Vanderbilt coaches, staff, and families departed McGugin Center at 9 a.m. for Memphis Monday on an overcast morning with temperatures in the 40s. The 211-mile trip took three hours and 10 minutes on I-40 West and included a large police escort for the last stretch.
Only a handful of players traveled on the team bus. The rest of the squad came from all directions after spending Christmas break with family members. Everyone was required to check-in to the Bluff City by 2 p.m.
Location is Everything
The Commodores are staying at the historic Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis on Union Avenue, just three blocks from the world famous Beale Street. Barbecue and Blues is the name of the game here.
The 13-story hotel bears the same name as Peabody College at Vanderbilt, in recognition of philanthropist George Peabody. One of the hotels most famous traditions is the daily Peabody Duck March from the elevator to the Peabody fountain in the main lobby. We'll post more on this later in the week.
Meeting the Media
Head Coach James Franklin and select players held a meet and greet with local media after checking into the hotel. Find out what Franklin and Memphis natives DeAndre Jones and Chris Marve had to say about the AutoZone Liberty Bowl matchup with Cincinnati. Watch Videos
When asked about being a representative of Vanderbilt, Marve smiled and said, "I wouldn't trade it for the world. I love this university and I love this program. I love our fans and I love the Nashville community. We've worked tirelessly to be where we are now. We're going to keep working. Hard work has never deterred us at any rate. We love it."
Marve also told reporters that even though it's only the Commodores' fifth bowl game in school history, the past has nothing to do with future success. "We've worked entirely too hard to let our past, or anyone else's past, control our future. That's what we're focusing on and we're working hard for this weekend."
The first official meeting of bowl week involved Franklin and the Commodore Council, which consists of 20-plus players that meet regularly during the season. This is a chance for Franklin to get the pulse of the team from its leaders, and answer any questions they may have about the program. Franklin used the 15-minute session to remind the group of the importance of this trip to the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.
"It's going to be important not only how we play in the game, but how we handle ourselves this week," Franklin said. "You need to reinforce the message of what we're here to do. I want you guys to have a great experience. There's a time to have fun, and there's a time to do work. The fun time can't affect the work time. You have to handle your business and make the right choices.
"Just going to the bowl game isn't good enough. We've got to end this season with a winning record so that you guys, that may never play the game again, can leave your career with a great taste in your mouth."
Franklin also encouraged the graduating seniors to stay on campus in the spring and work with Dwight Galt, Director of Performance Enhancement, and his staff to prepare for the NFL Draft.
Next on the agenda was the first team meeting, held at 3 p.m. on the second floor of the Peabody Hotel. The first item the Commodores received during bowl week was a 33-page itinerary outlining the rules and schedule for the week; everything from dress codes to meeting times to activities to curfews. You won't find a more detailed document.
Franklin invited several guests to speak at the hour-long session.
First up was AutoZone Liberty Bowl executive director Steve Ehrhart (pictured above). Ehrhart recalled how he attended the Commodores' 30-7 rout of Ole Miss on Sept. 17 and knew at that point that this was a "new Vanderbilt." Ehrhart added, "Since then, I've been impressed with the team every step of the way."
Ehrhart also offered two interesting nuggets. First, teams that have appeared in the AutoZone Liberty in the past have ascended to excellence the following season (Boise State, Utah and Georgia were a few examples). Also, the Peabody Hotel has hosted the losing team in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl only three times in 53 years.
Memphis Police Chief Ray Douglas followed Ehrhart with a list of do's and don'ts while visiting the city. Douglas encouraged the team to enjoy themselves on the trip, experience some of the best restaurants in the world, and to be safe and use common sense.
Every Commodore team meeting includes a PowerPoint presentation directed by Franklin. The first slide today had the following quote:
Give of yourself completely, ask for nothing in return, and success shall be yours.
Franklin, known for his passionate speeches, went over the itinerary and then set the tone for what he expects of his team on the trip. Notes from his talk included:
Rules and reminders to the team: A) Always use the Golden Rule: treat others as you would like to be treated. B) You are never on time. You are either early or late. C) Remember you are representing yourself, your family, our program, and the university.
Franklin was clear about the focus of the bowl game: it's a business trip.
"The bowl game is not a reward for our season. The gifts we receive for playing in the bowl game is a reward. The additional time we get to practice and develop as a team is a reward. The last time that this family will ever be together, that's the reward. But just going to a bowl game isn't good enough. This is not a reward; this is a business trip.
"There's a big difference between 6-7 and 7-6. It's the difference between having a winning record and a losing record. Don't take it lightly.
"There's a big difference between having bowl participants on your ring or bowl champions. You're going to be looking at that thing for the rest of your life.
"Be one of only three teams in 121 years to be called `bowl champions.'"
Notes on Cincinnati... Franklin noted that the Bearcats have a distinct statistical advantage in turnovers (12th in the nation) and penalties (35th). He compared it to the same situation the Commodores faced in the Wake Forest game.
Franklin said the Bearcats usually play a 4-3 defense and rank sixth in the country against the rush. UC leads the nation in sacks and tackles for loss.
Cincinnati runs a true spread offense. One of the keys will be stopping No. 23 Isaiah Pead, who has rushed for back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons.
The Commodores will have four practices and one walk-thru this week. The team will spend additional time on conditioning on Monday and Tuesday to make up for the holiday break. "We'll get all that sinning out of you; all that gravy out of your system," Franklin quipped. Galt said the team will run anywhere from 4-8 "destructors" based on how they perform in drills at practice.
You don't want to be late to a meeting or you'll end up in what's called "The Breakfast Club." If you're lucky enough to join this club, you'll get to meet one-on-one with Galt early the next morning for a special conditioning workout.
Franklin opened up the room for questions. The best inquiry was from wide receiver Wesley Tate, who asked the Head Coach if it was okay to break curfew to study game film? "No," Franklin said as the team erupted in laughter.
The Commodores had a meal, treatment session, and then position meetings before heading to practice at Memphis University School Monday night.
Only one problem: inclement weather changed their plans.
Vanderbilt was forced to hold the practice indoors in the school gymnasium after heavy rains hit the area throughout the day.
(Photos in this blog were provided by Steve Green/Vanderbilt University)