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A Process of Elimination

Vanderbilt has found greater sports success since losing its athletic department

ON THE LIST ofdesirable sports jobs, "Vanderbilt baseball ticket scalper" hashistorically ranked pretty low, usually somewhere down around "RickMajerus's personal trainer" and "Pete Rose's accountant." But lastFriday the hawkers were out in front of Hawkins Field, where the Commodoreswere hosting an NCAA regional, asking $50 for a $10 ticket. Yes, these areheady days at Vandy, and not just because the baseball team—which not long agoconsidered 200 people a good draw—was pulling in SRO crowds of 3,500 over theweekend. Vanderbilt is enjoying unprecedented success in every sport, a runmade all the more remarkable by the fact that four years ago it eliminated itsathletic department.

In a move thatshocked students, alumni, fans and more than a few Vanderbilt coaches, theschool's bow-tie-wearing chancellor, Gordon Gee, announced in the fall of 2003that he was "declaring war on a culture that has isolated athletics fromwhat the college experience is supposed to be about." No particularscandal—at Vandy or any other school—motivated him, only a sense that he didn'twant his university to become the kind of place where the term student-athleterequired quotation marks. And so AD Todd Turner was let go, and the school'sintercollegiate programs were folded into the office of student life—the samedepartment that oversees intramurals.

Down South there'sa saying about Vanderbilt: first in law, first in medicine, last in the SEC.When Gee made his announcement, even that seemed like a stretch. "We heard,'They're getting out of the SEC! They're leaving Division I A!'" says DavidWilliams, vice chancellor for university affairs. Bruce Van de Velde, then theIowa State A.D., said, "If this is the kind of vision they have for theirathletic program, I question whether they belong in the SEC." Says WillyDaunic, a former VU baseball and basketball player who hosts a radio show inNashville, "It was a doomsday mentality—fans called in saying, What arethey doing?"

Commodores coacheswondered the same thing. "I was definitely worried," says women'stennis coach Geoff MacDonald. "It's like an earthquake in yourlandscape." The immediate challenge for coaches was convincing recruitsthat the school was still aiming high. "It was a tough first fall,"says MacDonald. "Rumors got out that we were becoming a recreationdepartment. The coaches had to do a good job explaining that that wasn't thecase."

Gee had severalmotives: He put Vanderbilt in the forefront of the movement to clean up collegesports; he saved money by cutting jobs; and he reduced the chance that he'd beblindsided by the kind of scandals that emanate from athletic departments thatrun unchecked. But what he and Williams highlighted when they met withrecruits—and they met with plenty—was that the new way would actually make lifebetter for athletes. With no jock floors in dorms, they'd be integrated intothe student body, encouraging them to indulge in new extracurriculars, meetmore people and have more fun. "Let 'em eat at a smorgasbord," is howWilliams puts it.

That became aselling point for recruits and parents alike. In fact, since 2003 Vanderbilthas attracted the best athletes in its history: Lefthanded pitcher David Priceis expected to be the top pick in the MLB draft next week, and swingman DerrickByars should be a mid-first-round pick in the NBA draft. This year 10 of the 16programs made their NCAA tournaments, and the school won its first teamnational championship, in women's bowling. The men's basketball team was adisputed traveling call away from the Elite Eight, the women's hoops team wonthe SEC title. And the baseball team—which was upset by Michigan on Mondaynight—was No. 1 most of the year and won the school's first regular-season SECchampionship. "I always felt at a minimum we'd service our student-athletesbetter, make them more well-rounded," says Williams. "When that starts,everything falls into place."

Williams alsopoints out that since the restructuring, players are taking part in studentgovernment, the honor council and study-abroad programs. The cumulative GPA ofathletes has risen from 2.8 to 2.994. Of course, Gee had hoped for more; hewanted other schools to follow his lead, which hasn't happened. But he has muchto feel good about, like the raucous sellout crowds that crammed into HawkinsField all weekend. Funny where the high road can take you.

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