Turnarounds at Traditional Underdogs

Vanderbilt and Northwestern football teams are undefeated and nationally ranked. What explains the unexpected success at these academically competitive universities?
October 10, 2008

It’s fun to envision the headline writers or sports reporters who’ve produced the slew of articles with titles like “College football’s revenge of the nerds” going into the locker rooms to talk to the players from Vanderbilt, Northwestern and other universities that they’ve just written about. “Who are you calling nerd, Mr. Newspaper Man?” one envisions the players saying to the presumably smaller and slighter journalist in front of them.

That fantasy aside, it’s understandable that journalists, ever in search of identifiable trends that upend the status quo, have been drawn this fall to the greater-than-usual success of football teams from several of the most academically competitive universities in the Football Bowl Subdivision, the National Collegiate Athletic Association competitive level formerly known as Division I-A.

Entering this weekend’s games, teams like Stanford and Rice have winning records in their conferences, and Duke University’s squad, long an Atlantic Coast Conference doormat, has a 3-2 record. (Of course, its wins were over a Division I-AA program, James Madison University; the U.S. Naval Academy, another academically competitive institution; and the University of Virginia, another highly selective institution that is struggling badly in the ACC.)

But teams from two selective universities, in particular, are prompting most of the discussion about this being the year of the brainiac universities in big-time football. Vanderbilt and Northwestern are both undefeated, at 5-0, and both of them are ranked in the top 25 in at least one of the key college football polls (Vanderbilt in the low teens, and Northwestern just sneaking into the USA Today coaches’ poll at 22nd).

Academically selective universities are accustomed to competing at the very highest levels in college basketball, where a small number of very talented players and great coaching can thrust an institution into the upper echelon in their sport (see Duke and Georgetown as two prime examples). But that feat is much harder to pull off in big-time college football, where teams need to have dozens, if not scores, of very good players to compete with the major public universities, especially, that can consistently count on recruiting the best players in their states and beyond.

As a general rule, then, universities such as Rice and Vanderbilt and Duke and, to a slightly lesser extent, Northwestern, tend to live at the bottom of their respective football conferences, which are some of the biggest and baddest in the country.

So how can it be explained when one or more of those programs suddenly rises? Historically, in intercollegiate sports, colleges typically alter their competitive positions in a significant way through a combination of factors that vary from situation to situation. Sustained good coaching is almost always a factor. Good fortune also plays a role. A major investment of money -- usually to improve facilities, which is a major area in which sports programs compete these days -- is often involved.

But the biggest reason, often, is that the institution has suddenly started getting more good players. Some of that can be accomplished through the above factors -- a coach with a big name or whose staff is particularly good at recruiting, for instance, or players being more impressed by sparkling new practice facilities or the chance to play in front of tens of thousands more fans. The single biggest way in which a college or university changes its competitive posture in a sport, though, is by changing -- and let's be honest, usually lowering, in terms of criteria like standardized test scores and high-school GPA's -- its standards for admitting athletes. (This controversy flares constantly at selective institutions like the University of Notre Dame, and the tension arises frequently at other institutions, like these recent controversies at Clemson University and the University of South Carolina.)

What factors explain the atypical success at Northwestern and Vanderbilt?

Well, Northwestern officials start by playing down the extent to which its current football success is exceptional. Michael J. Wolf, assistant athletics director for media services at Northwestern, notes that the Wildcats have won three Big Ten championships since 1995, and that only Michigan and Ohio State, the league's traditional powers, have won more during that time. Wolf also points out that Northwestern has also won at least six games -- which virtually ensures a winning record, and is the magic number for qualifying for a bowl game -- in four of the last five seasons, and that it has winning records against six of the 10 other universities in the league (yes, the Big Ten has 11 members -- that's a story for another day) since 1995.

"Winning football games is not new for Northwestern," Wolf writes in an e-mail.

Perhaps mindful of the recent collapse of the local Chicago Cubs, who had the best record in baseball this season and then were washed out of the major league playoffs in the first round, Northwestern officials also note that the 5-0 record so far has been accomplished mostly outside its league, and that it may not remain in the stratosphere it's in for much longer. "We're really excited and enthusiastic about this year's team, but ... our Big Ten season is really just getting started," Chuck Loebbeka, a university spokesman, said in an e-mail message.

Northwestern did make a major investment in its football facilities beginning in the mid-1990s, Loebbeka notes. It spent $30 million to renovate its football stadium beginning in 1996, and a $30 million fund raising campaign for athletics helped Northwestern build the indoor practice facility that has become de rigueur in big-time football, so that players can practice year-round no matter the weather.

Loebbeka insists, via e-mail, that "there haven't been any changes in funding or admissions practices," though, "just continued improvements on the field." The university, he notes, "continues to have the highest graduation rate for its football team among all Division I teams," and the American Football Coaches Association has celebrated it for having the highest graduation rate in the country in four of the last six years.

Patience Pays Off at Vanderbilt

Officials at Northwestern dismiss the idea that their football team's success this year represents a change of pace, and that they've done anything different to bring it about. At Vanderbilt, though, administrators and faculty leaders acknowledge a new approach for a team that has not had a winning season in 25 years.

It's not that, as cynics might suggest, university leaders have broadly compromised -- academically or otherwise -- to build a better football team. The primary explanation offered for the turnaround, by both top administrators and faculty leaders at Vanderbilt, is that the university has exhibited patience that is unusual (for Division I-A universities in general and Vanderbilt itself) in tolerating losing seasons while its current football coach, Bobby Johnson, slowly built a successful program. Johnson's teams won just two games in each of their first three seasons (2002-4), and have had losing records in each of his six seasons before this one. Vanderbilt's previous coaches lasted five, four, two and five years, respectively.

"Vanderbilt's improvement in football is linked to 1) the selection of Bobby Johnson as a coach by [the former athletics director] Todd Turner eight years ago, and 2) the administration's decision to stand by him over that period of time," R. Stokes Peebles, an associate professor of medicine at Vanderbilt, said in an e-mail message. "Despite no winning seasons, to the credit of former Chancellor Gordon Gee and Vice Chancellor David Williams, they stood by Bobby Johnson and decided that he was the man for the job."

Johnson, agreed Douglas D. Perkins, director of the Center for Community Studies at Vanderbilt and a longtime member of Vanderbilt's faculty athletics committee, "not only seems to be an excellent coach who also values academics, but as a recruiter, really seems to understand the type of scholar-athlete schools like ours should recruit, but hasn't always done so."

Perkins said that he has had concerns about the "special admission" of athletes with lesser academic credentials over time at Vanderbilt, but that he doesn't believe it has increased in recent years, and "I don't think it is very common here."

Williams, the vice chancellor for university affairs and athletics, is forthright in acknowledging that Vanderbilt, like virtually any institution that plays big-time football, does "take a little more expanded view of the some of the kids you bring in" to play the sport, and that the number of players who fall into that category is edging upward.

"We are going to take a few chances here," he said, "but the key thing is to make sure that we're minimizing the risk we take on those chances. We only do it if those kids have a chance to graduate and we can have success with them."

Each year, Williams said, when coaches go to the admissions office with a list of players they'd like to recruit, some are crossed off the list entirely, and others are green-lighted without reservation. For some number of other athletes who "maybe don't look like the average kid we admit here" in terms of academic credentials, based on how their projected grade point averages compare to the averages for all athletes, a deal is struck. (Williams declined to say how many such athletes there are in a given year, either in football or across the athletics department.)

The athletes are admitted with the requirement that they take at least six hours of academic credit in the summer before they enroll as freshmen, and if a player doesn't get at least C grades, "the kid is ineligible [to play sports] by our standards."

Williams said that Vanderbilt closely tracks the performance of those provisionally admitted athletes, and that it is pleased with the results. "We may take more chances this year than last year or the year before, but I think the record shows that those chances are warranted," he said.

That doesn't mean it is getting lax, though. "I would be wary if we started to see coaches push" on the number of players they were seeking to recruit who were getting turned down cold by the admissions office, he said. "I also get irritated when we see [academic] deficiencies for absences, and if I were to see an upswing in that number," that would be a concern. "And if I saw that large numbers of athletes were majoring in the same thing, I'd try to figure out why, and see if that was a problem."

For now, though, he and others at Vanderbilt will try to enjoy the on-the-field success, as the university heads into the heart of its tough Southeastern Conference schedule.


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