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ON THE LIST of desirable sports jobs, " Vanderbilt baseball ticket scalper" has historically ranked pretty low, usually somewhere down around "Rick Majerus's personal trainer" and " Pete Rose's accountant." But last Friday the hawkers were out in front of Hawkins Field, where the Commodores were hosting an NCAA regional, asking $50 for a $10 ticket. Yes, these are heady days at Vandy, and not just because the baseball team—which not long ago considered 200 people a good draw—was pulling in SRO crowds of 3,500 over the weekend. Vanderbilt is enjoying unprecedented success in every sport, a run made all the more remarkable by the fact that four years ago it eliminated its athletic department.
In a move that shocked students, alumni, fans and more than a few Vanderbilt coaches, the school's bow-tie-wearing chancellor, Gordon Gee, announced in the fall of 2003 that he was "declaring war on a culture that has isolated athletics from what the college experience is supposed to be about." No particular scandal—at Vandy or any other school—motivated him, only a sense that he didn't want his university to become the kind of place where the term student-athlete required quotation marks. And so AD Todd Turner was let go, and the school's intercollegiate programs were folded into the office of student life—the same department that oversees intramurals.
Down South there's a 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 David Williams, vice chancellor for university affairs. Bruce Van de Velde, then the Iowa State A.D., said, "If this is the kind of vision they have for their athletic program, I question whether they belong in the SEC." Says Willy Daunic, a former VU baseball and basketball player who hosts a radio show in Nashville, "It was a doomsday mentality—fans called in saying, What are they doing?"
Commodores coaches wondered the same thing. "I was definitely worried," says women's tennis coach Geoff MacDonald. "It's like an earthquake in your landscape." The immediate challenge for coaches was convincing recruits that the school was still aiming high. "It was a tough first fall," says MacDonald. "Rumors got out that we were becoming a recreation department. The coaches had to do a good job explaining that that wasn't the case."
Gee had several motives: He put Vanderbilt in the forefront of the movement to clean up college sports; he saved money by cutting jobs; and he reduced the chance that he'd be blindsided by the kind of scandals that emanate from athletic departments that run unchecked. But what he and Williams highlighted when they met with recruits—and they met with plenty—was that the new way would actually make life better for athletes. With no jock floors in dorms, they'd be integrated into the student body, encouraging them to indulge in new extracurriculars, meet more people and have more fun. "Let 'em eat at a smorgasbord," is how Williams puts it.
That became a selling point for recruits and parents alike. In fact, since 2003 Vanderbilt has attracted the best athletes in its history: Lefthanded pitcher David Price is expected to be the top pick in the MLB draft next week, and swingman Derrick Byars should be a mid-first-round pick in the NBA draft. This year 10 of the 16 programs made their NCAA tournaments, and the school won its first team national championship, in women's bowling. The men's basketball team was a disputed traveling call away from the Elite Eight, the women's hoops team won the SEC title. And the baseball team—which was upset by Michigan on Monday night—was No. 1 most of the year and won the school's first regular-season SEC championship. "I always felt at a minimum we'd service our student-athletes better, make them more well-rounded," says Williams. "When that starts, everything falls into place."
Williams also points out that since the restructuring, players are taking part in student government, the honor council and study-abroad programs. The cumulative GPA of athletes has risen from 2.8 to 2.994. Of course, Gee had hoped for more; he wanted other schools to follow his lead, which hasn't happened. But he has much to feel good about, like the raucous sellout crowds that crammed into Hawkins Field all weekend. Funny where the high road can take you.
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