Vanderbilt's football team fights to put fans in the stands

Vanderbilt's football team warms up for the 2012 Music City Bowl at LP Field, the university’s first back-to-back bowl appearance.

A Vanderbilt senior flashes a "VU" sign at commencement exercises.

Vanderbilt University’s football team is tapping into the expertise of some business students visiting its campus in Nashville for a summer program. They come from the Universities of Georgia, Florida and Alabama -- schools that know how to pack their football stadiums.

Vanderbilt still has the poorest attendance record in the Southeastern Conference even though it’s coming off its best season in a century. There were just three sellouts last year.

“I mean, it’s just really shocking to hear all this,” says Brianna McNees, a student at the University of Michigan enrolled in Vanderbilt’s summer business boot camp.

These students get to play the consultants. The projects are often for locally-based corporations. This year’s project is for the institution giving out the grades. With Michigan’s massive coliseum and famed football culture, McNees has trouble understanding a place where Saturday is for anything but.

“Someone was even telling me that they studied abroad during the fall semester, which is not even an option for us,” McNees says. “That’s what we live for -- football Saturdays.”

Vanderbilt has been trying to build the game day experience. The players now parade from the field house to the stadium. But third-year head coach James Franklin remains a little exasperated. Students love to tailgate, he tells the lecture hall. “But then they don’t come to the football game,” he says to laughter.

Franklin has even met with fraternities and sororities to ask what he could do to get them into the stands, which -- unlike some big football schools -- is free to students. And it’s not much more for everyone else. A season ticket costs about as much one ticket to a big game at a school like Alabama. So Vanderbilt athletics has put up billboards and run TV commercials to draw fans from the community.

Franklin says he wants to generate the same atmosphere his team faces on the road. “You got 80,000 who hate you in the stadium,” Franklin says. “We need that at home so that when people come play us, they have to deal with the same type issues we do.”

Selling more seats would also go a long way toward helping pay for the football program, which the school is throwing money at like never before, upgrading practice facilities and paying a premium for their charismatic coach. One idea Franklin tosses out is talking celebrities into watch games on the sidelines to build a buzz. But many of the students say its tradition that really drives excitement for game day. And those on Vanderbilt’s campus say there’s some work to do.

“Great Aunt Margaret who got to pet the bulldog -- that’s just not the kind of stories that people here at Vanderbilt have,” says Isis Freeman, a senior from Atlanta. “It’s going to take some memorable moments from coaches and players to really get the student body ingrained and behind the football team.”

There are a few glimmers of hope on the tradition front. When Franklin became coach, he started flashing a “VU” with his thumb and first two fingers. It’s caught on. Students were throwing the sign this year as they walked across the graduation stage.

A Vanderbilt senior flashes a "VU" sign at commencement exercises.

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