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December 23, 2006

12 things I want for Christmas this year

'Tis the season for wishful thinking. So this Vandy dreamer has a short wish list for Santa (also known as acting athletics director David Williams) as we head into the new year.

12. An athletics director.
Vice Chancellor Williams is, in my book, the single best thing to happen to Vanderbilt athletics in at least two decades -- which covers my entire Nashville residence. The man personifies everything that is right about Vanderbilt's athletics/academics mission, and has a genuine love for and involvement in every sports program on that campus.

But, he's just one man, and he can't do it all -- even if he wants to. David teaches law, runs student affairs, and massages the Board of Trust on all things Vanderbilt, in addition to managing the fires that occasionally flare up at McGugin. He is also a popular figure in the Nashville business community, as well as a regular face at various leadership functions on the national and international stage. That's just too much for one person to manage, even someone with Williams' remarkable talents.

Vanderbilt's athletics department needs someone who is "in charge" and working in the athletics department complex. There is too much going on at every major college athletics department (and yes, no matter what Gordon Gee likes to say, VU does have an athletics department) for it to be a part time job.

The coaches and AD staffers need to know that their daily lives are the constant concern of a guy (or gal) whose only job is to make sure that both the big and little things are not falling between the cracks. And if you have a concern, you need to be able to get it addressed without having to call a special meeting with the #2 man in the university.

Vandy can go on as they are now...but why?

11. Get the game day riff raff off the Dudley Field sidelines.
This is a huge pet peeve of everyone who works on the sidelines of Dudley Field, and may be the easiest wish to fulfill on my list.

There are literally dozens of people hanging around the sidelines, in and out of the coach's box, who have no business being there. It's bad on Vandy's side of the field, but often worse on the visitors' side, where schools look to hand out a pass to local boosters (and their sons) as a thank you for their support. The security force that Vandy hires for the games do a decent job, but they have no say over who or how many get to be on the sidelines. These jock-sniffers often stand right in front of photographers who are there to do a job. And usually, they won't move even if asked.

P.S. If Santa's elevators moved as slowly as the ones at Dudley Field, we'd be opening gifts on Labor Day. This is a huge and constant source of anger and frustration on game day, not just for the media but for VU's big money boosters who use them to access the sky boxes.

P.P.S. It would be a nice stocking stuffer if Vandy added a few power outlets, desks and chairs on the sidelines for laptops and battery chargers. Some ethernet ports would also go a long way for those of us who have deadlines to meet, and can't risk standing in line at the aforementioned pokey elevators.

10. A good going out party for the hoops seniors.
Do you realize that it is likely that Derrick Byars will graduate from college having never played in an NCAA tournament? Dan Cage has been the silent partner through thin and thinner, and has always played whatever role he was asked. These two kids have given their hearts and souls to Vanderbilt basketball. They deserve to go out in style: With a trip to the Big Dance.

9. A turnabout for Tate
It came as little surprise when Nashville's Pope John Paul II phenom picked Notre Dame over the Commodores. But that doesn't take the sting out of losing him, especially after the Irish dragged their feet with a scholarship offer for almost a year, while Vanderbilt's football and baseball coaches pulled out all the stops.

Tate, like J.P. Prince in basketball, could step in an make an immediate impact on Vanderbilt's prospects. We think that Vandy is not going to give up in their quest to get Golden to wear the Black and Gold. Santa, put Golden on the Nice List, won't you?

8. A Sunday starter for Coach Corbin.
With All-American David Price holding down Fridays, and (probably) Cody Crowell set to start on Saturdays, the Diamond Dores need a series-closing ace to secure their SEC title hopes.

There are no lack of options, with junior Ty Davis, sophomores Brett Jacobson, Nick Christiani and Josh Zeid, senior Stephen Shao, and even true freshman Mikie Minor in the mix. Someone from that group needs to separate themselves from the pack.

7. J.P. Prince in the Black and Gold
Our staff was castigated by a handful of naysayers two years ago, when we suggested that the Parade All-American would keep Vandy on his list right down to signing day. When Prince picked Arizona, the "I told you so" was no consolation. Now, it appears the 6-6 point forward, who was rated by Rivals.com as the fourth best point guard in the nation as a senior, is taking a new look at VU.

With the graduation of Dan Cage and Derrick Byars, who together are averaging over 60 minutes a game, Stallings returns just two wing players in Shan Foster and George Drake. Prince could step right in and secure a ton of playing time in a program that is desperate for play-makers. Prince, should he pick Vandy the second time around, would get to spend a year getting back into the groove, and could start from Day 1 when next year's SEC season begins.

Will there be a new Prince of Hoops on West End? The smart money says, Book It!

6. A win over UT for the women's basketball program.
Coach Balcomb has had some success at Vandy, but no more or less than any previous VU women's hoops coach. With her twin towers looming in the paint, and quickster Dee Davis manning the point, Vandy's women's basketball program has the talent to go far this year.

There's no denying that Pat Summit is the perennial queen of SEC hoops -- and that includes the men's side. She cleans up in recruiting like no coach in America, and there's nothing VU can do about that. But still...can't we expect to beat UT once every decade?

If Vandy is going to beat the Lady Vols, this is the year to do it.

5. Clarity on the future of the men's basketball program.
After eight years under the direction of Coach Kevin Stallings, there is a feeling of malaise among Vandy's basketball faithful that is palpable. Whether it be shocking transfers, last minute recruiting upsets, embarrassing losses to mid-majors, chemistry clashes, or "just barely" exclusion from the Big Dance, Vanderbilt's basketball program has too often seemed stuck in neutral.

Never before has Vanderbilt's leadership been as gracious and responsive to help its coaches succeed on the playing field or court. Stallings, making a reported $1.3 million a year, is the best paid employee on campus -- but has never had a winning season in the SEC. Fans need to know what Vanderbilt's expectations are for this revenue-producing program that now has a sea of empty seats visible to television cameras.

Vanderbilt's fans, like all school's fans, may often have unrealistic expectations -- but even CKS himself admits that the goals for the program should be higher than one NCAA Tournament appearance every seven (and probably eight) years. It certainly doesn't help the egos of Vandy's fan base to see Bruce Pearl basking in a sea of construction cone orange-clad fans after he beats Vandy in their own gym. And fair or not, losing to not one, but two Southern Conference teams in one season hardly drives subscriptions to sites like VandySports.com, let alone season ticket packages.

This is a "big ticket" item, I know. But Vandy hoops should be one of the SEC's premiere programs. Men's hoops has long been the bell cow of the Vandy athletics department. Few would argue it is at that level right now.

4. An SEC baseball championship.
Hope springs eternal, but it doesn't take much hoping to put Vandy in the driver's seat in the SEC this year. A lot of the league's perennial superpowers are in reloading mode, and especially LSU, South Carolina and Florida. Vanderbilt, on the other hand, is locked and loaded to claim the program's first league championship since Ronald Reagan's first term as president.

Even fans of other SEC schools are accepting (and respecting) Vanderbilt's baseball presence. Corbin turned away LSU for many reasons, but the main one was that he felt he was "this close" to reaching his main goals here in Nashville. With Price, Pedro Alvarez and Ryan Flaherty anchoring a rock solid roster, this is the year for Vanderbilt to become a legitimate baseball superpower. It starts with winning the SEC.

3. A bowl game for the football program.
This horse has been beaten bloody, but that's why it bears repeating. The Commodore football program appears to be in very capable hands under Bobby Johnson and his staff, but the fact remains they have yet to secure a .500 record -- which would virtually guarantee the school's first bowl game appearance in (now) 24 years.

With budding superstar Chris Nickson returning with a year's experience as the starting QB, and a ton of skill position talent ready to rumble, 2007 is the year for Vandy football to break a streak that has become a millstone around the necks of so many long time Vandy football fans.

2. Football facility upgrades.
Williams and the Board of Trust have really come through for the baseball program, and their $22 million upgrades to Memorial have been first rate. But Vanderbilt Stadium remains the ugly stepsister in Vanderbilt's facilities family.

When it came out three years ago that the visiting locker rooms at the football stadium had no air conditioning, many fans and administrators were shocked. But most fans haven't seen the home team's locker room...and believe me, it's nothing to brag about. It certainly isn't a selling point to recruits, who are getting an eyeful in Knoxville, Gainesville and Columbia.

The football program doesn't even have a media room to handle post-game press conferences. (The basketball media facilities are excellent, btw.) Writers and cameramen cram into classrooms in the athletics department, stepping over (and often standing on) desks to get a decent view. This is unacceptable for a school that is working overtime to create a positive public image for its football program.

Rumor is that there are plans to brick the facade of Vanderbilt stadium. That's a start. But that empty space in the north end zone is begging for a creative solution to the football program's screaming facilities needs. Perhaps a joint venture like the one that brought VU the Marriott complex is in order. A 10-story tower that included sky boxes, football offices, a modern press room, state-of-the-art locker rooms, a legit Hall of Fame museum, and a few decent restaurants would put VU in a competitive position with the other SEC schools. And VU needs to look no further than what the Nashville Sounds were able to pull off with their new stadium complex set to go up on the Cumberland.

With the right developer, a north end zone multi-purpose facility would make a truly massive lasting impact on the future of the football program.

P.S. Tearing down and rebuilding the stadium's south entrance would be a good start. The concrete lawn, makeshift-looking ticket booths, and chain link fences that "greet" fans hardly creates a big time feeling for ticket holders.

1. A College World Series appearance for Corbin.
Under Tim Corbin, Vanderbilt's once non-existant baseball program has become the jewel of VU's athletics department. Fan support has never been greater, and continues to increase every year. This site actually gains more subscribers for baseball now than it does for basketball, a sure sign that hopes are higher than ever for the Diamond Dores.

Corbin and his staff represent everything that is right about Vanderbilt, and his kids are class acts. There may not have ever been a coaching staff that so aggressively embraces the Vanderbilt culture and fan base, to say nothing of how they work to empower and inform the media at every possible turn.

Vanderbilt is ready to crown a king on campus, and Corbin has the coaching staff, talent and the facilities to make it happen. With a little luck on the mound, and a couple of new big bats at the plate (paging Steve Liddle), Vanderbilt may well be making its first-ever trip to Omaha this summer.

Please, Santa! Please!


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