Feb. feature: Year of Black and Gold
March 5, 2012
Casey earned All-America honors this past season while tying Leonard Coleman for the school's all-time lead with 15 career interceptions. He'll play in the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., at the end of January and hopes to be invited to the NFL Combine at the end of February in Indianapolis.
"Here's a mother that could be thinking about the money that her son could make by going to the NFL," Williams said. "But she's calling because she wants to make sure his education can continue. I told her, `You don't have to worry. We're gonna work on that.'"
When Williams saw Casey days later in Memphis, the star cornerback already had discussed the plan for those 13 hours with his mother. And when, in early January, Williams took a call from Casey's agent--a Vandy law grad--the agent wanted to know what he could do to help the process.
All parties involved were invested in making sure that 22-year-old Casey Hayward, a future professional football player, becomes a Vanderbilt graduate.
"We have it so implanted on where the priorities are," Williams said. "Casey will play in the NFL. I hope he's All-Pro and he makes it into the Hall of Fame. But Casey's also going to have a Vanderbilt degree, and I'm probably going to be more proud of that fact. We're gonna make sure that happens, and he's gonna make sure that happens."
While Vanderbilt student-athletes are excelling on the field of play, their success in the classroom remains a priority. That dual emphasis is the basis of Williams' "winning the right way" philosophy.
Commodores' Greatest Calendar Year?
The first half of the "winning the right way" philosophy? Winning. And the Commodores did a lot of that over the past 12 months.
The football team's trip to the Liberty Bowl, a journey that included approximately 32,000 of Mr. C's closest friends, wrapped up what could be the most successful calendar year in the history of Commodore athletics.
In 2011, nine of Vanderbilt's varsity teams advanced to the NCAA championship play. Stories of unprecedented success became commonplace around McGugin.
For the ninth time in school history, both the men's and women's basketball programs earned berths in the NCAA Tournament last March. The women were making their 12th consecutive trip, and the men were in the field for the fourth time in five years.
In April, the bowling team earned a spot in the eight-team NCAA Championship field and made it all the way to the title match before coming up just short of winning its second national championship.
The men's and women's tennis teams received bids to their respective NCAA Tournaments in May--the 10th time in school history that both squads had been invited. In their 17th consecutive NCAA Tournament, the women's team upset in-state rival Tennessee to advance to the Sweet 16 for the 12th time in 14 years.
That same week, the women's golf team was competing in the NCAA Championship. Those Commodores earned a Top 10 finish at nationals for the second consecutive season--a first in the history of that esteemed program.
And who could forget the baseball team's epic run to Omaha, when the 'Dores reeled off five straight wins at Hawkins Field to earn their first trip to the College World Series?
Summer break was shortened by a month due to the baseball team's run into late June, and when school returned in the fall the football team carried on VU's momentum by winning the first three games of James Franklin's tenure.
October and November were owned by the women's cross country team. After breaking onto the national scene with a second-place finish at the prestigious Wisconsin/adidas Invitational, the Commodore runners dominated the Southeastern Conference Championships, placed second at the NCAA Regional and placed in the Top 10 of their first-ever NCAA Championship meet.
Formula for Success
Vice Chancellor Williams, who was given oversight of athletics in 2003, believes that Vanderbilt's success is all about people.
"It's a tribute to the fact that we have really good coaches and phenomenal student-athletes," Williams said. "When we started this, we felt very strongly that if you construct a scenario where you had good coaches who saw themselves as having an ability to mentor and teach, and you gave them the things they needed to succeed, and you brought in kids who really are sincere about their athletics and their academics, and stress that stuff and treat them fairly, that they'll perform on the playing fields. That's what we've seen."
In the past, any measure of success at Vanderbilt undoubtedly would have led to coaches being pulled away by bigger universities with seemingly never-ending budgets. But Vanderbilt has made a concerted effort to be competitive with other schools in terms of compensation for coaches, and Williams has noticed that his particular group is more interested in putting Vanderbilt's teams in positions to be successful than in being rewarded monetarily.
When women's basketball Coach Melanie Balcomb was courted by another school, she asked Williams to update the team's sub-par locker room. A few years later it was a new court surface in Memorial Gymnasium that would help the Commodore basketball team remain competitive and keep their excellent coach.
Tim Corbin reportedly had opportunities to coach for more prestigious "baseball schools," but he opted to oversee major improvements to facilities at Vanderbilt--from the noticeable upgrade of Hawkins Field to the less-visible construction of a pitching lab beneath Vanderbilt Stadium.
Others are taking note of the success that Williams and his group have produced. Roy Kramer, who served as Vanderbilt's director of athletics before a groundbreaking career as commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, knows firsthand the challenges that are faced on West End.
"They have done a remarkable job both in improving facilities and in hiring and retaining outstanding coaches," Kramer said. "That was not always the case in the past. Now I see a number of great coaches who are committed to the program and university, and that continuity is paying very big dividends. Vanderbilt has built a name for itself on the national athletic stage, and their success has occurred during a time when the Southeastern Conference is having its heyday, not just in football, but in all sports across the board."
Onward and Upward
If congratulations are in order on Jess Neely Drive, no one has told the senior athletic administration. New challenges lie ahead that Williams and his staff already are undertaking, not the least of which is the growing price of business.
Vanderbilt is making a number of improvements to the McGugin Center, including enhanced meeting rooms for football and upgraded locker rooms for a number of Olympic sports. Williams also recently announced plans for a multipurpose indoor facility that will include a full-size turf field and a regulation track.
And there always will be improvements to make which seldom will be free, so finding ways to create more revenue--whether increasing current revenue streams or tapping new ones--is key.
"In terms of revenue, I think there's some low-hanging fruit for us, if you like," Williams said. "We could certainly stand an increased amount of people coming to football games. That would produce some revenue. We need people to give more. When you look at our annual rate of giving to athletics, it's by far the lowest in the SEC."
Sparking fan involvement lies at the heart of Vanderbilt's ability to continue to grow and excel.
"We have to start to think more and more about how we interact with our fans, with our supporters, with our donors; that's the challenge going forward," Williams said. "How do we get people motivated? There has to be something more than what they can get watching that 60-inch flat screen. We're going to open up next year against South Carolina on a Thursday night, and the goal is that Dudley Field will be full with black and gold."
Williams hopes the Commodores can ride their current wave of momentum, building trust within a fan base by continuing "winning the right way." He believes this is a crucial time to show that the success of the 2011 calendar year was more systemic than fluky. If Williams is right, this "Year of Black and Gold" looks prime to spark a true "Black and Golden Age."
Winning the Right Way
Major success in all four "major" sports--NCAA Tournament berths in baseball and both men's and women's basketball, and a bowl invitation in football--was a feat that only eight schools accomplished during the 2011 calendar year.
Looking at the profiles of those eight schools, Vanderbilt sticks out like a sore thumb. An extremely healthy, not-at-all-sore sore thumb.
The only private institution and the smallest university by a wide margin, Vanderbilt paced the group in the NCAA's recent graduation success rate (GSR) calculation.
Black & Gold Boom
It is definitely getting easier to sport black and gold. And not only from the perspective of fan pride during VU's current run of success.
Over the past five years, revenue created by the licensing of Vanderbilt marks for use on products has increased by 47 percent. Last fiscal year saw the highest royalty collection in the short history of Vanderbilt's licensing program.
According to Maggie Huckaba, Vanderbilt's director of trademark licensing, this year is on pace to again break new ground.
"Currently, we are up 17 percent over this time last year," Huckaba said in January. "The College World Series and the Liberty Bowl have definitely impacted our increase. I know we had at least four reorders of Liberty Bowl products."
Huckaba highlights Nike's sideline apparel program and a partnership with Old Navy through the Tailgate Clothing Co. as two contributors to Vanderbilt's increased exposure. Having a new headquarters for Vanderbilt's official campus store--the Barnes & Noble Vanderbilt at 2525 West End Ave.--also has contributed the licensing program's success.
"The location, different assortment of products and a number of new product lines have all helped to create a new excitement of Vanderbilt products," Huckaba said.
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