Before the start of this past football season, McCallie safety Jay Fullam visited Nashville.
He described the trip as a “meet and greet” session with some of his fellow Vanderbilt commitments. During their mingling, the future Commodores expressed a common goal that had been shared by predecessors for a generation.
“I remember we all got up there and definitely talked about how we wanted to be the group that would be able to beat that streak,” Fullam said.
They’re too late.
Vanderbilt earned its first bowl trip since 1982 by compiling a 6-6 record during the regular season, which included four Southeastern Conference wins. The Commodores were invited to the nearby Music City Bowl, where they stunned Atlantic Coast Conference runner-up Boston College, 16-14, for Vanderbilt’s second bowl victory ever and its first in 53 years.
Those achievements have provided new and enjoyable sales pitches for Commodores coach Bobby Johnson, who went back on the road recruiting last Monday.
“Obviously we’re making sure everybody knows we had a bowl victory and a winning season and that we feel like we can continue that in the future,” Johnson said. “That’s the big selling point now, but we’ve already had a good many commitments, and hopefully this will help us hold on to those guys and get these final few we’ve got to get.
“It’s been a great reaction. They see what we’re selling. We’re selling a top-20 university as far as getting a fantastic education, and we’re also talking about being very competitive in the top league in the country with a chance to win. When you’ve got all that, we think that’s a pretty good package.”
The Commodores entered the weekend with 14 commitments, 10 of whom are rated three-star prospects by Rivals.com. Vanderbilt has never signed more than six three-star recruits in any class since Rivals.com began its ranking system in 2002.
Johnson expects to have a signing class of 17.
Fullam became Vanderbilt’s first commitment last May. The 6-foot-1, 191-pounder said he received the typical reaction at first but isn’t hearing it anymore.
“As soon as I committed to Vandy, the flak just came,” he said. “Everybody asked, ‘Why would you commit there?’ I would say, ‘Great academics and SEC football.’ Now I can look back and say, ‘It’s a winning program, it’s SEC football, and it has great academics.’ It’s definitely the best of all the worlds.
“I was going to go there whether it was a winning program or not, but it’s nice to know that they’re on the rise.”
The ’08 Commodores gave their commitments plenty of exciting times.
Fullam sat on the front row behind the team Oct. 4, when Vanderbilt defeated Auburn for the first time since 1955 by rallying from a 13-0 deficit to win 14-13. That victory took place as ESPN’s “GameDay” crew was visiting Nashville for the first time.
“In years past, I can remember people always talking about Vandy having sellouts, but it was always because of the other team’s fans,” he said. “That night, to see it firsthand and seeing all the black and gold there as opposed to all the Auburn orange and blue really helped me solidify my decision as far as the fans being supportive.”
Wesley Johnson, a 6-5, 248-pound tackle from Nashville’s Montgomery Bell Academy, said his favorite game was the bowl but agreed with Fullam in the changed perception of the program.
“Mine changed during the recruiting process because they were showing signs of getting better and really becoming more competitive in the SEC,” he said. “One of the main reasons I committed was that I knew Vanderbilt had something special going and would be able to compete regularly.”
Coach Johnson said the Nov. 15 win at Kentucky can’t be overlooked, because that victory actually clinched the bowl and came at a time when “people were starting to doubt us.” The Commodores were among the youngest teams in the SEC this past season, which explains why Johnson wants to take the next step and compete for a league title.
They’ve got momentum, but every in-home visit still starts with classroom talk.
“We decided when we got here that was not going to be a negative,” Johnson said. “We can sell the future to our guys, because they’re going to get one of the best educations in the country. Very few players go on from college to play pro football, so we’re selling the future to them.”
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...