Nov. 30, 2013
Two quick things before we begin:
It is now ok to exhale. Whew!
Jordan Matthews. Wow!
We bid goodbye to 20 special seniors today, at least a farewell to regular seasons. Their resume is well known to Commodore Nation with a bevy of records and school firsts, some dating back to pre-World War I.
It's been a remarkable ride these past three years, which include a 15-4 record over the last 19 games; a historic trifecta over SEC East members Georgia, Florida and Tennessee; an impressive nine-game November winning streak that has made fans wish football season wouldn't end so soon and, of course, three consecutive bowl games.
And while the on-the-field success has been remarkable, the culture change around the program has been astonishing. If you think driving 92-yards in the waning minutes to win at Neyland Stadium or clawing 60 minutes to edge a game Wake Forest bunch is tough, try changing the mindset of 100 student-athletes, a campus community, a large city with varied interests and a gigantic collegiate football industry that for decades believed this program was the most difficult to turn around in the country.
Coach James Franklin and his staff deserve considerable credit for master-minding this dramatic change. The Vanderbilt success story has few rivals in college football when factoring in the supposed high degrees of difficulty regarding its high academic standards, the mighty Southeastern Conference opposition and the down-trodden mindset of its fan base. Not many years ago, this story would have been categorized as fiction or fantasy but it is most assuredly non-fiction stuff.
The Commodore Nation no longer walks the back streets or lurks in the shadows. Its fans no longer dress as though they are participants in witness protection; those indistinguishable neutral colors have been traded for tasteful black and gold. Santa Claus now carries licensed Vandy gear down the chimney.
Today was Senior Day, properly dedicated to a unique group that with a few notable exceptions has modest talent by SEC standards but has more leadership and desire to succeed than other teams might imagine.
With the seniors' commitment to "six seconds at a time" and "going 1-0 for the week" they have taught us all about focus, teamwork and work ethic. It's a fool's errand to seek a single Commodore that takes personal credit for anything.
When Austyn Carta-Samuels was asked about "the pass" on 4th and 12 late in the game, he credited good protection and his star receiver's fantastic skill. When Matthews was asked about "the catch" - one that some experts say was one of the best they ever saw - Jmatt also credits his teammates first, then raves about what a perfect pass Carta-Samuels threw him and claims he did the easy part.
Senior defensive end Walker May used the same language during the defense's press conference. When asked about his huge quarterback sack as the clock ticked down, he mentioned the other three down linemen, the exceptional secondary coverage and allowed that he just had to run around the edge to make the play.
There is power in this unity, people. It is not to be sloughed off as so much blarney. This is how winning teams think. Matthews was repeatedly asked if dropping the short pass on third down affected his thinking on that epic fourth down and he simply said "I knew we had one more down left." Where others see panic, these young men see opportunity.
The SEC's all-time leading receiver was also asked about his feelings on his senior class and how it has set a winning foundation for the future.
Matthews doesn't see it like that. He credits the people before him as the foundations setters - the Chris Marves and Casey Haywards - and believes his class has begun building the house, confident that future Commodores will continue the construction.
We have saluted the seniors on their home finale but we will get one more chance to watch this magnificent group wear the Black and Gold. What they have accomplished has changed college football's reading habits. Perhaps their story really is a Hollywood fairy tale only this time, it really did happen.