“The bet is for a case of beer (any variety), and it is which happens first: Vandy cures cancer or Vandy wins the SEC in football. Until coach James Franklin arrived, my brother felt pretty comfortable. Not any longer!” – Vanderbilt board member John Ingram.
David Williams arrived at Vanderbilt in 2000. His reality-check in terms of the school’s athletic situation arrived soon thereafter.
For the first time in forever, the Commodores had modest expectations for their upcoming football season. With a veteran roster returning from the previous season’s 5-6 campaign, a bowl game seemed a legitimate possibility — at least until the season kicked off.
“The very first football game that I went to here, my 5-year-old son — I’ll never forget it, we played Miami of Ohio — they had a kid that was quarterbacking (Mike Bath) that we passed up, they beat us in the fourth quarter, and my son, five years old, turns to me and said, ‘Dad, Vanderbilt football sucks,’” Williams recalled.
“This kid grew up with five years of Ohio State. He grew up with Eddie George and those sort of guys, and I’m like, I didn’t even know he knew words like this.”
Three years later, not much had changed. That 2000 football squad went 3-8, and coach Woody Widenhofer would be fired a year later and replaced by Bobby Johnson, which spawned two more 2-win seasons. The basketball team’s 11-win campaign that spring had been the school’s worst season in 15 years. The baseball team, though improving in its first year under coach Tim Corbin, had a losing season and missed the NCAA Tournament for the 23rd consecutive year.
Things couldn’t get much worse, and then on September 9 that fall, VU chancellor Gordon Gee opened his mouth, and they did. Vanderbilt was, in his words, “eliminating its athletic department.” Everyone inside the athletic department was blindsided with the announcement, especially athletics director Todd Turner, who was fired that day.
The list of the stunned also included Williams.
“I don’t know what got into (Gee’s) soup that day,” said Williams, remembering it a decade later.
Everyone else wondered the same.
Now, for the back-story to Gee’s announcement: it had been a bad year for the NCAA. At Ohio State, from whence Gee had come and where he’d return later, there was an academic scandal and several off-field incidents involving star running back Maurice Clarett. At Baylor, the murder of one basketball player by another set off a series of events that eventually unearthed some major NCAA violations and an attempted cover-up by coach Dave Bliss.
Everyone knew the tail was wagging the dog at a lot of major universities. But really… Vanderbilt? The school was graduating 91 percent of its football players. It had been on probation exactly once in its existence, for women’s basketball violations that had occurred over 20 years ago, and there hadn’t been hint of a scandal since.
Outside of firing Turner, there was substantial upside to the move, as the reader will soon see. But Gee botched the announcement, perception was reality, and the press, national and local, had a field day. Panicked coaches came to Williams to ask what was going on. Other schools used Gee’s announcement against VU in recruiting.
To top it off, a half-dozen unhappy board members showed up unannounced on the following Saturday, the same afternoon in which Auburn would throttle VU in football, 45-7. Gee had also left them in the dark, and the chancellor was conveniently out of town that day, so it was up to Williams to clean up the mess.
It helped that Williams had a running start. Though the timing of Gee’s announcement blindsided him, the two had discussed changes designed to help VU’s athletics programs.
“We were still trying to figure out what we were going to do,” Williams said, adding, “(Gee) might have made a mistake or two here or there, but the guy loves athletics. That’s the last thing he’s going to do is de-emphasize sports. There were people around here that wanted to do that, but he wasn’t one of them.”
The key was one subtle, but vitally important shift, in how athletics was financed. Before, the AD would spend money for projects and end up in the red at year’s end, as the rest of the university claiming in Williams’ words, “they can’t manage their money over there.” Now, larger expenditures were presented as an “investment” on the front end. That soon made a lot of improvements possible, including major renovations to the basketball and baseball facilities.
Though things would start to improve markedly for VU’s athletic programs on the field within the next year, Vanderbilt continued to absorb shots due to how it had handled things in 2003. It did not have an official athletics director for the next nine years, but Williams unofficially served in that position until VU gave him that title in the summer of 2012.
Gee might as well have painted a target on Williams’ back, as Williams would be the butt of jokes and ridicule for years to come through no fault of his own. Williams says he let it roll off his back, but his tone softens considerably when remembering those days.
“It was real tough for my wife,” he says. “She hated everybody and everything that ever said anything about it, even to this day. We were talking about something the other day and she referred back to that time and she said how much she really told herself not to strike out at people.
“Didn’t bother me, because my view of it is, I ain’t never as good as they think I am, and I ain’t never as bad as they say I am. I had the luxury of going to work every day and working (to help the situation), whereas, although they’ve never said it, I think it was tough on my kids.”
Williams’ damage control behind the scene was only part of the job. Vanderbilt had been losing big in a lot of sports for a long time, and it was breeding more of the same.
“In 2003, the expectations were if you could just tread water, you’d be alright,” Williams recalls.
But Gee’s statement also woke up the community of fans and boosters who cared about athletics and were sick of being the Southeastern Conference’s laughingstock. So, as Williams put it, “(Gee’s) butt was on the line.”
Some of the issue was that VU wasn’t willing to go where others had; a quick Google search with the terms “Southeastern Conference” and “probation” illustrates that quite clearly. At the same time, Gee’s public gaffe also illustrated how clueless Vanderbilt could be when it came to sports.
“I think (men’s basketball coach) Kevin Stallings said to me once, the biggest problem he’s seen, when he came here, was Vanderbilt got in its own way. It wasn’t the outside world, it was Vanderbilt, and I think that was very true,” Williams says.
For example, VU fans were still stung by the school’s decision not to admit Ron Mercer (basketball) and R.A. Dickey (baseball) in the previous decade. Both had considerable success collegiately, helping Kentucky and Tennessee, respectively, beat VU on the field before going on to considerable professional success.
“We weren’t going to have a Ron Mercer situation again,” Williams said. “You had to put things together, and to the coaches, one of the things was, we’re going to have to help these kids more. One of the things we said was, the average GPA of an athlete was a 2.7, we’re going to raise it to a 3.0 and we’re going to put the resources in there to do it.
“But to admissions, we said this: in order to be successful and compete in the SEC, you’ve got to let us take some chances on some kids.”
In return, VU coaches agreed that at-risk athletes would come to summer school before their scheduled fall term and get a “C” in at least two classes. Williams estimates that after the re-structuring, 20 to 25 percent of the school’s current athletes are players who couldn’t get in school before, adding that the allowance for football might be a bit higher.
But Vanderbilt’s rigorous academics can eat even exceptional students alive if they’re not prepared, so Williams needed to make sure he could keep them eligible, and he knew what button to push with Gee.
“Gordon always had a soft spot for students. … I could walk in and say, ‘This is about the kids. This isn’t about me and any salary,’ and that came a lot easier,” Williams remembers, as the academic support staff for athletics grew from 2 1/2 counselors to 12.
The final piece would be for VU to keep its coaches. It had always been assumed that if a coach were successful at Vanderbilt, he’d leave for greener pastures, just as Gerry DiNardo (football), Eddie Fogler (basketball) and Jim Foster (women’s basketball) had done within the previous decade.
Williams instead came up with an incentive-laden system for VU to keep its coaches. It was quite simple: each “success,” whether it be making a bowl game or the NCAA Tournament or similar benchmarks, got a coach rewarded with a contract extension and a raise. As a result, Stallings and Corbin have spurned other suitors to stay in Nashville.
The real trick was keeping football coach James Franklin, whose nine wins last year was the most at VU since 1915. It was universally believed that Franklin would leave for a bigger program after last season, but thanks to Williams, he’s still the Commodores’ coach at a price tag that shocked the football world.
“Are we willing to make James Franklin one of the top four paid coaches in the SEC? Well, guess what, he already is. A lot of people don’t know that,” Williams said.
Life has taken Williams in many directions, but it always brings him back to sports.
Athletics was in his blood as a kid; growing up, he liked to swim, play baseball, basketball and football, and perhaps most of all, run track. As a young man, he coached basketball, swimming and track while he taught middle school. About this time, he voiced a desire to friends that he wanted to be an athletic director, while admitting now that he had “absolutely no idea what an athletic director was.”
Williams got an MBA and a law degree, and wound up as a tax accountant. While working for Coopers & Lybrand back home in Detroit, he did a lot of work with the Pistons during their dynasty years. That fed the bug, but Williams soon left to teach law at Ohio State. Soon enough, he volunteered to teach a sports law course. A couple of years after that, OSU asked him to serve on its athletic committee.
Eighteen months later, Gee asked him to move into an administrative role. He eventually became the vice president of student affairs, and the athletic department reported to him. In 1994, he’d hire Andy Geiger as Ohio State’s AD.
Gee came to Vandy in 2000 and took Williams with him. Gee went back to OSU in 2007 and tried to bring his right-hand man with him again, but Williams and his family were firmly entrenched in Nashville and declined.
Succeeding chancellor Nick Zeppos found Williams as indispensable as Gee had. Williams continued to wear many hats, serving as the university’s general counsel, teaching law and overseeing student affairs in addition to the work he’d done with athletics.
But by last summer the river created by Gee’s 2003 experiment had overflown its banks. The SEC’s worst baseball program had become a national powerhouse. Women’s basketball – the one thing VU had always done well in – remained a fixture in the NCAA Tournament. The men’s hoops program made the NCAAs in six of the nine seasons after the restructuring. The football team snapped a 25-year bowl drought in 2008, and went back again in 2011. It was time for someone to be devoted to the position full-time, and Williams made perfect sense.
Williams still probably does not get the full credit he deserves for building VU athletics to what is easily the most successful level it’s been at in a half-century, if not the entire history of the school. Every time there’s been a new coaching contract or a facility improvement or an innovative way of getting around some of the challenges unique to Vanderbilt, Williams’ fingerprints have been all over the situation. Because he was behind the scenes for so many years, fans probably haven’t given Williams his full due, but that’s okay with Williams: he’s just happy to be doing what he’s always loved, and doing it quite well.