COLUMN: Bowl bid shows football success at Vanderbilt is no fluke

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COLUMN: Bowl bid shows football success at Vanderbilt is no fluke

Photo by Ziyi Liu.

Photo by Ziyi Liu.

Photo by Ziyi Liu.

Photo by Ziyi Liu.

Cutler Klein, Sports Editor

The date was December 31, 1955.

In front of a crowd of 32,174 on New Year’s Day, the Vanderbilt Commodores stepped onto the field for their first-ever bowl appearance in their 65-year history. Quarterback Don Orr threw for a touchdown and ran for two more as the Commodores took down Auburn 25-13 in the Gator Bowl.

Now, 61 years and six bowl appearances later, Vanderbilt is going to another bowl game. This time, it’s the Camping World Independence Bowl against the North Carolina State Wolfpack. Even though this will be the eighth time the Commodores have played in a bowl game, it will arguably be the most special and most meaningful.

This bowl berth represents a coming of age for the Vanderbilt Football program. Articles have been written about why Vanderbilt can’t find the successes that other top-level academic institutions find. This bowl appearance should erase some of those questions.

It is a statement to the world that having success on West End is no longer a fluke. It shows that Vanderbilt football is no longer defined by one coach or one era or one bald-headed, recruit-stealing egomaniac.

The Commodores are for real.

Think back to what was happening within the Vanderbilt program when it made its first bowl game in over 20 years back in 2008. The Commodores were on their fifth different head coach since their last bowl appearance in 1982, none of whom had won more than three SEC games in a season. Head coach Bobby Johnson was in his seventh season and couldn’t make a bowl game even with future NFL quarterback Jay Cutler.

But, that all changed in 2008 when the Commodores started the season 5-0 en route to a win in the Music City Bowl over Boston College.

Then, they proceeded to win a total of four games over the next two seasons. Any expectations of success after 2008 were erased. The narrative quickly shifted back to that statement heard over and over again.

Same Old Vanderbilt.

Yes, it appeared Vanderbilt’s victory over Boston College was a rarity, an anomaly, a fluke. It got lucky to get six wins and got a lucky bounce on a punt during the game that led to the game-winning touchdown.

But they couldn’t do it again, could they?

Enter James Franklin.

Aside from the treasonous, poisonous and downright despicable way he left the program in 2014, he made tremendous strides toward bringing Vanderbilt to consistent relevancy. He started by trying to change the culture of the team with his “plan” and his “vision.”

“It’s time that this football program starts reflecting everything else on this campus, and that’s the commitment to excellence,” Franklin said in his introductory press conference on December 17, 2010. “No part of this program will settle. Everything we do will be about championships.”

With two nine-win seasons, three bowl appearances and two bowl wins under his belt, it seemed like Coach Franklin was the messiah Vanderbilt needed to achieve that consistent success.

And then it all came crashing down.

Franklin brought the Commodores to three bowl games and seemed to revolutionize Vanderbilt athletics in just three seasons, then bolted for Happy Valley faster than you can say “WE ARE.”

In the process, he demoralized a community that was just getting accustomed to the idea of a successful Vanderbilt football program. Whoever was selected to replace Franklin would have the impossible job of following up the impossible: success in Vanderbilt football.

After two rough seasons to start Derek Mason’s tenure, some may have wondered if any coach could replicate Franklin’s success. Two unsuccessful seasons reminded some of the days before Franklin, and that damned phrase.

Same Old Vanderbilt.

Three seasons in, Mason has turned that phrase on its head. He took longer than Franklin did to make a bowl game, but Franklin’s immediate success was completely unprecedented and next to impossible to replicate, especially given how decimated Mason’s first recruiting class was in 2014.

It’s 2016 now, and Vanderbilt is anything but the Same Old Vanderbilt. It’s been to four bowl games in just six years. That’s more bowl appearances in a six-year span than the Commodores had in the entire 20th century. Mason was finally able to exorcise the final demon remaining from Franklin’s era, and that was the bowl game.

The Commodores are more than just a coach or a symbol or a “plan.” They’re more than the “Same Old.” They don’t need James Franklin to make a bowl game or to have consistent success. The era of waiting for Vanderbilt to inevitably crash and burn is over.

Franklin always touted the “Brand New Vanderbilt” he created.

But, he jumped the gun just a little bit.

In 2016, the “Brand New Vanderbilt” is finally here. It is one that wins, that wins SEC games, that competes with the toughest teams around and goes to bowl games. Mason has solidified that in his tenure, and even though this season was not amazing by most college football standards, the seeds are there to create a consistent, contending team, no matter who the players or the coaches are.

“You talk about just trying to chase greatness,” Mason said after the team bowl celebration on Sunday. “Granted, you look at 6-6 and you say ‘Okay, where’s the greatness in that?’ Well, it just all depends on how you got there. We lost some tough ones, we won some big ones, and the journey still continues.”

“Every bit of this journey for this 2016 football team has been about the endgame and the goal of making it to a 13th game. That’s what we’ve done for only the eighth time in Vanderbilt’s football history. For us, it’s rare air, but let’s make sure we finish the journey.”

Mason is right: The journey hasn’t ended. It’s only just begun. Vanderbilt has put itself in the position to be a successful team for years to come. But, not just successful by Vanderbilt standards: successful by SEC standards. That means you can stop trying to plan your Christmases around trips to Birmingham or Shreveport soon and start possibly thinking about early December trips to Atlanta.

Look out, SEC, because your doormat just blew the hinges off the front door.

Vanderbilt football is here. Get used to it.

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