addition to playing with one hand, Vandy is also hopping on just one foot. Not returning next year is the common denominator in the successes of this year's various sports teams at Vandyland: Todd Turner.
Now, without a formal director of athletics, Vandy's sports enterprise is carved up into several fiefdoms, each under a different manager who has not previously been involved in the hiring of coaches. Will the new mini-directors enjoy the clout to obtain the pay raises it may take to keep good coaches from leaving for more lucre? When the time comes, as it inevitably will, to replace departed coaches, will these novices have the network of connections and the negotiating savvy to attract the best candidates?
Among the sports punditocracy, the received wisdom isn't just "no" but "Hay-ul, no!" Then again, who thought lowly Vanderbilt could finish ahead of five SEC schools in the all-sports competition?
If the Media Geniuses are right, you'll hear plenty about it. If they're wrong, you'll know only by their deafening silence.
Check back in about three years.