How To Build Vanderbilt Football: Pragmatic solutions from two Commodore alumni


Photos by Claire Barnett

Tommy Openshaw and Oren Burks

Vanderbilt Football alums Oren Burks and Tommy Openshaw share their thoughts on the state of Vanderbilt Athletics and the Football program in an exclusive Vanderbilt Hustler op-ed.

We went through a lot during our time at Vanderbilt.

From a 9-4 season to a 3-9 season. From having AFCA Good Works Team members four of the last five years, to a horrific rape scandal. Two very different head coaches, just in terms of personality. A lot has changed, but a lot has stayed the same as well. Through it all, we’ve learned invaluable life lessons and built lifelong friendships. We’ve also found a community that we are fiercely proud to represent on a national stage, and we hope that you can be proud of what we do on and off the field as well.

We decided to write this op-ed because we feel like there’s a voice in the conversation around Vanderbilt football that gets left unheard: the players’ voice. It’s never easy to make public stances when you’re on the team because it can be easily seen as a distraction or you can be accused of not focusing on what matters. That doesn’t mean these types of conversations don’t happen while we’re sitting around the locker room. Hopefully this sheds some light on what goes on inside the team, and is a helping force in moving Vanderbilt football forward.

We’ve split this op-ed into five sections addressing current players, students, administrators, former players and fans. Obviously, we know that we are generalizing the audiences and some of our criticisms or statements do not pertain to every individual. We’ve tried to be as charitable as possible in our discussion. So, if you happen to be reading this and feel like it pertains to you, great! If not, that’s great as well! Keep reading, because we believe it’s relevant to everyone who has any interaction with Vanderbilt.

To the current players on the team:

Vanderbilt Football vs. Tennessee State
Vanderbilt plays Tennessee State in football on Saturday, September 29, 2018 at home. The Commodores won 31-27. (Photo by Claire Barnett)

First and foremost, know that we have your backs and will support you through thick and thin. We know the sacrifices you’ve made and the hard work you’ve put in preparing for this season. We know because we’ve been there: five a.m. wake-up calls (or 4 a.m. if you’re unfortunate enough to have rehab) that come too soon after a late night of group projects, homework and writing papers, the dread of the inevitable Friday GPP break-off, the hours upon hours of meetings, holidays spent on an empty campus, far from family at home. It’s no secret that playing SEC football at Vanderbilt is incredibly difficult. But we love the game and we love our brothers on the team. We wouldn’t have our college experience any other way.

This letter isn’t primarily addressed to you. It’s supposed to be a reflection of how we all generally feel as student-athletes at Vanderbilt. However, we would be remiss to not challenge you to spend the extra time investing in the student population outside athletics.

We’ve all heard the phrase “‘Dores support ‘Dores.” That needs to exist outside of the athletic bubble as well. Vanderbilt is not a place we can just expect a vast majority of students to all show up on gameday like Alabama, Georgia or Florida. Many of those schools have students who attend primarily because of their football program. Vanderbilt has so much else to offer, and because of that, we attract students with a wide-range of interests. However, they aren’t lost causes.

We didn’t come to Vanderbilt to take the path of least resistance. We came to challenge ourselves, and one skill that translates to virtually any career we pursue is the ability to garner support for something we believe in. Use the challenge at Vanderbilt as a chance to develop skills unique to our peer student-athletes across the conference.

To the students:

The Commodores play South Carolina in their first SEC football matchup of the season on Saturday, September 22, 2018. Vanderbilt lost 37-14 at home. (Photo by Claire Barnett)

We know y’all get a lot of flak for the passivity towards the football program. Some of it’s justified, some of it’s not. Watching a team struggle with a beatable school or getting blown out at home isn’t fun. We’ve been on teams that have done both and have personally contributed to some of those performances. It’s tough for students to feel the need to show up on a Saturday when that’s what happening on the field. But, commitment is tough. Too often in our lives we look for things that make it easy for us to show up. When things get difficult, we just walk away.

Everyone knows what the excuses are for why winning in the SEC is difficult at Vanderbilt: we’re a small private school, we don’t recruit the same athletic talent across the board as every other school in our conference and we’re constrained by high academic standards when facing an already highly competitive recruiting field.

But that’s what sets us apart. That’s why many of us chose to commit to Vanderbilt in the first place. Coach James Franklin would tell us “Do you want to build and own a legacy, or do you want to go somewhere else and simply rent it?” The opportunity to build a legacy at Vanderbilt where we can proudly claim we played at and graduated from was what drew us in. That’s something you should take pride in when reflecting on our football team.

The guys on this team are your peers. Some are your close friends. They are the face of Vanderbilt to a national audience. We should all want them to fight hard week in and week out and represent all of us who bear the name Vanderbilt positively. We are all Vanderbilt and we ALL need to invest in this team. It’s hard enough competing in the SEC. It’s even harder when it’s a two-score game at home against an SEC rival and, as a player, you look up in the stands only to see a near empty student section engulfed by the opposing team’s colors. “Well, they’ve all abandoned us. So, now it’s just us against an army.”

Sometimes, that’s enough to come from behind for a win. Often, it’s not. And it’s a challenge unique to Vanderbilt compared to the rest of the SEC.

There seems to be this unspoken barrier between the student-athletes and the rest of the student body. We’re not sure when it originated or why it continues to permeate the athletic culture, but it is there nonetheless. Vanderbilt has made attempts, some great, some not so much, to assimilate us into the rest of the student body.

We are treated exactly the same as a typical student as far as campus life goes. No benefits or priorities for class enrollments. “Athletic housing”, in all its various forms found across the country, isn’t even an afterthought at Vanderbilt. The number of football players allowed to choose a particular major is even limited in order to “diversify our experiences” and to keep it from becoming known as the “athlete major,” thereby prejudicially lessening its value.

We are treated exactly the same as a typical student as far as campus life goes.

Take away the tuition scholarship and grey sweatpants and hoodies we get, the notion that athletes get tons of benefits and perks just isn’t true at Vanderbilt. That’s not a complaint, that’s just a fact. A fact that we think students need to know, and hopefully helps narrow the perceived gap between our experiences at Vanderbilt.

We think the issue really lies in the simple truth that, we don’t know each other. We, as student-athletes, have found ourselves in this culture that feeds the idea that the normal student population looks down upon us because we had an “easy road to Vanderbilt” and are viewed as having lesser intelligence. Many young student-athletes buy into the lie that they don’t belong at an academic institution like Vanderbilt and separate themselves from a student body they think disapproves of them.

They cling to their fellow student-athletes and develop an apathy towards normal students: “they think we’re less intelligent, that we don’t belong, and many of the few who do show up on Saturday don’t even bother to stay past halftime. Why should we care about them if they don’t care about us?”

We propose a challenge to the student body, as well as to the student-athletes: get to know each other on a personal level. Develop friendships and learn about each other’s lives. Begin to chip away at this lie that one of us is better than the other because of either our test scores or our athleticism. Every person on this campus belongs at Vanderbilt and brings a unique background and set of skills that can challenge others and help them to grow.

Both of us were fortunate enough to develop a lot of friendships with students outside the athletic department during our time at Vanderbilt, and many of our personal friends were the ones who filled that student section every Saturday, from kickoff to final whistle. It’s easier to support a team when you’re invested in them, and the best way to invest in your peers is to get to know them.

To the administrators/decision-makers:

Commodore Spring Football game on Saturday, March 24, 2018. (Photo by Claire Barnett)

This title gets thrown around a lot, and truth be told, we are not familiar enough with higher education administration to know who exactly this should refer to for this conversation.

People like to say “oh, the administration doesn’t support athletics,” but it seems rather ignorant to make a blanket statement like that. We’ve met some incredibly supportive faculty members and administrators. Here, we are addressing the general decision-making as we see how it pertains to our experience with Vanderbilt football.

What exactly is the role athletics plays in higher education? That seems to be a question posed at many universities, especially prestigious academic institutions. We’ve heard directly from a Vanderbilt administrator that the sole reason the university spends money on athletics is to develop us as young people. True as that may be in theory, it’s hard to ignore the indirect positive effect athletics can have on a campus environment and how the university is viewed by the outside world.

It would be ignorant to neglect the fact that Vanderbilt University applications skyrocketed following the success of the James Franklin era, nearly explicitly because of the national attention the successful Vanderbilt football team gained and the excitement it generated around students searching for where they would spend their next four years (studies refer to this phenomenon as the “Flutie Effect”).

Simple fractions tell us that a larger applicant pool with the same number of acceptances reduces our acceptance percentage, thereby portraying Vanderbilt as a more elite institution.

Additionally, when a college’s football team is performing well, students are generally happier around campus. It is one of the strongest means of creating identification and community both within campus and nationally amongst alumni. Moreover, there’s a breadth of research surrounding the correlation of athletic performance and alumni donations.

The list goes on and on as to why administrators should be incentivized to make decisions that support their athletics department beyond the bare necessities of fielding a team and graduating student-athletes (which is what it often feels like Vanderbilt does from the players’ perspective). They should be supporting to compete at an extremely high-level, year in and year out. One of Coach Franklin’s core traits instilled in us as young freshmen was to “compete in EVERYTHING you do.”

Vanderbilt needs to take to heart what “everything” means.

There will always be factors that we as student-athletes won’t understand or have knowledge of that impacts decisions. The issue is that we are some of the brightest individuals of any athletics department in the country. We’re being trained in the classroom to ask questions and seek to understand what we do not currently understand.

You’re either moving forward or moving backwards, and stagnancy is not acceptable.

Help us to understand why we can’t seem to find the money to send football players to class over the summer. Help us to understand why a large number of players on a team that is required to stay in Nashville for the summer to train for the upcoming season (we wouldn’t have it any other way) are provided less housing and food money than our rivals in Knoxville, where the cost of living is a fraction of Nashville.

We should not need to borrow money from our parents or operate in the red in order to pay rent and feed ourselves during the summer when we are training for the season.

Help us to understand why our facilities are levels behind the rest of our competition in the SEC, despite attending a school that holds the rest of their campus to the highest standard: look at multiple dorms and buildings erected in the short five years since we stepped on campus.

Help us to understand why, despite having a five-hour practice block every morning of the week and traveling most weekends in the fall, we still are not allowed to have priority registration for classes, despite our Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) building a report that showcased how virtually every one of our peer institutions had some sort of priority registration in place for athletes.

Help us to understand why players have been forced to leave the indoor facility for attempting to use it outside of “designated football team hours”.

Open up communication with us. Maybe there are things that simply cannot be done at Vanderbilt. We’ll have to be ok with that, but you will drastically improve the relationship between main campus and athletics if you provide answers to our voices that seem to constantly fall on deaf ears.

We know the requests out there now are big ones: a new stadium is the hot-button topic recently. But give us something, some sort of plan or investment that shows you care about us enough to provide us with an environment commensurate to the prestige Vanderbilt claims to own.

You’re either moving forward or moving backwards, and stagnancy is not acceptable.

To Vanderbilt Football Alumni:

The Commodores play Missouri on Saturday, November 18, 2017. (Photo by Claire Barnett)

No matter how long ago you last strapped up to wear the Black and Gold, recognize that Vanderbilt will forever be a part of your journey. As alumni, we know firsthand the hard work and sacrifice that goes into competing at the highest level both on and off the field. Although we are no longer members of the team, we will forever be members of the family.

Let’s strive to continually engage with our family to keep building the program that we all know we are capable of. Think back to your time on campus and remember about some things that could’ve made your experience better. Who’s to say that you can’t help resolve some of those same issues for the next graduating class? Never underestimate the power of your voice.

Vanderbilt will never be one of those sexy schools that has all of the newest facilities, and all the flashy toys that attract some recruits these days. However, this very piece of our DNA is likely part of the reason that you choose to pursue your dreams here. Our program has always valued quality relationships, and our alumni relationships are a major piece of what will drive this program in the right direction.

Investments do not always have to be in the form of financial resources (though highly encouraged), know that your time and expertise in the professional world is just as valuable. As a player, it was always great to see alumni come back and reminisce about their glory days. They reminded us to make the most of our opportunities by living in the moment and enjoying the little things. Let’s continue with this positive ripple effect.

To the fans:

Vanderbilt plays Kansas State in football. Photo by Bruce Brookshire

Vanderbilt is a unique program to support in a conference like the SEC. We are outnumbered in our own city by the team out east. We haven’t truly filled out our stadium since the opening game against Ole Miss our freshman year. There are often more opposing fans filling our seats than Vanderbilt fans.

We’ve moved on from our time at Vanderbilt and have become fans now ourselves, albeit with a slightly unique tie to the program. Sheer quantity of fans is not what is going to make the difference right now. That will come with time. Our attitudes, however, will make all the difference. Like all things with Vanderbilt, we should strive to be a higher breed of students, athletes and fans than our peers in the conference and across the nation.

That means recognizing that we should be a tight-knit family. We can’t ride the wave of performance like other programs. If the few fans our team has start turning on them, players and coaches alike, what’s left? Now the team is deep in enemy territory and is cut off from any and all support.

When the going gets tough, family doesn’t start calling for people’s jobs or tweeting at players how horrible they’ve played. Leave that for the east side of the state. Family lets each other know they’ve got their backs. They know that tough times happen and believe in the ability to bounce back.

Of course, there’s a fine line between holding someone accountable and just simply complaining. If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. Use wisdom and prudence when you decide to make your opinion public or speak about a specific player or coach. The world has enough negativity as it is, why add more to it around a game that is supposed to bring people together and be fun?

The guys on the field have sacrificed more than you could ever understand unless you’ve been in their shoes. Their hearts beat with the desire to fight for their brothers and their school. Sometimes, things don’t go their way. No one comes to Vanderbilt to play football and is ok with mediocrity. Everyone comes in wanting to change the tide and turn it into a program that competes year in and year out. When young guys experience adversity and see the lack of investment from the school, the empty student section and fans quickly turning on them and their coaches, apathy begins to fester.

This team can’t thrive with an us vs. them mentality when the “them” includes their own fanbase and school, as well as the other teams (and what feels like the refs more often than not). That’s too many opponents for a team to face.

We’ve had the privilege of meeting some incredible people who claim the Vanderbilt fanhood. We’ve loved interacting with you and getting to know you over the years. Again, what we’ve stated above is not true for every fan, and probably not true for most fans. But unfortunately, it’s the loudest voices that are often heard.

Twitter can be a great tool, but it also inevitably the most direct means of communication between players and fans. No matter how much you try to avoid it, negativity will find a way to end up on a players’ timeline. Eventually, we begin treating all the outside voices as white noise, and the ability to celebrate with fans after a victory diminishes as a result of the outspoken negativity of a few.

It feels great to vent your frustrations, but venting to a friend in confidence and sending a tweet out to the public behind an anonymous face is not the proper medium. If you truly want this team to succeed, use your platform for the benefit of these players and let them know you support them, even in bad performances.

Let them know that you have their backs and that while there are few of us, we are a tight-knit community fighting against teams and fan bases with infinitely better funding and support from all facets. I guarantee you the results on the field will be tangible when these guys know they aren’t being abandoned by the few supporters we have.

Special Thanks:

Vanderbilt play Kansas State in Football on Saturday, September 16, 2017. Photo by Claire Barnett.

We don’t want this to make it sound like Vanderbilt athletics is doomed. There are some incredible people who have always fought for us as football players at Vanderbilt and do a lot of work behind the scenes that goes unthanked. This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but here are a few we wanted to mention.

  • Jason Grooms, the director of operations for football
  • All the strength & conditioning staff: Coach Dobson, Rex, Aaron, Matt, and Fahd
  • All of the training staff, especially: Boz, Adam, Justin, and Kerry
  • All of the academic support staff, especially: Eugene and Ms. E
  • Alison Wenzel and Rayna Stewart in Player Development
  • Vickie Woosley, sports psychologist and fervent supporter and friend
  • All the equipment staff
  • Charlotte Siegel, the real mastermind behind Vandy Football

Last, but not least, Coach Mason. Obviously, he is very much in the public spotlight, but we wanted to thank him for investing in us over the years and wanted to commend him in how much incredible growth we’ve seen as a head coach since he took over at Vanderbilt. It certainly was an exciting ride and we’re thankful for all you’ve done investing in our lives.

To all:

Vanderbilt play Kansas State in Football on Saturday, September 16, 2017. Photo by Claire Barnett

Football is just a game, yes. But maybe, it can be much more than that for us at Vanderbilt. We live in a world where division is rampant. We are fed this notion that if someone doesn’t look like us or think like us, they must be wrong and evil. Look no further than the conversation surrounding the NFL today.

But one place that transcends a lot of the issues we see in modern culture is the locker room of a football team. Young men from every creed, race, and religion come together to fight for a greater purpose. The locker room is where difficult conversations are had concerning race relations, faith differences, upbringings and political opinions. Arguments are had, sometime tempers flare, but in the end, we are still brothers.

That is something that should be a beacon of hope for our troubled culture and celebrated by those who claim to be fighting for healing. Vanderbilt University needs to be on the forefront of that fight around unity. Celebrate our differences, but even more so, celebrate our ability to unify those differences into a brotherhood.

We love our school. We just ask that you love us back. And love requires action.

God bless and go ‘Dores,

Oren Burks and Tommy Openshaw

Burks and Openshaw attended Vanderbilt from 2013 to 2017. Burks is currently a linebacker for the NFL’s Green Bay Packers. 

Featured photos by Claire Barnett.