The football coach in black paced back and forth, pointing toward the projector screen at the front of the room. He had a message he wanted to send.
Vanderbilt coach James Franklin began to speak about walk-on fullback Marc Panu, a chemical engineering major who had spent the previous three seasons earning playing time on special teams.
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“You want to watch a guy who’s trying to find a role on this team,” Franklin said, his voice rising.
As Franklin spoke, a clip of highlights played on the projector. Panu sat among a crowd of Vandy football players. Finally, Franklin stopped, held up a sheet of paper and looked toward Panu.
“That’s why I’m so proud to let Marc Panu know that he’s got a full scholarship,” Franklin shouted, as the room erupted with applause.
This scene played out nearly two weeks ago in a team meeting. The video of the event went viral on YouTube, drawing more than 360,000 views. It could have played out at hundreds of schools across the country — big or small, BCS or Division II. But this was Vanderbilt, a school that prides itself in seeing the big picture in college athletics. So maybe the Vandy image added to what so many people were watching. Maybe that’s why it seemed authentic.
To say that Vanderbilt is an outlier in the Southeastern Conference is a little bit like saying that a literary discussion would be an outlier at an LSU tailgate party while the locals cook alligator sauce piquant. Vanderbilt is the only private school in the conference, the only school with an enrollment well below 20,000 (Vandy is at just a shade over 12,000 if you count graduate students) and it’s located in the heart of Nashville, one of the largest and most cultured cities in the Southeast. Not exactly a Southern college town for your postcard.
Maybe football and sports mean just as much in Nashville as in Oxford or Tuscaloosa or Baton Rouge. But Vanderbilt has a rigorous academic tradition— and for school officials, there’s always been a tendency to remind outsiders that other things should be important there as well.
At no point was this more apparent than in 2003, when then-school president E. Gordon Gee made national news by killing the athletic department at Vanderbilt and putting its scholarship sports under a new umbrella that, in Gee’s words, would be “more connected to the mission of the university and more accountable to the institution’s academic leadership.”
More than anything, the move may have been symbolic. But in the aftermath of the decision, a hasty perception crystallized. If Vanderbilt was behind before, it now had zero chance in the cutthroat SEC.
“It was like a tsunami,” Gee said in 2008. “The obituary for Vanderbilt and its athletic program were written by every newspaper in the country. And my personal obituary was written.”
Nearly nine years later, those predictions now appear tenuous at best. Not only did Vanderbilt not crumble under the weight of the SEC, but the Commodores’ athletic teams actually did the opposite: They gained ground in the fierce SEC.
“I think we’ve been remarkably successful,” said Vanderbilt’s David Williams II, a law professor and university vice chancellor who spent the last nine years overseeing the school’s athletic programs.
The new model has been so successful, university officials say, that last month Williams was given the title of athletic director — a move designed to keep the school’s sports teams on the upswing.
“By every measure, the game has changed for Vanderbilt athletics over the past nine years,” Vanderbilt chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos said last month, while announcing Williams’ new role.
Williams points to recent on-field success as a prime reason that athletics don’t have to feel like a separate part of a university setting, that athletes don’t have to forgo a normal college experience to play a scholarship sport at the Division I level. Last season, Vanderbilt competed in postseason play in football, men’s and women’s basketball and baseball. It’s still unlikely that you’ll see the Commodores competing for an SEC football title anytime soon, but two bowl appearances in the last four years suggest that Vandy will no longer be a perennial whipping boy.
The addition of Missouri and Texas A&M to the SEC also means that Vanderbilt is no longer quite such an outsider in the academic realm. For years, the SEC’s academic reputation languished far behind its competitors in the Big Ten and ACC. Only Vandy and Florida were members of the prestigious American Association of Universities. With the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M, that number now stands at four.
Maybe Alabama and Florida won’t be clamoring to go the Vanderbilt route anytime soon. But it’s worked in Nashville.
“I for one … really believe that we’ve just scratched the surface,” Williams said.