Success sparks football renovations at Vanderbilt
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- A bowl berth in football, the first Southeastern Conference men's basketball tournament title in 61 years and the league cross-country championship are just some of the accomplishments for the Vanderbilt Commodores this year.
For the man in charge of athletics at the SEC's only private university, the lengthy list of accomplishments is very nice. But Vice Chancellor David Williams said no one at Vanderbilt wants to get too relaxed or complacent, citing the Commodores' second bowl game in four seasons at the Liberty Bowl with helping drive expectations higher.
"Once you go to a bowl game and you experience it, you don't want to stop, so nobody, nobody wants to face the other now," Williams said Wednesday. "It's kind of like they've tasted the best, and they don't want to go back to the other. So everyone's pulling hard, and everyone's experienced that."
Vanderbilt's success may not measure up to all the national championships Alabama is racking up, but by Commodores' standards, this has been a very successful year nearly across the board.
James Franklin made his debut as football coach by going 6-7 with that Liberty Bowl berth and recruiting success not seen in decades at the SEC's smallest school. The men's basketball team lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament, but that loss was eased a bit by knocking off eventual national champ Kentucky in the SEC tournament, where New Orleans was painted Wildcat blue.
The women's basketball team reached the second round of the NCAA tournament hosted at Memorial Gym, and the women's golf team reached the NCAA championships hosted at the Vanderbilt Legends Club. Tim Corbin's baseball team followed up its first College World Series berth by coming an inning shy of another Super Regional appearance despite losing 12 players from that CWS squad in the major league draft.
"It's been a good year, and now the piece of it, we just got our grades yesterday and for the sixth consecutive year the 325 student-athletes' average GPA is actually 3.08," said Williams, who oversees university affairs and athletics. "So we're right at that 3.1 we're going to crack next year."
Now Vanderbilt might be making some of its biggest moves in the offseason.
At the football stadium, new artificial turf is being laid to go along with new lighting. The new Jumbotron that Franklin put at the top of his wish list soon will be going in, and the open end zone at the end of the horseshoe-shaped stadium is being turned into a new grassy berm for fans. Vanderbilt officials got the idea for the berm after a win at Wake Forest last season, and installing the berm using the grass from the field made it a cost-saving move.
Williams said the original plan was to install the upgraded lighting with the Jumbotron. Officials found enough money in reserves to proceed with changing the grass to turf, a move that will allow Vanderbilt to team with the Nashville Sports Council and bid to host Tennessee's high school football championships.
Across the street, workers are building new meeting rooms and locker rooms for other sports. The dining hall also is being renovated with all of the work due to be done in August before the Commodores open the football season by hosting South Carolina on Aug. 30 in a nationally televised game.
"It's great because you open up the football season," Williams said. "With each passing day now, that football desire is going to get bigger and bigger and bigger. Wait till they finish with the NBA. And to know that first day when people come back to football, they'll be watching us? Yeah, that's cool."
And that's just some of the changes under way at the SEC's smallest school.
Workers installed a new Jumbotron inside Memorial Gym last week with a much sharper display that includes better branding for Vanderbilt along with a 2-foot LED board at the bottom for extra stats and ads. An anonymous donor contributed approximately 99.9 percent of the cost to replace the grass at Hawkins Field with an artificial playing surface before the fall season, a move Corbin wanted to give his team a consistent surface year-round.
Vanderbilt also should break ground sometime this fall on a new building that will house the indoor practice field Franklin's success helped get off the wish list into action.
Williams had to have a long talk with Franklin in late May after the coach's comments about checking out possible assistants' wives to make sure they had the look of a "D1" prospect. Williams said Franklin acknowledged his mistake and apologized. Williams also has reminded Franklin that he now is on a much bigger stage than when he was an assistant coach.
"Part of what makes him successful is who he is, so we've got to keep that success," Williams said. "At the same time, say let's work to make sure we don't have some of the bumps in the road. But James will be fine."
Once the current projects are concluded, Williams already has plans to improve seating at the football stadium along with the suites and press box along with other "creature comforts" to improve the game-day experience enough that fans can't stay at home and watch on TV.
"If you think of pro sports, we're that small-market team, even though in the SEC we're in the biggest city," Williams said. "We're the small-market team. We're the only private school. We've got the smallest enrollment. We've got the smallest alumni base. It's more expensive to go here. It's harder to get in, so we're kind of that small-market team, that engine that keeps having to say, `I can, I can, I can.' And we're doing it.
"But make no mistake. We want to be better."
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