Pushing Vanderbilt Athletics to new heights is a marathon.
Sometimes that’s easy to lose sight of in the thick of a 26-game SEC losing streak on the basketball court, or after a 3-9 season on the football field. Malcolm Turner understands that well. Vanderbilt’s athletic director, who began his tenure exactly one year ago, is still very much acquainting himself to life in the McGugin Center, trying to steer Vanderbilt Athletics down the narrow path to success.
Complete overhauls won’t happen in a span of a day, a month or even a year, and that’s important to note when looking at Turner’s first year on the job. He often cites the long process of creating a “strategic plan,” stating in an interview with The Vanderbilt Hustler in October that Athletics, and the firms hired to assess facilities, attendance and the overall state of the program, “had just recently completed their diligence phase.”
So that’s where we’ll start.
With the idea that making sense of Turner’s first year on the job can give Commodore Nation a general understanding of the trend toward which Vanderbilt is moving. Ultimately, though, it’s a small piece of the puzzle to rebuild an athletic program that has a hill to climb in order to reach its fellow SEC universities. This is the stage where Turner dumps the pieces out of the box and sorts them into edges and corners before trying to connect any two together.
And in 2019, there were a whole lot of pieces.
Early Months: Some unexpected departures
Malcolm Turner was hired on Dec. 11, three months after former Athletic Director and Vice Chancellor David Williams stepped down. The change from former NBA G League president to athletic director was a big one, and Turner was looked at by most as an “outside-the-box hire” that could provide a new perspective in order to remedy Vanderbilt Athletics’ issues.
Turner assumed the position on Feb. 1, replacing an athletic director who had paved the way for success from Vanderbilt’s varsity teams. Under Williams’ tenure, Vanderbilt captured four national championships and sent its football team to six bowl games. Turner was working under a chancellor who helped Vanderbilt’s standing as a university skyrocket over the course of his tenure, shooting up to a Top 15 National University.
In a couple short months, though, those resources were gone.
Williams passed away just one week after Turner arrived in Nashville, leaving a gaping void in the Vanderbilt community. Less than two months later, Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos announced that he would be resigning due to health reasons. Turner had lost his two biggest lifelines.
“It’s been a bit of a whirlwind for sure,” Turner told the Vanderbilt Hustler regarding his first few months on the job. “It’s been not without its twists and turns in the shock and surprise of David Williams’ passing after my first week and a chancellor who hired me resigning suddenly as well.”
The most discussed departure, however, was that of former Men’s Basketball Head Coach Bryce Drew. After a disappointing 9-23 season that saw the Commodores go winless in conference play, Turner fired Drew. It was likely the last thing on his mind when he stepped into his office on Feb. 1, but it was a necessary evil in establishing a new culture.
The Commodores were losers, and Turner wasn’t going to tolerate losers on his watch.
Creating “The Vanderbilt Way”
Shortly after firing Drew, Turner had to conduct a coaching search. Much like a general manager often hand-picks his head coach, Turner had the opportunity to bring his guy to West End, and he turned to a familiar face.
Turner brought in Jerry Stackhouse, an 18-year NBA veteran and former assistant coach for the Toronto Raptors and Memphis Grizzlies. Turner knew Stackhouse well from his success in the G League, where he coached the Raptors 905 to a championship and earned NBA G League Coach of the Year honors in 2017.
“The future is bright for the men’s basketball team with such an accomplished individual at the helm,” Turner said after the hiring. “Jerry brings a unique mix of experience as a legendary player and successful coach, and I fully expect he’ll take the program to new heights. I’ve spoken with people inside and outside both college and professional basketball, and there is unanimous agreement that Jerry’s competitiveness, grit and tireless focus on player development are a perfect fit to advance the ‘Vanderbilt Way’ in college athletics.”
With a coaching search behind him, Turner focused his full attention to Vanderbilt’s baseball program. With a 2014 National Championship under their belt and $12 million facilities that rival some big league clubs, the VandyBoys have functioned as the pillar of the university’s athletic success for the past decade. Turner still looked at his baseball team with an eye toward improvement.
He oversaw the institution of the Home Run Lounge at Hawkins Field, a beer tent that featured a wide list of beers and hard seltzers for purchase during games. The Beer Tent was created in an effort to increase attendance while simultaneously bringing in an additional source of revenue for Athletics. Just a year later, Vanderbilt has sold out season tickets for the 2020 College Baseball season.
However, while the Beer Tent may have played a role in the sell-out of season tickets, most of the job was done by the VandyBoys themselves. The Commodores captured a National Championship at the College World Series on June 26, defeating the Michigan Wolverines in the decisive game of the three-game series to bring home the trophy.
Turner was there in Omaha to see the entire thing unfold.
“What a great season for the VandyBoys,” Turner said. “I am extremely proud of our student-athletes and staff for how they represent Vanderbilt on and off the field.”
At least on the diamond, “The Vanderbilt Way” was in full effect.
Building Blocks: Renovations and Upgrades
A new football stadium. Locker room overhauls. Sweeping changes to grow student attendance. Those were the cries of Commodore fans when Turner was first hired. And those things are likely on the agenda, but Turner knows those will take time. In his first calendar year, he’s focused on the micro-level changes, and he’s made a lot of them. Here are some of the renovations and upgrades that have taken place during Turner’s first year:
May 28: Turner announces video board in South end zone of Vanderbilt Stadium replaced
May 28: Announcement released that restrooms in Vanderbilt Stadium would be renovated
May 28: Turner announces new artificial turf in Hawkins Field
May 28: Announcement released that new state-of-the-art lighting and sound systems would be installed in Memorial Gym
May 28: Turner announces ongoing renovations to Hendrix training room in Olympic sports weight room in McGugin Center
Oct 31: Vanderbilt Athletics approves widespread alcohol sales at basketball, baseball games
Nov 18: Students are now able to use meal swipes at basketball games
Jan 20: Athletics receives $5 million donation from George Huber for Men’s Basketball team
The Mason Saga
Perhaps the decision that created the most controversy of Turner’s first season was the choice to keep his head football coach before the conclusion of a disappointing season. Derek Mason’s 2019 season was his worst since taking over the program seven years ago. Vanderbilt won just three games and went just 1-6 in conference play. He cycled through four quarterbacks, never finding one that achieved sustained success. He watched on the sidelines as his team was blown out by the Tennessee Volunteers on rivalry week.
Turner didn’t even wait for that last game against Tennessee, tweeting his support for Mason Nov. 19 with two weeks left to play in the regular season.
“I want to make it very clear that Derek Mason will be our head football coach moving forward,” Turner tweeted. “Coach Mason has my full support and I am committed to working with him to ensure our football program has the necessary resources and support to succeed.”
It was a daring move, one that several fans viewed as antithetical to the winning culture he sought to create just months before. Still, it was a nuanced one. Turner understood the circumstances surrounding the 3-9 season. He understood that part of the struggle this football program has undergone as of late has been a result of a lack of support from Athletics. Turner lamented that the school hadn’t put the football program in enough of a position to succeed and decided to retain his head coach, much to the chagrin of the Vanderbilt fan base.
Time will tell whether retaining Mason was the right decision and whether the micro-level changes that Turner oversaw will materialize into his bigger goals for the university. It’s got to start somewhere.
For now, it seems like Malcolm Turner has sorted all of his pieces. He’s ready to start putting the puzzle together.