Stanford and Northwestern are exhibits A and B. Vanderbilt wants to be C.
All three schools have built strong academic reputations. But Stanford and Northwestern have shown that brains can be brawny, too. Stanford just wrapped up the program’s first 11-win season and most likely will be in a BCS bowl game. Northwestern is bowl-eligible for the third straight year.
Vanderbilt, of course, has had just one winning season since 1982 and appears to be stuck in neutral in the tough Southeastern Conference.
“We have to develop the expectation and culture that winning football games is important,” Vice Chancellor of University Affairs and Athletics David Williams II said. “Now, we say it is important, but it is not important enough to not be who we are. Some people say those things are mutually exclusive. Well, the last time I looked, Stanford is ranked in the top 20 academically, and in the BCS they are ranked fourth. So obviously it is not mutually exclusive. We just have to figure out the formula for us.”
That begins with finding a new ringleader. First-year coach Robbie Caldwell resigned last week after a 2-10 season. The longtime assistant replaced Bobby Johnson after he suddenly retired in mid-July.
Williams and Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos are heading up the hunt and have retained the Atlanta-based Parker Search Firm.
It won’t be Williams’ first hire since he stepped into the athletics role in 2003, but it will arguably be his biggest. Johnson and baseball coach Tim Corbin, along with basketball coaches Kevin Stallings and Melanie Balcomb, were all hired by former athletic director Todd Turner.
Williams has hired seven coaches in the lower-profile sports, ranging from cross-country to bowling to swimming. Interestingly, all seven have roots, coaching experience or educational background in the South, or in most cases, in the Southeastern Conference.
This job search might span more of the country. Williams wouldn’t go into specifics but said the ideal candidate wouldn’t necessarily be someone with head-coaching experience. He did say, though, that if Vanderbilt went after an assistant coach, it would be someone with experience as an offensive or defensive coordinator.
There is speculation that possible candidates include Temple head coach Al Golden — the Owls are bowl-eligible for the second straight season and are 17-8 over the last two years — and former Clemson coach Tommy Bowden. Offensive coordinators Gus Malzahn (Auburn) and Ivin Jasper (Navy) have also been named by those issuing rumors.
Williams said the ideal candidate would be someone who shares the school’s values, runs a clean program, recruits nationally and can compete in the SEC.
“It is important because I think what Vanderbilt has to do is really make a new commitment to success in football,” Williams said. “We all have to share in that rebirth, if you like, but at the top of that is going to be a good football coach. We can do all of the things we possibly can do to try to change the culture of success, but if you don’t have a good person that is in charge of the football program, it won’t work.”
One of the knocks against Vanderbilt is that it’s behind the times with its football facilities: The 29-year-old Vanderbilt stadium has a capacity of less than 40,000, and the amenities, like the jumbo screens, pale in comparison to those at other SEC stadiums.
Williams disagrees with the notion that there isn’t a commitment to enhancing the football program and its facilities. He pointed out that within the last several years, the school has completed a new weight room and practice field. This year, the coaches’ offices were renovated and academic support was tripled.
“We have plans each year to do more,” Williams said. “It is not that there is not a commitment to the facility. I think in many people’s minds it doesn’t move fast enough. I always say to the people, ‘It is not that I can go out there and wave a magic wand and it is done.’ Unfortunately, you have to get people to do it for you, and they actually want to be paid. So we have to have the money to do it. We are going to get it done. We are moving on doing facilities as fast as we possibly can.”
The chatter on sports talk radio and message boards is that despite the sort of money Vanderbilt throws about, it won’t be enough to lure a top coach — or name.
Some of that could be accounted to history and how tough it is to win in the SEC. Vanderbilt’s last eight coaches have compiled a record of 117-287, and the school has just three winning seasons since 1975.
The school has tried everything: hired college head coaches, college assistants, and in the case of Woody Widenhofer, who resigned in 2001, and his predecessor Rod Dowhower, people with experience as a college coach and NFL assistant, respectively.
Unfortunately, none has yielded the results Vanderbilt hoped for. The school’s last four coaches have resigned or been fired. Gerry DiNardo found enough success — he was just 19-25 in four seasons — to get offered the head-coaching job at LSU in 1995. He was fired five years later.
Still, there is someone out there for Vanderbilt who might be able to right the ship. There must be, right?
“I heard these stories that that place can’t win,” CBS Sports analyst Gary Danielson said. “There is a coach out there that can motivate people, that can find diamonds in the rough, can find a system that will work. I think a good administration that puts the proper amount of respect and money behind their program and has the facilities … and I think there is no reason Vanderbilt can’t compete. Can they win every year like Alabama and Florida? Probably not. But I don’t see why they can’t be Northwestern.”