Self-selecting to be the best: How the stars aligned for Barton Simmons and Vanderbilt Football

From his playing, recruitment and media days, Vanderbilt Football General Manager Barton Simmons has relied on his love of the game to take the path less traveled to the top.
Self-selecting to be the best: How the stars aligned for Barton Simmons and Vanderbilt Football

“We want guys that believe they are here to win an SEC championship,” Barton Simmons told The Hustler. 

Simmons paused for a moment, clearly wanting to amend his statement in some way. Behind Simmons was a large window that overlooked FirstBank Stadium, currently in the midst of its large-scale renovation of the north and south end zones, courtesy of Vandy United

“We want guys that believe they are the difference in a team winning an SEC championship,” Simmons restated, with a grin.

Simmons will be the first to admit that winning an SEC championship is no small task. To commit to pushing the Vanderbilt Football program to the top is to devote oneself to finding a way to overtake some of the longest-standing bluebloods within the world of college football. 

“This is going to be harder than any place that [the players] go,” Simmons said. “We actually believe that’s a positive differentiator. The guys that choose hard are going to be the guys that self-select as high-end competitors, high-end achievers and the people who get the most out of what they do.”

Simmons’s advice rings true not just in football, but in life: sometimes the best route for success is also one of the more difficult ones. So how does Simmons so easily recognize the traits of high-end achievers? Easy. Simmons fit such a description long before being named General Manager of Vanderbilt Football.

A Nashville native, Simmons found himself working hard both in the classroom and on the gridiron from a young age. He played high school football at nearby Montgomery Bell Academy (MBA), where he found himself lining up alongside someone he already considered a friend at the time: Clark Lea.

Simmons and Lea’s friendship dates all the way back to their fifth-grade days, when they spent their Sundays at the same church. Among the many commonalities, the two quickly identified their undeniable love for competition and the game of football soon became most apparent.

When Lea decided to take his talents to MBA entering high school, he knew he was joining forces with someone who wanted to win as badly as he did. Together, the two went on to win state championships for MBA in 1998 and 1999. Simmons was also named First-Team All-State. Simmons and Lea would go their separate ways when it came time to go to college, but they knew they would stay in touch. 

Duke, Furman, Vanderbilt and Yale came calling in search of Simmons’s football services at the next level. After some deliberation, Simmons opted to spend the next chapter of his life as a Bulldog.

“I went off to Yale,” Simmons said. “It was great academics, and I felt like they really wanted me. I got a chance to keep playing football.”

New Haven ended up being the ideal fit for Simmons. Not only was he getting both an invaluable education and playing Division I college football, but he was also beginning to truly understand how much he loved the game. Simmons quickly realized that only a select group of the Bulldog football roster thought like him. Some players at Yale, while passionate about the game of football, understandably had their minds on other things. 

“I think what I learned was, ‘I do have sort of a passion for this game that, in a program like [Yale], not everyone does,’” Simmons said. “So, there was sort of a small group of us that were really football guys at Yale.” 

Simmons opted to stay in New Haven during his college summers, spending long days in the gym with those true “football guys” in the program. 

His hard work and dedication to the game undoubtedly translated to his Ivy League gridiron performance: Simmons became a core piece of the Bulldog defense, starting as a defensive back for four seasons. He was named Second-Team All-Ivy in both 2002 and 2004. 

He came into his senior year flying high, equipped with attributes that suggested his game could smoothly translate to the next level. During his senior campaign, though, Simmons tore his ACL. Constricted by Ivy League rules that dictated that a student could only be enrolled for eight semesters, Simmons decided to take a semester off, work on his recovery and come back for a fifth season. 

With NFL aspirations in mind, Simmons was able to make his way back onto the field and start his final season at Yale healthy. Things didn’t go as perfectly as Simmons had in mind. Dealing with confidence issues in the wake of his injury, he found himself struggling on the field more than usual.

“It’s not the season I wanted to have, and I didn’t end up pursuing the NFL to the level that I probably should have or would have liked to have,” Simmons said. 

As much as he loved the game, Simmons found himself greatly in need of a break. He headed to the nation’s capital, taking a job unrelated to football to bring a sense of normalcy and stability to his life. 

“Nine months in D.C.: loved the city, hated my job,” Simmons said. “I realized, ‘I need to get back involved with football.’”

Simmons packed his bags again, this time, heading southwest to a familiar spot: Nashville. He got an interview with Rivals.com, a website that focused on the coverage of college football and basketball recruiting. He was hired as a front-page editor. 

It didn’t matter what role Simmons had landed. All he cared about was that he had stepped back into the world he loved. 

After a year of serving in his new position, Simmons was promoted to a job where he solely covered recruiting, becoming a scout for the Southeast and Texas.

In 2007, Rivals.com was sold to Yahoo!, and founder Shannon Terry left the company with the idea to found a new recruitment-related website on his mind: 247Sports. Simmons was one of the company’s first hires. 

“We had a chance to get in early on a company like that and be involved in the build, which was a lot of fun,” Simmons said. 

When 247Sports was purchased by CBS Sports in November 2012, Simmons found that the cross-section between recruiting and college football started to merge, giving him opportunities to cover the game more intensely than he ever had before. As an analyst, Simmons learned to trust his gut. Instead of letting the public or other members of the industry sway his opinion, he moved away “from the path of least resistance” and ranked players only based on his own analysis. This led to Simmons being early to the party on a lot of opinions that now seem like they must have been prevalent forever. Notably, Simmons ranked a young Tyran Mathieu far higher than most industry experts and insisted that DeVonta Smith was going to take home the Heisman Trophy far before the rest of the country was thinking about such a reality.

Simmons knew this role was preparing him for something more in his career but was not sure exactly what that looked like. He knew two things: He loved college football and did not want to leave Music City behind. 

On Dec. 14, 2020, the stars aligned. Lea, who had been serving as the defensive coordinator of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, was officially named Vanderbilt’s 29th head football coach.

Simmons was one of Lea’s first calls. 

“When Clark gave me the call, I felt like it was time for a new challenge,” Simmons said. “I felt ready for it.”

Reflecting on the call, Simmons didn’t know if any other situation would have inspired him to leave his career in media.

“I think it would have been really hard for me to be lured out in Nashville,” Simmons said.  “And to be honest with you, I think it would have been really hard for me to be lured, even to Vanderbilt, by someone that I didn’t really have total trust with.”

With the hiring of Simmons, Lea created a somewhat unique model for the college level. While having the title of GM at other schools can often be synonymous with chief-of-staff, that is not the case at Vanderbilt. For the Commodores, chief-of-staff is a completely separate position — one that Ben Cauthen occupies. 

“We’re almost like an NFL model, in terms of the personnel,” Simmons said. “I think ultimately, my role is to safeguard and guide the build of the roster.”

Barton Simmons celebrates after Vanderbilt’s win at Colorado St. on Sep. 11, 2021. (Photo Courtesy of Vanderbilt Athletics)

Simmons and Lea took over a Derek Mason-led squad that was winless (0-9) in 2020. In their first two full seasons, the team has seen an increase in their win totals (2 in 2021 and 5 in 2022). This season, though, the Commodores currently sit at 2-6. 

“We’ve brought in two recruiting classes that are really high school heavy, and we feel like we have a really strong hit rate on those guys,” Simmons said. “Our vision is to stack and retain those classes. Then you look up and suddenly, you’ve got a bunch of guys that are connected, that believe in what we’re doing and that we have traits and skill sets that are NFL ready.”

Simmons knows that the work is not close to finished and not easy. But that’s not why he picked Vanderbilt. Behind this team’s pursuit to find its success, behind the cranes littered throughout the north and south end zones of the stadium and behind all the noise about how arduous it is to compete in the SEC, lies a vision. It’s a vision that one day soon, in a newly-renovated FirstBank Stadium, the Vanderbilt Commodores will compete for an SEC Championship equipped with a plethora of NFL-caliber players.

And there, through his overlooking office window, will be the architect, Simmons, looking on and appreciating every minute of it.

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About the Contributor
Jonah Barbin
Jonah Barbin, Sports Podcast Producer
Jonah Barbin (‘25) is majoring in human and organizational development and cinema and media studies. In addition to writing about sports, you can catch him acting, scouring the fantasy football waiver wire, playing golf and fantasizing about what Odell Beckham Jr.’s career would have been if the Giants never traded him. You can reach him at [email protected].
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