Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Article: Vandy is Football's Charlie Brown

I had to post this, after seeing it posted in The Decatur Daily. I guess it's my story, too: no matter how crappie things get, I still have my gold-colored glasses on that help me keep whistlin' Dynamite.


by Kyle Veazey
The Decatur Daily
Sat., Sept. 9, 2006

Aaron Blankenship has missed just one home Vanderbilt football game in 25 years, so he knows how the torture feels.

And every late November, that same old thought creeps up in his head.

"You walk out of the stadium after every home game every year and you say 'Why do I do this to myself?' I'm not coming back next year," said Blankenship, 27, who owns his own business in Nashville.

"And when they send out the renewal forms. Mine's the first one back in."

Ah, life as a Vanderbilt football fan. In terms of torture, this has to be near the top.

Sure, Vandy fans are little different than their counterparts at Alabama. Both put the flags on the car windows, both wear the colors and both sing the fight songs in the shower.

But Alabama's fans get rewarded. Immediately before today's 2:30 p.m. kickoff between the Tide and Commodores, Paul "Bear" Bryant's voice will narrate a montage to the school's 12 national titles. The 53 bowl appearances, 21 Southeastern Conference titles and 28 10-win seasons, including last year's, are almost afterthoughts.

Vanderbilt has been to three bowls, the last coming in 1982. Vandy has never won the SEC and can't claim even a fleeting chance at a true modern national title.

It has lost 143 of the 170 SEC games it has played since that bowl appearance.

It won a school-record nine games once. In 1915.

"If you lose to Vanderbilt, it's probably going to be a real tough blow to your confidence," Alabama senior fullback Le'Ron McClain said.

But the fans still show.

"Vanderbilt fans have a resiliency like nobody else," said Chris Lee, 35, who has attended Vanderbilt games since the late 1970s. "People talk about bandwagon fans. There's no such thing as a bandwagon Vanderbilt fan."

Like Blankenship, Lee isn't a Vanderbilt alum but a David Lipscomb University graduate. He grew up in nearby Hendersonville, Tenn., and started attending games with his father.

"The best analogy I know to Vanderbilt football is Charlie Brown," said Lee, the dean of enrollment at O'More College of Design in Franklin, Tenn., south of Nashville and a part-time freelance sports reporter.

"Everybody loves Charlie Brown. There's nothing to dislike about Charlie Brown. Everybody wants him to kick the football. He gets up there, runs at it with a full head of steam, and it gets pulled out from underneath him just at the last second."

Even when the Commodores do get close, like last season's 5-6 year that included a win to Tennessee, something else gets in the way. Like, say, that 17-15 loss to Middle Tennessee State that effectively ruined Vandy's bowl chances, a game that Blankenship says tops his list of greatest disappointments in his years of following the school.

It even dampened that late-season win over Tennessee, when the Commodores reversed their usual script of finding a way to lose the big games at the last minute.

"I was in as big a shock as anything," Lee said. "You sit there a few minutes after the game and you say, OK, something's gonna happen. The referees are going to get back on the field and say they messed it up and replay it."

Despite the disappointments, interest in Vanderbilt football hasn't died. Season ticket sales are at their highest level since 1998, the second year of the much-advertised Woodyball era under then-coach Woody Widenhofer.

Vanderbilt has sold 10,000 and hopes to reach the 12,000-ticket plateau prior to next week's home opener against Arkansas, said Eric Nichols, the school's director of marketing and promotions.

Alabama has sold about 65,000 season ticket packages, and that number rises to about 80,000 when student tickets are included, associate athletic director Doug Walker said.

Nichols said he believes Vanderbilt is the only school in the Southeastern Conference that employs a two-person full-time staff to sell tickets.

"This is not receiving calls — this is us going to corporations and people," he said.

Nichols said it's not uncommon for his sales staff to contact a longtime season-ticket holder and hear that they've had it with Vanderbilt's losing ways and don't plan to renew.

"Far more often we hear it and they chirp a little bit, but when you look at the first game they're in their seats like they are the past 20 or 30 years," Nichols said. "We have an incredibly loyal fan base."

Blankenship plans to be in his seat next week, but he won't be among the small contingent of Vandy fans in the northeast corner of Bryant-Denny Stadium today. He was to undergo Lasik eye surgery Friday, and the time he has to wear those recovery goggles would be the time he'd otherwise be traveling.

But not by today's afternoon kickoff.

"I asked the doctor, 'Am I going to be able to see by 2 o'clock?' He said I will," Blankenship said.

FEELING: Proud to be a Commodore


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