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Vanderbilt remains college football’s best ‘should be’ job

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Also, Virginia Tech has disappeared and Utah State would like you to forget

Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports. Banner Society Illustration.

Right now, the expectation among agents and coaches is that the Vanderbilt job will not open after 2020. The Commodores are currently 0-7, and spent a portion of this arrested season just trying to field enough players to have a game. Still, they’ve been far better in their last three losses (38-17 vs. Florida and one-score defeats against Mississippi State and Kentucky) than in early season blowouts to LSU and South Carolina.

To be clear: It’s possible that Derek Mason is fired. At the moment, it seems unlikely, barring a turn of events far behind the scenes.

If Mason is retained, it will surely frustrate a decent portion of Vandy fans, but the reality is that this job, in this current state, would get anyone who wants it bad right now fired in 2024. For years, Vanderbilt has tinkered with org charts, made out-of-the-box hires that imploded, and let their football facilities all but rot despite making SEC television money and sitting in the middle of one of America’s best economies.

VU did nothing to capitalize on James Franklin’s success, which is a major reason why he left. Don’t simply assume that Penn State > Vandy; that’s certainly true by most standard measurements used in coaching, but at the time, Franklin and his staff agonized over leaving an SEC East job they felt could be competitive (with help) for a PSU that was still in embers after the Paterno-Sandusky cover-up.

Mason is a highly respected coach, especially as a defensive mind, but lacks the outsized character we associate with overhaul jobs like this. When he snapped after the ‘Dores win vs. Missouri last year, coaches around the country privately snickered.

The reaction around Vanderbilt to Mason’s outburst was mixed. Personally, I thought it was great. At the very least, it showed someone was awake at the university, that someone wanted to do something.

Whether or not Mason can do something is not the right question to ask at this moment. It’s whether or not anyone can. There’s far more fundamental problems than football that need fixing at Vandy — the donors (disorganized), fans (broken) and school officials (naive) — before you can accurately measure acumen for development or schematics.

And this entire conversation belies an accurate list of what needs “fixing” if we don’t address the school’s consistent mismanagement of sexual assault cases involving athletes. It is not a recent problem, either. The school announced new measures in October for reporting incidents and communicating with the Title IX office. However, to claim either that this problem is specific to Vanderbilt, or that a press release and new protocol “fixes” the issue would be insulting.

Every day forward is an opportunity for Vanderbilt to rebuild itself effectively and progressively. Doing so would almost certainly trickle down to on-field performance, at least to some degree. And if doesn’t, at least a functioning apparatus would be in place for the next coach to do so — and believe me, there’s plenty of interest. Until then, and without a transparent sea change of an initiative, Vandy will continue to lead the Power 5 in potential only.

That’s a bold claim, I know. But I honestly believe that Vanderbilt is the Power 5 job with the least-realized potential, which is a nice way of saying, “The school has done a worse job with its football program than anyone else in a playoff conference.” I know I’m at least sorta right because of the amount of interest this job has on the open market, right now and in years prior, despite the smoking crater it seems to occupy.

I’m also wildly biased — I live in West Nashville and I’m unapologetically lazy. Nothing would be greater for me personally than a national title contender less than a mile from my couch.

Virginia Tech

Whit Babcock is very much unlike a modern athletic director, despite often being referred to as a model for many other aspiring ADs. What gets lost in the difference between Virginia Tech’s AD and his peers is a genuine honesty and a quiet, steady hand. Babcock’s as genuine a persona as you could ask for in Power 5 athletic administration.

He does this by doing crazy things like making you believe he’s listening to you when he speaks. Amazing, huh? But it stands out in a profession now beset with buzzword buzzard fundraisers – part Morgan Stanley, part Silicon Valley, part embattled Congressman — basically every character archetype that audiences cheer to be murdered in a horror movie.

My point here is that Babcock is ill fit to respond to the Justin Fuente situation with the kind of public theatrics we’ve grown to expect (and that, full transparency, we in the media encourage the hell out of). Fuente has lost consistently, found himself at odds with VT loyalists following the “retirement” of longtime defensive coordinator Bud Foster, got his hand caught trying to get the Baylor job last season, and most recently lost to plucky Group of Five head coach Hugh Freeze after shooting himself in the face with his own timeout.

Virginia Tech is currently 37-25 under Fuente, who won 10 games and lost to Clemson by a touchdown in the ACC Championship in his first year. But Tech is 18-17 in their last three seasons. As evidenced by Pitt’s 40-17 beatdown last weekend, the Hokies have sunk into the anonymous morass of the ACC’s middle class.

To an outsider: They’re just not Virginia Tech anymore. The defense is gone. Beamer Ball is gone. The idea that a bunch of Newport News kids hiding over yonder in the mountains would lure a Miami or Clemson to Blacksburg on a Thursday night and by the time “Enter Sandman” finished you were convinced as a fan or rival or random viewer that something insane was about to happen… all long gone.

And hey, it’s one thing if they’re not Frank Beamer’s VT anymore. The problem is that they’re no one’s VT. That no one is excited or intimidated by Metallica playing in Southwest Virginia is a crime against the culture of this sport.

Fuente has a $12.5 million buyout. It’s a pandemic, and not every program is run with the punchy financial logic of the SEC. If Babcock is organizing a move, we likely won’t know until right before it happens, at best. The Fuente hire is on his hands, as well. If it’s this obvious to those of us outside Blacksburg that things are so off-brand, it must be hell “in the building.” Babcock’s second chance to provide Virginia Tech with an identity after its creator-architect weighs heavier than just a standard P5 job opening.

Utah State

Utah State is attempting to sell itself right now as if the previous two seasons never happened. Before Gary Andersen was thrust back on the program in 2018, USU was 10-2 under Matt Wells and viewed as a G5 job that catapulted its coaches to P5 gigs (Wells to TTU, Andersen to Wisconsin in 2012).

Up until boosters demanded Andersen’s return, athletic director John Hartwell – who previously hired Neal Brown at Troy – vetted candidates like Rich Rodriguez and Mark Helfrich, as well as Maryland’s then-interim head coach, Matt Canada. I don’t buy the idea that Utah State will look regionally to replace Andersen. Weber State’s Jay Hill is a popular name, but part of the repair process for the Aggies will be to establish a national search, to push the idea they’re more on par with Boise State than UNLV or New Mexico, each of which made hires during the last cycle that centered around familiarity with the West Coast.

The job in front of Hartwell and headhunter Glenn Siguyama is to remind prospective coaches that 1. USU is a springboard, and 2. It’s a safe spot to build. Wells achieved three nine-plus win seasons with the Aggies spread over six years, but suffered through a valley of just 15 wins in three seasons between 10-win campaigns. Suitors see a progression like that and feel like they’d be offered similar patience. Utah State’s success will depend on convincingly voiding what’s happened since 2018. That would be nice for a lot of us.