Fans have felt at home inside Vanderbilt Stadium this season. Opposing fans, that is.
The LSU faithful threw their own little Mardi Gras party in September when purple and gold overtook the Commodores’ home venue. Just a couple weeks ago, Florida’s blue and orange draped the entire visiting grandstand. It wasn’t anything like the Swamp — the nickname of the Gators’ stadium — but it was definitely a “wetland,” as one reporter pointed out.
Yes, the shades of black and gold have been scarce this fall. But who can blame the fans? Heading into Saturday’s home game against Tennessee, the Commodores had locked up their 27th losing season in the last 28 years. In fact, none of the four Football Championship Subdivision schools in the state — Memphis, Middle Tennessee State, Tennessee and Vanderbilt — have a winning record right now.
It doesn’t get much prettier as you descend the divisional ladder. There are 18 football teams in the state in five different classes: FBS, FCS, Division II, Division III and NAIA. Seventeen of them lost at least four games this season heading into this past weekend.
To search for good college football in Tennessee this season is largely a futile effort. The leader in the clubhouse would have to be Cumberland University out of nearby Lebanon.
That’s right, that Cumberland. The same program that nearly a century ago — in 1916, to be exact — was on the losing end of the most lopsided game in college football history: a 222-0 beatdown at the hands of Georgia Tech.
Well, these aren’t your great-grandma’s Bulldogs.
Entering last weekend’s final regular season contest, Cumberland was 8-2 — one loss was to FCS school Austin Peay — and on the cusp of the NAIA playoffs, which begin Saturday. That’s after a 5-6 season in 2009 in which the Bulldogs lost three games by one point each.
“I think that adversity really brought our team together,” Cumberland coach Dewayne Alexander said. “Nobody finger-pointed. We hung in there and kept playing the rest of the season. I think it motivated us for the offseason. … As corny as it sounds, it’s like baking a cake. You have to have all the right ingredients. If you don’t have the right ingredients, then it doesn’t turn out as it should.”
If the Bulldogs qualify for postseason play, it will be just the second time in school history. Their only previous trip was in 1993, and it didn’t last long. They lost 61-7 to Pacific Lutheran (Wash.). Still, the performance was quite a feat, as Cumberland had just brought football back in 1990, after more than 50 years without a program.
“They care about the program. They have pride in the program,” defensive coordinator Donnie Suber, who was a graduate assistant for the 1993 team, said of his players. “That was the difference from when I was here before. We had kids who just wanted to play football. I mean, they cared about their education, but it wasn’t their main priority.”
It can be difficult for players to buy in when it seems like every year there is a new head coach. Alexander understands that: He was the third coach in as many years when he took over at Cumberland in 2006.
Derek Dooley, one of six new coaches in the state, is in the same situation at Tennessee, succeeding one-year wonder Lane Kiffin, who replaced Phil Fulmer. He inherited many of the issues he faces in talent and discipline. Robbie Caldwell can relate. Actually, the Vanderbilt head coach is at even more of a disadvantage. He took over in July, less than two months before the season opener, after Bobby Johnson retired abruptly.
Longevity seems to be an issue in Tennessee, too. There are just five head coaches who have been at the helm for at least eight seasons.
Carson-Newman’s Ken Sparks is at the top of the list. He is in his 31st year with the Eagles and seems to be doing OK — he is the all-time-winningest coach in Division II with 293 wins.
Vanderbilt, on the other hand, hasn’t lost fewer than five games in a season since 1982. And it could be a while before that changes. The Commodores are young, having used 13 freshmen this year. Only six teams in the nation have played more.
“We got to plan for the future, and we are excited about it,” Caldwell said. “We want to win. We want to give our Vanderbilt fans something to cheer about in the worst kind of way.”