Nashville is the best road trip in the SEC, but Vanderbilt is missing out on the party
Most elite teams enjoy a noticeable home-field advantage. With opposing SEC fanatics routinely making Music City their own on weekends in the fall, Vanderbilt may never again feel comfortable on its own turf.
NASHVILLE — It’s a sea of red on a Saturday afternoon. The guys are wearing Kirby Smart-inspired visors. The girls have G logos temporarily tattooed to their cheeks.
Labor Day weekend has now evolved into a full 5-day extravaganza for college football with games beginning Thursday and Friday, a near-full slate of action Saturday and then prime-time contests set aside for Sunday and Monday. The only conference matchup in the SEC for Week 1 is Georgia-Vanderbilt, an annual East clash.
Everywhere you look for miles, there are Bulldogs hanging banners from hotel balconies on Division, setting up tailgates in parking lots on Natchez Trace and stumbling in and out of bars on Broadway. In particular, The Valentine — a 4-story upscale saloon that features an expansive rooftop patio and multiple dedicated private event spaces — is standing room only with pregame revelers “Calling the Dawgs” in between frequent sips of Bud Light and occasional shots of Don Julio.
Needless to say, Smart and Co. have a lot to be excited about in 2019. The fourth-year coach is 35-10 since returning to his alma mater, and this year’s squad is ranked No. 3 with legit national championship aspirations. Ticket scalpers have made a small fortune ahead of kickoff at 6:30.
This isn’t Athens, though. This is Nashville, approximately 300 miles to the north and west across the state line. This is where Vanderbilt plays, although it’s hard to tell today. This is really just another home game for UGA.
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Nashville is arguably the trendiest city in America. Part New Orleans. Part Austin. Part Las Vegas. Population and tourism are growing at an explosive rate.
All the honky-tonk bars on Lower Broadway throw a 24-7-365 party, and the twangy tunes played at most of them are essentially the soundtrack of the SEC. Country stars like Blake Shelton, Dierks Bentley, John Rich, Jason Aldean and Alan Jackson have lent their names to various establishments on the strip.
This is Music City, after all, so there are also a handful of legendary downtown venues. The Ryman Auditorium, which used to host the “Grand Ole Opry,” is particularly memorable. The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum welcomes over a million visitors every year. For foodies, no trip is complete without an order of hot chicken — locals prefer old-school Prince’s, while tourists flock to new-school Hattie B’s. Several talented restauranteurs have made this their new home, as well.
Georgia ended up throttling Vanderbilt in the season opener 30-6, but the game was only a few hours out of what was likely a 3-, 4- or 5-day holiday for a legion of UGA fans.
“It seemed like they took over the majority of that stadium,” Smart said in the postgame press conference. “It sure felt like a home game with the people there, the fourth-quarter lights – pretty special. I think they travel well. I think Nashville is a great place to go, and our fans all came to be part of it.”
Vanderbilt Stadium is the SEC’s smallest football facility: a capacity of 40,550 according to the school’s official website. It’s safe to say that at least 30,000 of those in attendance for Bulldogs-Commodores were rooting for the road team. From down in the front row to up in the nosebleeds, it was that aforementioned sea of red.
When fans of other SEC teams hit the road for, say, Tuscaloosa and a date with Alabama, it’s usually a 1- or 2-day jaunt that revolves almost entirely around pigskin. They’re not burning extra vacation days just to go to the Children’s Hands-On Museum or take in a show at the Bama Theater. Athens, Auburn, Baton Rouge, College Station, both Columbias, Fayetteville, Gainesville, Knoxville, Lexington, Oxford, Starkville — basically, the league is full of college towns offering college experiences.
The Dawgs do travel, but partying in Nashville was the draw for this particular takeover, not a showdown with Vandy. ‘Dores coach Derek Mason has seemingly accepted this.
“That’s Georgia,” Mason told Saturday Down South on the weekly SEC coaches conference call. “Georgia is like a lot of SEC teams that are in college towns: They travel. Nashville’s a big city that feels like a small town. But Vanderbilt University, it’s just not as big. So when you look at it, when you look at the alumni base and what it is here, it’s growing. It’s getting better.”
Like every SEC program, Vanderbilt plays 8 conference games every year: 4 at home, 4 on the road. But due to enemy fans now descending upon Nashville in staggering numbers, an argument can be made that the Commodores even play their home games as the pseudo road team.
“It really didn’t move me one way or the other,” Mason said. “When I go to Georgia, there’s going to be 80,000 fans. And it just so happened to be Labor Day weekend. So you look around, and they want to watch their Bulldogs. They pay. They pay a premium to do it, and that’s sort of what you get here from some of these teams. It’s SEC country. A lot of these public schools, they follow their teams and that’s what it looks like on Saturdays.”
On top of the enviable music scene, football is becoming more of a moneymaker. Vanderbilt is far from a powerhouse, but commissioner Greg Sankey announced in July that SEC Media Days — usually held in Hoover, Ala., near the conference’s headquarters in Birmingham — is coming to Nashville in 2021. In April, the NFL Draft was in town. Attendance for the 3-day event was estimated at a record 600,000. The previous high-water mark? About 250,000 for Philadelphia in 2017.
Even with Vanderbilt more down than up historically (all-time winning percentage? .494), Nashville is nuts for the college game and the SEC in particular.
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It’s dinnertime in The Gulch, one of Nashville’s newest and sleekest neighborhoods. Only a decade or so ago, this area was abandoned warehouses and empty train yards.
Nowadays, it’s green-living condos, cutting-edge shopping and some of the best eating and drinking destinations in town. Unlike Lower Broadway, where you can’t throw a screen pass without hitting a screaming bachelorette party riding a Pedal Tavern, The Gulch dials down the touristy twang for more of a local rock ‘n’ roll feel.
Stock & Barrel is one of the relatively new establishments indicative of what Nashville has on display — especially for those who want to do more than sing just along to “Friends in Low Places” half a dozen times with half a dozen cover bands at half a dozen honky-tonks. It advertises itself as “a stylish whiskey restaurant featuring thoughtfully sourced burgers and an extensive selection of bourbons.” I order the Black & Blue burger and a pair of Basil Hayden old fashioneds. Both are outstanding.
Chelsea Toole, originally from Columbus, Ga., and a lifelong Bulldogs fan, is one of several employees at Stock & Barrel sporting that familiar G on her cheek.
“We have absolutely taken over the city,” Toole says.
Even though Vanderbilt Stadium is a few miles away, plus the game actually kicked off an hour ago, the UGA influence is still being felt all over Nashville. There may be 30,000 Dawgs barking loudly in the stands, but countless others are watching on television from various watering holes.
“I don’t know if you’ve seen it on TV, but the stadium is 98 percent red and black,” Toole says, albeit with a (slight) sense of exaggeration. “We always travel well, so it’s so nice to see them out supporting their team, especially for the first game of the season.”
When this date was announced on the schedule, securing a game ticket wasn’t necessarily a prerequisite for Georgia fans to commit. That journey to Tuscaloosa, on the other hand, is a lot less attractive if you’re not getting into Bryant-Denny Stadium — its capacity of 101,821 is two-and-a-half times that of Vanderbilt Stadium — to witness the blocking and tackling for yourself. Stock & Barrel, which has been open less than a year, might as well be an official Bulldog bar now.
“This afternoon, before the game started, we were slam packed,” Toole says. “I think this was the second busiest lunch we’ve had since we opened. It was all because Georgia fans showed up to support local businesses.”
Education-wise among Power 5 institutions, Vanderbilt competes with Duke, Northwestern and Stanford. But entertainment-wise, Durham, Evanston and Palo Alto can’t compete with Nashville.
“It brings a different kind of vibe to a college football game,” Toole says. “It’s not just a college town, but we’re so much more. We’ve got all these historical influences, excellent music everywhere. It brings a little bit more to offer, maybe not just coming in for the day, but actually staying the weekend.”
Living in Nashville, it’s fairly commonplace to have friends involved in various arms of the music industry. One such friend of mine is a bass guitar player named Evan Coniglio. He’s worked in the studio alongside celebrated producer Quincy Jones. Tonight he’s got a gig at Mercy Lounge inside the storied Cannery Ballroom, and I’m invited.
About halfway through the show, a gaggle of UGA fans — led by Patrick Mitchell, who is sporting one of those Smart-style visors — grabs the table next to mine. The Dawgs just got done handling the ‘Dores from start to finish, but Mitchell and his crew aren’t ready to call it a night just yet. His father has had season tickets at Sanford Stadium since 1978, so even though Mitchell is surrounded by Gamecocks in his current home of Beaufort, S.C., he continues to live and die with Georgia.
“Six hours down at Broadway yesterday was unbelievable,” he says.
Mitchell’s wife is a Clemson graduate, so while she’d rather have watched her Tigers take on Georgia Tech at Death Valley in Week 1, her husband had a trump card.
“She’s a huge music fan,” he says, “and this is how I dragged her to a Georgia game. It was Nashville, for sure.”
Labor Day weekend started early for Mitchell, who came to town with his group more than 48 hours ahead of Saturday’s kickoff with the Commodores. They’ll stay another 48 hours after the final gun, too. Boozing at honky-tonks. Chowing down in The Gulch. Seeking out live music. They’ve gone full Nashville.
“We did Broadway all day Thursday,” he says. “Then we went to dinner at Kayne Prime, which is a badass steakhouse. Friday morning, woke up, went to Hattie B’s for hot chicken. We were in line at 10:30 and didn’t have to wait, so that was great. Then we did Broadway from 12:30 until 6:30 last night. Half our crowd didn’t make dinner because Broadway was so intense.”
A veteran of football road trips, Mitchell claims that he’s seen UGA play at 10 SEC stadiums. He was also part of the Dawg contingent that went to Notre Dame in 2017 and put a serious dent in the Fighting Irish’s home-field advantage — the crowd that night was about 50-50 — but that was a once-in-a-lifetime excursion to South Bend. Georgia and Vanderbilt are in the same division, so they play every year. Regardless, you can expect another friendly takeover come 2021.
“Being from South Carolina, all our friends are huge Carolina guys,” Mitchell says. “Actually, a couple that came with us is not even Georgia fans. They’re Carolina fans, but they just came with us. We were talking about maybe just making it a yearly trip with Carolina. Because the way the schedule works, Carolina and Georgia are here every other year. So we said we’ll come with them next year.”
For the record, Georgia and South Carolina are also rivals in the East. Nashville brings them together, though. That’s not happening in Tuscaloosa, either.
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The schedule doesn’t get much easier for winless Vanderbilt. While the Commodores do play at “home” Saturday in Week 4, LSU will be on the other sideline.
For 35 years, the LSU Alumni Association has run a program called Traveling Tigers that makes it a snap for fans to go see their beloved Bayou Bengals on the road. From flights to lodging and tailgating to tickets, they take all the hassle out of planning such a trip. Their Nashville package has been sold out since early summer.
Unlike Georgia, LSU is in the West and doesn’t play Vandy very often — just 30 times dating to 1902. Since the SEC split into two divisions in 1992, the Tigers and ‘Dores have only faced each other 5 times. The Bayou Bengals last visited in 2014 for the Music City Bowl, but when you consider how much Nashville has blown up the past 5 years, it may as well have been 1914. Expect the sea of purple to challenge that sea of red from the opener.
Not to mention that LSU is No. 4 in America and still riding high from a Week 2 victory at then-No. 9 Texas, so expect to hear “Callin’ Baton Rouge” on a nonstop reel up and down Broadway.
“Turnout is a little hard to estimate, but we know that our alumni and fans will travel well,” said Steve Helmke, who is the chief operating officer of the LSUAA. “With our Tigers in contention, Nashville being a popular destination and many thousands of alumni living in or near Music City, we expect to see plenty of purple and gold out early on game day, in the stadium at game time and late on Saturday night.”
Once the Traveling Tigers touch down Friday, they have an exclusive event on the rooftop at Redneck Riviera hosted by renowned radio personalities Big D & Bubba.
Game day remains a work in progress at this point, but if it’s anything like what we tend to see at Tiger Stadium, then the tailgating figures to be epic. While the 11:00 a.m. kickoff was a bit of a disappointment for some, it leaves so much more time for postgame hot chicken and honky-tonkin’.
For alumni already residing in the Nashville area (approximately 1,700 and growing), LSU Music City has a full itinerary of events planned, as well. Boasting one of the biggest Bayou Bengal clubs outside Louisiana, it usually has game-watching parties at Cajun Steamer in the suburb of Franklin. But for Vanderbilt, the organization is setting up shop at The Local — barely off campus, a third of a mile from Vanderbilt Stadium — and will surely make the fire marshal nervous.
Similar to Manifest Destiny in the 19th Century, it’s justified and inevitable that LSU will expand its occupation of Nashville from coast to proverbial coast.
“Tiger Nation always travels well,” said Courtney Johnston, who is president of LSU Music City. “The combination of Nashville’s ‘It City’ status along with the Tiger football team being incredibly energized, especially from an offensive perspective, the base has been electrified. Here in Nashville, we expect the city to turn purple and gold. And we welcome it.”
Due to the increasingly transient citizenry, Nashville natives are called “unicorns.” Vandy fans may start adopting that same moniker during football season.
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Before coach Tim Corbin took the job in 2003, Vanderbilt baseball was nothing. Despite first fielding a team all the way back in 1886, the Commodores had only qualified for the NCAA Tournament 3 times.
However, this past June, Corbin won a second national championship in 6 years. Vandy baseball is now on par with Alabama football: the premier program in the nation. Not only do the ‘Dores win games at a dizzying pace, but they also dominate recruiting and are well represented in the Major Leagues.
On Corbin’s watch, Vanderbilt has won 4 SEC regular season titles, 2 SEC Tournament titles and made all 4 of the school’s appearances in the College World Series. According to Perfect Game, the Commodores signed the top recruiting class in 2019 for the third year in a row — and they’re presently ranked first for 2020. He’s produced 15 picks in Round 1 of the MLB Draft since 2004, including pitcher David Price (2007) and shortstop Dansby Swanson (2015) going No. 1 overall.
Baseball is quite different than football (e.g., suburban kids vs. inner-city kids), but could Vandy ever orchestrate such a stunning turnaround on the gridiron?
Until now, Mason (24-40) hasn’t been able to do so. To be fair, almost nobody has except his predecessor, current Penn State coach James Franklin. He posted a 24-15 mark from 2011-13 before departing for Happy Valley. But from 1975-2010, 8 consecutive coaches wrapped up their ‘Dores tenure under .500.
Clearly, there are many obstacles in Vanderbilt’s way. It’s the one small private school in a league full of big public schools — the admissions standards are much more stringent. That being said, David Cutcliffe has won a bowl game 3 of the last 4 years at Duke. Pat Fitzgerald has 3 10-win seasons at Northwestern. David Shaw has moved into the top 10 in 6 of his 9 campaigns at Stanford. While the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 may not be the SEC, they’re still Power 5 conferences.
The Commodores have always been able to offer a world-class education, but now they can offer what is becoming a world-class city. Companies like Amazon aren’t setting up shop in Tuscaloosa.
“This place has sports-market value,” Mason said. “It has commerce, business. And Vanderbilt University, it sits in the city. I truly believe with the backdrop of the NFL Draft, what you see in this city, especially with the (NHL) Predators, the (NFL) Titans, this city has a lot to offer.”
With unemployment incredibly low and quality of life incredibly high, Nashville itself has become a key part of Mason’s pitch on the recruiting trail. Unfortunately, his message isn’t being heard. Vandy’s commitments for 2020 are 59th nationally according to the composite rankings at 247Sports, between North Texas and Louisiana Tech.
“I think when you talk about it, in the SEC, you talk about the city itself, then you talk about what happens here at Vanderbilt University,” he said. “I think this is a prime location for men, the student-athlete who wants it all, to be able to touch every bit of his brand and be able to make that come alive. Because it’s not a 4-year decision. It’s a 40-year decision. And, believe me, this network’s going to last a lot longer than their playing careers.”
Even if everything Mason says is true, from a pure football perspective, the ‘Dores don’t have what Alabama does. Rich tradition, giant stadium, limitless budget, rabid fans, NFL pipeline — this is what blue-chip recruits look for on National Signing Day. Nevertheless, Corbin had next to nothing when he came to Nashville. But thanks to all that winning and constant reinvestment back into the program, Vanderbilt now has jaw-dropping baseball facilities at its disposal.
Remember, Alabama was asleep at the wheel post-Gene Stallings. Mike DuBose went 4-7 in 1997. Dennis Franchione left for Texas A&M in 2002. Mike Shula was 4-9 in 2003.
Of course, along came Nick Saban in 2007. Big Al has been awake ever since to the tune of 5 national titles and a couple of other near misses. Saban proved to be the right guy in the right place at the right time. So long as he’s wearing a headset, Alabama is perhaps too big to fail.
But Vandy football is yet to find its savior, no offense to Mason and those back-to-back bowl berths the past 2 seasons. The infrastructure isn’t in place to make a Saban-like splash, so something more organic — along the lines of what Corbin has done on the diamond — must happen. Could an up-and-coming coordinator get the ‘Dores job, fall in love with Nashville and (unlike Franklin) resist the urge to go elsewhere? Cutcliffe, Fitzgerald and Shaw have all turned down the NFL.
Still, most elite teams enjoy a noticeable home-field advantage. With opposing SEC fanatics routinely making Music City their own on weekends in the fall, Vanderbilt may never again feel comfortable on its own turf.