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 Mercer."
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?"