IT'S AN HOUR before kickoff at Vanderbilt Stadium, and the
November air quivers with the feel of college football in a
graveyard: There is no life here. The Commodore band marches
dutifully about soggy Dudley Field, horns and drums echoing
through gray emptiness; an icy wind lashes the stadium's 41,000
naked seats. Outside these walls, things are different. There a
city buzzes with the can-do fever that always marks the first
stage of a pro sports boom. Nashville has become a player. The
Houston Oilers last week signed a 30-year lease on a new $292.1
million stadium that the city will build for them. That kind of
bottom-line eagerness has not been lost on other restless
owners; Nashville sits atop the short list of any franchise in
any sport seeking leverage, lucre and civic love.
"Four years ago Nashville was in a blue funk," says Mayor Phil
Bredesen. "But what I told Nashville is, 'You can do whatever
you want. You want an NFL team? You can have one.' Getting a pro
sports team has given people a whole new sense of themselves."
But here, high above Dudley Field, there is no sense of renewal
or energy or even interest. Paul Hoolahan is still Vandy's
athletic director, though he resigned on Sept. 28, prior to the
fourth game of the football team's latest pathetic season.
Today's game against Louisiana Tech is the 1,000th in
Vanderbilt's history, a milestone marred by the fact that the
Commodores have been consistently awful for the past several
decades. Vanderbilt, one of America's top academic institutions,
has had only one winning football season in the last 20, has
never won a Southeastern Conference title and, with last week's
38-7 pasting by Florida and a similar fate waiting this Saturday
at Tennessee, should finish 2-9 this season.
A sign in Bredesen's offices tells the tale: WILL THE LADY WHO
LEFT HER 11 KIDS AT DUDLEY FIELD, PLEASE PICK THEM UP--THEY'RE
BEATING VANDERBILT 14-0. Vanderbilt's football program is a joke.
"I was going to change things. I had a blueprint," says
Hoolahan, who came to Vanderbilt in 1990, 39 years old and sure
he could build an academic-athletic power like Duke or Stanford.
"But then I started looking from the standpoint, What's the
probability? What are the variables? I tried to figure what the
outcome would be--and it doesn't look like success to me."
It looks more like continued disaster. Hoolahan's abrupt
resignation was merely the latest embarrassment for Vanderbilt
sports, which, on his watch, countered strong gains in
basketball and tennis with a dazzling string of setbacks. In
1993, after a 28-win season, men's hoops coach Eddie Fogler
skipped off to SEC rival South Carolina without Vandy making a
real effort to stop him. Football coach Gerry DiNardo, who
finished 6-4-1 this season at LSU, bolted last year after 4-7
and 5-6 seasons--good performances by Vanderbilt
standards--because of, he says, uneasy relationships with
officials in and above Hoolahan's department. An athletic
department deficit, which Hoolahan had cut to $1.5 million, has
rocketed to $2.8 million. Football season-ticket sales are at an
alltime low. New coach Rod Dowhower, so blistered by angry calls
to his talk show this season, even offered to take himself off
the air. "This ship has taken on so much water that it's beyond
listing," says one athletic official. "It's about to capsize."
And now, local apathy toward Commodore athletics figures to get
worse. Not only are the Oilers all but committed to moving to
Nashville for the 1998 season (contingent upon, among other
things, Nashville's selling 44,700 personal seat licenses and 82
luxury boxes before Feb. 15), but a 20,000-seat downtown arena
under construction beckons NBA and NHL franchises. Nashville
flirted in vain in '94 with the Minnesota Timberwolves and last
spring with the New Jersey Devils, but the Edmonton Oilers and
the Florida Panthers are seeking new homes, and both the NBA and
the NHL are making noises about expansion. To a populace weary
of Vanderbilt's long tradition of bad football and well-heeled
arrogance toward the community, any alternative will be welcome.
"Unless they're Vanderbilt alums, their loyalty is going to
shift," DiNardo says. "The Oilers will hurt Vanderbilt football."
But no more than the Commodores have hurt themselves. For many
fans, the deathblow came last March, when Chancellor Joe B.
Wyatt drew a line in the sand during the recruiting of blue-chip
basketball prospect Ron Mercer, the best local talent in a
generation and a player who wanted to attend Vanderbilt. Mercer,
expected to be a starter in his freshman year at Kentucky this
season, was by all accounts a motivated but marginal high school
student with grades and SAT scores just above the NCAA minimums.
While some top-level schools accept and nurture such students,
Wyatt backed his admissions office's rejection of Mercer.
Academics cheered. But for alumni, students and administrators,
it was the clearest signal yet that Vanderbilt is more concerned
with its scholarly reputation than competing--especially since
exceptions for less famous athletes had been made before. "If
they had wanted to get him in here, they could have," says
Commodore senior offensive tackle Robert Couch. "I guarantee you
there are guys on the football team who aren't as smart as
The resulting brouhaha, public and messy, engendered such a
savage backlash--and a loss of ticket revenue and alumni
contributions to the athletic department estimated at $1.3
million--that Wyatt appointed an 11-member committee from the
board of trustees to find out if a school can compete in one of
America's best football conferences and still graduate 90% of
its athletes. He also asked the committee to see how Duke and
Stanford and, now, Northwestern have found a way to win on the
national level. A final report isn't due until the end of April,
but preliminary findings have convinced co-chairs Thomas Frist
and John Hall that dropping out of the SEC isn't necessary. If
that opinion holds, Vanderbilt's current approach must go. "It's
not fair to all the different constituencies in the
community--the students, the alumni--to continue to equivocate,"
Frist says. "Every other part of the school strives for
excellence. All of us feel that Vanderbilt ought to strive for
excellence in athletics."
In other words, as committee member Kenneth Roberts says, "if
Duke and Stanford and Northwestern can do it, why can't we?"
The emergence of Northwestern--rated higher academically than
Vanderbilt by U.S. News & World Report--as a football force has
handed the committee a shining example. But, Hoolahan warns, any
similarity between Northwestern's situation and Vanderbilt's
ends on the surface. "I'm an easy scapegoat, I'm the head guy,"
he says. "But the problems extend to long before I got here--and
unless something major happens, the problems will continue."
Hoolahan inherited a budget $3.5 million in the red. Despite a
mandate to bolster women's sports, which has produced a Final
Four basketball team but no revenue, he shaved the shortfall by
$2 million in five years. But the Mercer decision spurred a loss
of support; ticket buyers and alums sewed up their wallets, and
the debt ballooned. Under Wyatt's policy of requiring each
department to support itself, Hoolahan saw no relief on the
horizon--especially after the university's recent fund-raising
campaign netted over half a billion dollars, with little
earmarked for sports.
"I'm looking down two barrels," Hoolahan says. "Here's the
shotgun: Mercer happens, and our fans say, 'That's an
administration attitude we can't deal with. We're not paying.'
And they don't show up for our games. Now the Oilers are coming,
and their personal seat licenses will be sold in January and
then the luxury boxes--and all the corporate sponsorships I've
lived on are going to start to dry up. Then the NHL is going to
come to town ... and not far behind that the NBA!"
He lets that sink in and then asks, "Does that make sense?" It
is 30 minutes before kickoff. Fewer than 10,000 fans will show
up: An SEC team is playing football, and no one cares. Hoolahan
opens his arms to encompass it all--the bad team, the crowd, the
indifferent city outside. "Does this make sense?" he says.
Oh, yes. Bredesen is more than happy to call up Nashville's
outdated image: "I thought you-all sat on hay bales down there!"
he says with a laugh. Sitting in his office just days before the
Oilers signed up, he can afford to poke fun. But the fact is,
when Bredesen, a Harvard graduate with a degree in physics,
moved to Nashville 20 years ago, the city had little to offer in
the way of restaurants or entertainment beyond the slick-hick
heartbeat of country music. Since then, the so-called Buckle of
the Bible Belt has quietly traded on Vanderbilt's status as a
medical mecca to become the latest Dixie miracle, a New South
urban core with dream demographics and a mayor savvy enough to
use them. Bredesen doesn't care about sports. He's a businessman
who parlayed a healthcare business into a $100 million fortune,
a boss who knows what language sells to other bosses. "We just
put ourselves in play," he says. "People become aware that
Nashville is willing to sit down and deal."
Guided by former Madison Square Garden president Richard Evans,
who is now executive vice president of Gaylord Entertainment in
Nashville, Bredesen flogged all the numbers while chasing the
Timberwolves and Devils: Nashville's population is comparable to
Jacksonville's and larger than Charlotte's, New Orleans's and
Buffalo's; and the city has more companies with 500-plus
employees--potential luxury-box buyers--than Tampa. If they become
Tennessee's first pro team, the Oilers will get first crack at a
wealthy fan base, one with little connection to Vanderbilt
sports and even less to a school that generates jobs and
prestige but little goodwill.
"I'll be honest; it's an institution that has held itself very
apart from the community," Bredesen says. "Vanderbilt is seen
more as a big gorilla that has made its home over there--but
nobody invites it to dinner. When something bad happens to the
sports program, instead of wringing their hands, a lot of people
say, 'It couldn't happen to nicer people.'"
Such sentiment leaves Wyatt and the sports committee facing the
essential questions of college athletics, with less room than
usual to wiggle. After all, Vanderbilt competes against Alabama
and Auburn--not Princeton--and the only way to carve a niche with
pro sports coming to town is by winning. But at what cost?
"We've had to challenge everything," Frist says. "Is
intercollegiate athletics important to university life? Is it
important in alumni relations, community relations, to the
students on campus, esprit de corps? Is it financially
incompatible? Most important, we had to challenge: Does it
compromise the academic standing?"
Visits by committee members to Duke, Northwestern and Stanford
have shown that big-time sports and studies can coexist, but not
without concessions. Northwestern's football team is no sudden
fluke: Four years ago, "we had a commitment from the
administration that athletics is important," says Northwestern
athletic director Rick Taylor. Then the school plucked coach
Gary Barnett from the staff at Colorado--and authorized raises
for his assistants. The previous five years at Northwestern had
seen five different offensive and five different defensive
coordinators. "That's a recipe for failure," Taylor says. Since
Barnett arrived in 1992, the Wildcats have had no such changes.
Meanwhile, Northwestern's academic standards haven't suffered; a
1995 NCAA study showed that the high school grade point average
of incoming Wildcat football players from 1991-94 was
3.21--compared to 2.71 for all of Division I-A--and that their SAT
average was 1,037, well above the national average of 851 for
football recruits. Vanderbilt's averages were 2.95 and 964,
respectively. Though Northwestern has taken some academic risks,
"We were admitting people who could not get in to Northwestern,"
says DiNardo. The committee agrees with Wyatt's pronouncement
that it is "a moral issue" to take only those students who
project to graduate, but somebody either underestimates
Vanderbilt's teachers or has an inflated view of the school's
academic rigor. "If you can get in, you'd have to be an idiot
not to graduate," says junior running back Jermaine Johnson.
"The support staff? You need a tutor, you've got it. I was
having a problem in an algebra-trig class. I went and talked to
the professor, and he tutored me himself. And there are a lot of
professors who'd do that for you."
The sports committee seems bent on recommending that redtape be
reduced in determining a recruit's eligibility, that tutoring be
beefed up and that money be diverted from the general fund to
wipe out the athletic debt, but none of that will mean much
unless the core attitude at Vanderbilt changes. The Commodores'
greatest enemy is not the Oilers, not yet. Committee members and
outsiders say the greatest enemy is a campus culture that breeds
mistrust between administrators and the athletic department, and
a uniquely arrogant defeatism that discourages the football team
from achieving any real success. After meeting with the
Vanderbilt committee, Taylor was struck by this attitude.
"Vanderbilt keeps figuring out ways not to be successful," he
The 1,000th game seemed a good time to think of the future until
Hoolahan, the lame-duck athletic director, peered down at the
scene and said, "This scares the heck out of you." The
Commodores had just beaten Louisiana Tech 29-6 and at the end
the sun had broken through. But it didn't matter. No one
lingered but the band; fans and coaches and seniors in their
last home game rushed to get away. The place was dead.
COLOR PHOTO: PAT SULLIVAN/AP Houston fan Derrick Lockridge is too young to know that his team will flee to a yet-to-be-built stadium in Nashville if Oiler owner Adams (in glasses) and Mayor Bredesen get their way. [Derrick Lockridge standing above sign that reads: "PLEASE DON'T GIVE OUR OILERS TO THE TENN. HILLBILLY'S"]
COLOR PHOTO [See caption above--aerial view of proposed stadium]
COLOR PHOTO: MARK HUMPHREY/AP [See caption above--Bud Adams presenting jersey to Phil Bredesen]
COLOR PHOTO: RICK STEWART No Nashvillian will mistake Reba McEntire for an Oiler or a Panther if one of those teams moves next to the Grand Ole Opry (foreground). [Player for Edmonton Oilers]
COLOR PHOTO: JERRY WACHTER [See caption above--player for Florida Panthers]
COLOR PHOTO: ED RODE [See caption above--aerial view of stadium under construction next to Grand Ole Opry]COLOR PHOTO: JIM BROWN Empty seats were easy to find at Vanderbilt Stadium, even in 1994 when Vandy went 5-6. [Fans sitting in stands]
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT ROGERS The Vandy player is on the bottom, which is where the Commodores have too often resided. [Vanderbilt University player under pile of University ofFlorida players]
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: JIM BROWN (2)Given a choice of staying put or going elsewhere in the SEC, DiNardo (above) and Fogler took a walk. [Gerry DiNardo talking to players; Eddie Fogler]