As a heavy rain fell on Vanderbilt's players during their warm-up prior to Saturday's football game against Mississippi State, the one thing on the minds of those on the field and in the stands was change.
As such, there was a poetic element to the weather. In literature and in cinema there is no more potent symbol of change than water. Almost always, it epitomizes the cleaning of the slate and a fresh start—no matter how grave the record.
It was a baptism that long-suffering Vanderbilt football fans thought they'd be happy to take.
This time things were going to be different for the Commodores, coming on the heels of their first winning season in a quarter-century. Different than the last time they played Mississippi State, which—after a 5-0 start—turned out to be their first loss in 2008. Different than so many other seasons when Vanderbilt rarely stood a chance against even the most pedestrian of Southeastern Conference opponents. Different than the home games of decades past, when the fans in the stands expected the worst and typically got it.
But on a night on which they were favored by more than a touchdown—still basking in the glow of a season in which they won more than they lost and secured a victory in a bowl game for just the second time ever—against an opponent with just 13 conference victories in its last 57 tries and which allowed 49 points a week earlier, Vanderbilt stumbled.
By day's end, in their first conference home game of 2009, the Commodores took a 15-3 beating. That early rainfall turned out to be a cold splash of reality.
Change will not happen in an instant for Vanderbilt football. It has taken eight years under the direction of coach Bobby Johnson and his loyal collection of assistants to get to this point. It has taken upgrades in facilities and talent level. Most of all, it has taken patience. That one defeat proved that the wait is not over—if indeed it will ever be over.
"I've told everybody quite often (that) if we ever get it as good as we can get it here at Vanderbilt, we're going to have to fight every game that we play," Johnson says. "It's going to be a battle, and if we don't execute, things like that can happen [as they did] on Saturday night.
"The hump is never over. You never have the answer. You have to do it every week, especially in this league."
So why do 'Dores fans seem more than cautiously optimistic this season? The most recent result not withstanding, there is ample evidence to suggest that the Commodores no longer are just a scholarly, mild-mannered team surrounded by squads of state school bullies. That nerd with the bifocals may just prove to be Clark Kent looking for a phone booth.
Five times in the last three seasons—once each in 2006 and 2007, and three times in 2008—Vanderbilt scored victories over ranked opponents. Under Johnson, the school has snapped losing streaks of 22 games against Tennessee, 13 games against Auburn and 11 games against Georgia.
Just as telling is how the team has performed in defeat.
Before last Saturday, only two of the previous eight conference losses (which dated back to the middle of the 2007 season) were by more than 10 points. Both of those were against the University of Florida, an annual meatgrinder. Contrast that with Johnson's first season in 2002, when the Commodores lost all eight of their SEC games by an average margin of 14.9 points.
But the most exciting development this season may be a quality the Commodores haven't had before in this abundance, or in this many positions: speed. Not long ago, Vanderbilt coaches moved safeties to linebackers and linebackers to defensive linemen in order to quicken their defense. Now, the number of swift players on that side of the ball is being matched on offense, as coaches have found players such as redshirt-freshman receivers John Cole and Udom Umoh and true freshman running backs Zac Stacy and Warren Norman to give Vandy more speed in more places than ever before.
All of that has quelled the talk that Vanderbilt ought to leave the Southeastern Conference, a notion that was raised occasionally a decade or so ago.
"I heard that from a few people on the academic side when I was there," says Todd Turner, former VU director of athletics. "By being in the SEC, the university subsidy of athletics is greatly reduced, and if Vanderbilt was in a league with schools of similar academic stature—or any other existing conference, probably—I think the university subsidy would have to be much greater. That would make it harder.
"The best thing the university has done has been to keep Bobby Johnson and to upgrade the facilities, which allowed him to keep his staff largely intact. You have to have that consistency if you want to be able to compete."
Johnson entered this season second among SEC coaches in terms of longevity in his current position. Seven of his nine assistants have been with him the entire time—and most of them also worked under him when he was head coach at Furman. By comparison, Georgia's Mark Richt has been on the job one year longer than Johnson, but he only has four assistants who have been with him the entire time.
What difference does that make? In its first season under Johnson, Furman notched a 3-8 record. By the end of his eighth, the school had upped that to 12-3 and a spot in the Division I-AA championship. Similarly, Vanderbilt grew from 2-10 in his first season to 7-6 in his seventh last fall—the Commodores' first winning record in 26 years. The last time a Vanderbilt football coach lasted more than seven seasons was Art Guepe, who guided the school to its only other bowl victory. Guepe had the job from 1953-62.
That sort of win drought might scare off more timid souls. Instead, it fires up fifth-year Vanderbilt senior Bradley Vierling, a starting offensive lineman who picked the school precisely because of the challenge.
"As soon as I came down here and saw this place, and how much this coaching staff wanted to win and change the attitude around here and the way this place was perceived, it makes you want to come to a place like this," Vierling says. "It makes you want to do something special.
"You could go to Florida or Georgia or Alabama and do something that's been done. That's awesome, and that's great. But when you come to a place like this and do something special and be a part of history, that's pretty big-time."
That promise has brought the dreams of Commodores fans back from the brink of life support. For many, the hope was that Vanderbilt's 16-13 victory over Boston College in the Music City Bowl last New Year's Eve was a glimpse into the future, one in which postseason appearances would be a regular (or at least semi-regular) occurrence rather than something that came around about as often as a comet.
Yet at least one person sitting in the stands at LP Field that evening, 71-year-old Randall Wyatt, was transported back in time. It happened with exactly 10:35 remaining on the game clock in the third quarter, when a Commodores punt bounced off the leg of a Boston College player. It rolled into the end zone, where freshman safety Sean Richardson recovered it for a touchdown.
"I thought in that game it was like suddenly the things that used to happen to Vanderbilt all the time happened to somebody else," says Wyatt, now a local Criminal Court judge. "I had seen quite a few things like that over the years go the other way."
It brought him full circle, all the way back to the first Vanderbilt game he ever saw, Oct. 11, 1947.
Accompanying his father, he watched the Commodores defeat 10th ranked Ole Miss, which was led by legendary halfback Charlie Conerly. To a Vanderbilt fan, it must've been like having a skybox seat for the sacking of Troy. The difference that day, the coin flip of fate, was the unpredictable bounce of a football.
"There was some kind of disputed tip play that went Vanderbilt's way," Wyatt said. "Ole Miss had a really good team that year. I've been following Vanderbilt ever since. I even sold popcorn and peanuts in the stadium for a time."
Between the tip that toppled Conerly and the Rebels, though, and the punt that helped edge the Eagles were years upon years of heartbreak and frustration.
By the time Wyatt became a season ticketholder in the 1960s, the Commodores were in the midst of their first sustained stretch of futility—13 losing seasons in 14 years, from 1960-73. That was just the first taste of pain. There were no winning seasons between 1983 and 2008, and five of the six different head coaches during that period went winless in the SEC at least once.
Through it all, Wyatt—a self-professed "eternal optimist"—remained a loyal supporter and even passed along his passion for Vanderbilt athletics to two more generations. As he witnessed the Music City Bowl victory firsthand, he did so surrounded by roughly a dozen family members in the stands.
"Some of the adverse experiences over the years make me feel more determined to stay the course," Wyatt says. "I'm too old to change and too stubborn to give up."
Despite the solidarity in the stands and on the field, though, much must be accomplished before Vanderbilt's football program is considered a national—or even a conference—power.
The Commodores, for example, are the only founding members of the SEC who never have won a conference championship. They still have not had a winning conference record since 1982. (They were 4-4 last year.) They are one of four teams that have yet to play in the conference championship game in the 17 seasons since the current scheduling format was adopted in 1992.
"In terms of sheer talent and numbers, Vanderbilt is always going to be at a disadvantage," Turner says. "I just don't think that it can ever be Florida—nor does it want to be.
"I don't think there's any question it's closer to competing for conference championships than to where it was eight years ago. To have a season where it makes that jump, I think it takes a lot of luck. And by that I mean no key interceptions, no holding calls when there shouldn't be a holding a call, a loose ball that bounces this way instead of that way."
Things like the play Wyatt witnessed all the way back in 1947, which helped Vanderbilt beat Ole Miss and which made it seem to a young man in the stands like anything was possible for the program. Or the one he saw nearly nine months ago in the bowl victory for which he'd waited so long.
For what it's worth, the NFL has taken notice.
At least one VU player has been drafted in four of the last five years, including first-rounders Jay Cutler (11th overall, 2006) and Chris Williams (14th, 2008). Cutler's selection snapped a 20-year drought since the school's last first-round selection (Will Wolford, 1986). It also was during that time—1984-88—that Vanderbilt last had players drafted in four out of five years.
That type of talent is not unique in the SEC. It's necessary. Johnson and his staff have therefore worked tirelessly over the years to make sure more of those players end up on the Vanderbilt campus and in the locker room.
"First and foremost, you have to have a great coaching staff, which we do," Bradley Vierling says. "Second, you have to have great players, and I think we have that. Then from that it's just playing football and trying to do the right thing at the right times."
Still, there's one thing about football that never changes, whether it's at Vanderbilt or anywhere else in the SEC or the United States: One team is going to lose.
Less than 30 minutes after the loss to Mississippi State, Vierling stood in a sweat-soaked T-shirt, still wearing his football pants and shoes, and tried to make sense of what happened for a collection of local reporters.
At that point, his mind already was on the restorative powers of water.
"Right after the game is probably the down part," he said. "As soon as I take off my pads and take a shower, I get rid of it.
"You wash it off. You have to."
If they didn't, things never would have changed at Vanderbilt.
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