Despite the prevailing perception, Vanderbilt is not a graveyard for football coaches. It’s actually not the final stop for most.
Likewise, it’s not a black hole where good coaches go never to be heard from again.
Just as true, though, is the fact that it’s not Miami (Ohio), the school recognized as the “cradle of coaches” because legendary leaders such as Red Blaik, Paul Brown, Woody Hayes, Ara Parseghian, Bo Schembechler and Jim Tressel had notable success there before they went on to greater achievements elsewhere.
Vanderbilt is more like a coal deposit. It’s dark and messy, but within it occasionally lies a diamond. Not that anyone actually can see it.
Such is the challenge that confronts James Franklin and his staff, the first half of which was revealed last Thursday when he announced his offensive assistants. Some or all of them might be excellent coaches, but a lot of truly excellent coaches have come through this program only to have their value revealed much, much later.
Consider Perry Fewell, who spent last week interviewing for several of the NFL’s head coaching vacancies. From 1995-97, Fewell was the defensive backs coach for VU teams that won a grand total of seven games. From that point on, he steadily climbed the NFL ranks and even briefly served as interim head coach of the Buffalo Bills.
Ken Whisenhunt was an offensive assistant on the same staff as Fewell for two years. Two years ago, Whisenhunt was the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals in the Super Bowl.
These men know a lot about football. Still, their combined knowledge and talent in concert with those around them was not enough.
Look back further in time. Buddy Ryan was the defensive line coach in 1966, a truly forgettable 1-9 campaign in which the Commodores were outscored 237-62. Two decades later he was revealed as one of the game’s great defensive innovators.
Another name that jumps out of the history pages is none other than Phil Fulmer, the offensive coordinator during a 1-10 romp through 1979. It took a little less than 20 years before he raised college football’s national championship trophy as head coach of a different program.
Bill Parcells actually managed to make something of a name for himself while at Vanderbilt. He was defensive coordinator under Steve Sloan in 1973 (5-6) and 1974 (7-3-2). Then he was passed over for the head coach position when Sloan left, so he departed and soon was on a path that likely will land him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
It’s possible that these men became the coaches they did because they made mistakes at Vanderbilt and learned.
Woody Widenhofer, for example, was an excellent defensive coordinator in the NFL and a lousy head coach at the University of Missouri in his pre-Vanderbilt days. In the years he was at Vanderbilt, he was a terrific defensive coordinator and a bad head coach. Not once in any of his good years or bad did the program have a winning season.
Widenhofer’s expertise, instincts and flaws were no different at Vanderbilt than they were anywhere else, so there’s no reason to think the same was not true about the others.
Most of the folks on West End don’t want to hear it, but the bitter truth is that good coaches only can make so much of a difference. The substandard facilities (relative to the rest of the Southeastern Conference), puny budget and history of struggle — among other things — consistently undermine the Xs and Os.
Vice Chancellor David Williams and Chancellor Nick Zeppos have talked about an increased commitment from the university and have noted that much-needed upgrades take time. They do. Plus, courtesy of Bobby Johnson, Robbie Caldwell and those who worked with them the past nine years, Franklin and his guys have more of a foundation upon which to build than any others in several generations.
Still, even if Franklin’s is the best coaching staff in football history, we probably won’t know it until they’ve all gone elsewhere.