A month of Commodore drama

Feb. 11, 2014

Saturday, January 4: 30,000 Vanderbilt fans are in Birmingham to watch the Commodores beat Houston in the BBVA Compass Bowl.

Saturday morning, January 11 was cool and overcast. Several hundred Commodore fans had organized over Twitter messages and stood by the Starwalk outside McGugin Center to cheer and encourage members of the football team that were gathering to hear in a brief meeting that James Franklin would be leaving as their coach.

As Franklin was exiting, Director of Athletics David Williams was entering the same meeting room to assure the team that they would soon have a new, outstanding coach. "They told me, `we've got this here, we're ok. You go find us a great head coach'," Williams recalled in a scene that reminded him of the movie Remember the Titans.

Reports were everywhere that prize football recruits were decommitting; a potential Top 25 recruiting class would dwindle at one point to just nine solid commits. An uneasy tension that comes with uncertainty hung over Commodore Nation. Some felt the sky was indeed falling.

At Williams' regularly scheduled Monday meeting with his senior staff, he made two key points: the first, his belief everything would turn out all right and the second, repeated for emphasis - we were to run the department with as much normalcy as possible. He took the lead.

In between working the phones to access information and schedule interviews with potential head coaches, Williams was appearing on two to three Nashville sports talk programs a day along with frequent contacts with other media such as newspaper and television. His appearance at Vanderbilt's women's basketball home game with Tennessee Jan. 12 surprised some, who took to Twitter to share that news. Normalcy.

  • Vanderbilt 74 Lady Vols 63

As Williams honed in on a short list of candidates, athletic staff worked with Human Resources and the compliance staff to accelerate the background screenings required of all new department members, anticipating the need to get new coaches on the road as soon as possible. Williams also conferred with chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos and trustees on a hiring plan. An interview trip with the chancellor and some department staffers was quietly planned while others stayed on campus to make sure things ran smoothly.

All the while, no previously planned meetings or activities were cancelled or postponed. Development officers developed a plan to alert major donors and communication staffers met with university public relations administration to work through possible announcement timelines. A room in McGugin Center was quietly prepared for the eventual press conference - complete with risers, sound system, additional lighting and balloons. Members of the university's creative service team including the photography unit were put on alert, as were the cheer squad and pep band.

On Friday, Jan. 17 Williams made good on his promise to the team as Stanford's Derek Mason was confirmed as the school's 28th head football coach. A press conference was announced for the next morning.

The press conference attracted a standing room only crowd of media, staff and team members. It broke up about 11:30 and Mason would change clothes and work nearly round the clock for the next 36 hours, familiarizing himself with his new team and setting a course of action for the crucial last two weeks of the recruiting cycle.

He broke away that Sunday afternoon for a few minutes to say a few words to the fans attending the women's basketball game before heading back to continue his homework.

  • Vanderbilt 79 14th-rated LSU 70

As Mason and various members of his newly hired staff hit the road, armed with their "two-minute drill" recruiting plan firmly in place, the spotlight shined elsewhere.

On Jan. 24-25 the magnificent new field house would play host to track and field's first Vanderbilt Invitational, a meet that will go down in the department's history for establishing Vanderbilt as one of the sport's new meccas. As hundreds of area spectators and guests from competing schools watched, the Commodore's new home quickly became known for its ability to produce fast times. The 300-meter oval has a cutting edge Mondo surface that some have called "the fastest track in the South."

  • Saturday, Jan. 25 Men's basketball wins on the road at Texas A&M, 66-55.
  • Jan. 26 The men's tennis team thumps LSU.
  • Jan. 29 Men's basketball makes it two wins in a row on the road, this time at Georgia.

Behind the scenes, Mason was making excellent use of a private plane donated by an alum by criss-crossing the country meeting with recruits. He was also putting his staff together and with terrific internal teamwork and a good plan in place, the new assistant coaches were being certified and put on the recruiting trail as quickly as possible.

  • Jan. 31-Feb. 1 A huge high school track meet that attracted nearly 600 competitors from seven states jammed into the field house Jan. 31 and Feb. 1, adds even more lore to the infant facility by producing a number of national Top 10 performances.
  • Kevin Stallings' men's team extends its winning streak to three in a row by beating Mississippi State in Memorial Gymnasium.

In between these high points there was daily drama on the football recruiting scene. Spurred by the non-stop nature of social media, Vandy fans were a twitter about the latest rumor of decommitment as recruiting analysts explained how tough it would be for Vanderbilt to salvage a respectable class in just days.

Mason would later explain that in his "two-minute" drill, the first week was basically set aside to meet and visit with the young men who were originally Vanderbilt bound and the second week dedicated toward bringing in a new collection of prize prospects to campus. The weekend of Feb. 1 will be remembered as one of the most successful recruiting weekends in Commodore football history as a class that had dwindled to nine swelled to an eventual 21, including the highest rated signee in school history.

  • Sunday, Feb. 2 Both tennis squads would defeat strong Northwestern teams, women's basketball would win a thrilling game against Top 10 rated Texas A&M, 71-69 and the bowling team got into the act by beating No. 1 rated Arkansas State in a tournament in Dallas.

With national signing day Wednesday, Feb. 5 and momentum finally on its side, the football staff solidified its harvest. Coach Mason and his new staff were actually able to start preparations for the 2015 recruiting season while attending a series of media and public events during the day.

That evening, Vanderbilt's men's basketball team hosted Tennessee. The "Magnificent Seven" as they have begun to be called, thrilled their fans again, holding on for a 64-60 victory to push the winning streak to four. Coach Mason and his staff were again introduced at halftime, their last public appearance of what was a very busy day.

It was a month of drama, excitement and history, critical to not only maintaining but even expanding the momentum that characterizes today's Vanderbilt Athletics. And it was all accomplished while maintaining that sense of normalcy that Williams insisted upon from the start.

"This is what we do in athletics," Williams says, tacking on one of his favorite expressions, "we do the difficult routinely. The impossible takes just a little bit longer!"



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