Sunday, September 21, 2008

Breaking Through?

Photo courtesy of John Russell, Vanderbilt University

For the only the fourth time in our lifetime (roughly the last 58 years), a Vanderbilt football team has started its season 4-0(1950, 1984, 2005, 2008). But for a program that has not enjoyed a winning record since 1982, we all know nobody should be counting bowl bids just yet.

However, this group of Commodores with the way they bounce back from gridiron misfortune and how they seem to get stronger and play better in the second half of their games, there does seems to be a justifiable reason for optimism (and enough potentially winnable games left on the schedule to achieve that goal). :)

For example, there was the play of safety Ryan Hamilton in Vanderbilt's latest victory (23-17) over Ole Miss. The junior may have turned in one of the greatest individual defensive performances in Vanderbilt history, picking off a school record-tying three interceptions(one of which he returned for 79 yards for a touchdown, another he returned 24 yards to set up an important field down, and the final one he garnered to end the game).

And that's not all, Hamilton also made several key defensive stops, including one tackle to cap a goal line stand inside the one-yard line in the second half.

So maybe for the first time since Reunion has been moved to coincide with Homecoming, it's possible the football game (versus Duke on Saturday, October 25) could be one of the major draws and attractions of the weekend. Duke is also one of those winnable games toward becoming bowl-eligible (6 wins) and towards at least having a non-losing, if not a winning season, for the first time since my youngster daughter was three months old.

Looking back on Vanderbilt football during our time on campus (the 1969-1972 seasons), I am struck not by the losing records we had all four years, but the inconsistency and frequent frustration of that period. I think you can see it in the photo above of Chancellor Heard gamely holding on, while the paying customers depart early from another losing game at Dudley Field.

There was great optimism about football when we came to school. New coach Bill Pace had posted a winning season (5-4-1) in 1968. But 1969 began with three straight losses before we shocked the football world and Coach Bear Bryant, by beating his nationally-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide 14-10, before a stunned-but-very-happy Parents Weekend crowd here in Nashville.

However, the momentum from that historic moment in our football history could not be sustained, as the Dores won just three more games the rest of the year to finish 4-6.

1970 again brought great expectations and things got off to a great start as Vanderbilt routed UTC and The Citadel in its first two games. But then came a trip to Memphis to play Mississippi State in the Liberty Bowl, which resulted in disappointing 20-6 setback. That began a six-game losing streak, dooming the team to another 4 win season.

The 1971 season began ominously with a narrow 20-19 win over UTC and a 0-0 tie with Lousville, a game that still holds single-game school records for offensive futility by both teams. But then came a 49-19 rout of Mississippi State in Starkville, and hopes soared again, only to be crushed by Bear Bryant and his Tide with a 42-0 romp over Vandy here in Nashville. The rest of the season had only the highlights of a win in New Orleans over Tulane and a 10-7 victory over Tampa. It all added up to another 4-6-1 finish.

Senior year, 1972, there was a feeling, even before the season began, that Coach Pace was on thin ice to keep his job. Sure enough, things got bad early with all-star running back Jamie O'Rourke blowing out both his knees and missing the season. When the team struggled home with just a 3-8 record (wins over UTC, Virginia and William & Mary) and concluded the year with a six-game losing streak, it was clear Coach Pace was gone. He was replaced by a young Steve Sloan (who hired Bill Parcells as one of this assistants).

After we left school, Sloan went on to lead Vanderbilt to an all-too-brief, two-year period of football success (including a 7-3-2 record in 1974 and a Peach Bowl berth). Ironcally, Sloan achieved much of his success relying heavily on the talent recruited and left behind by Coach Pace.

Frustrating. In my next posting, I will take another look back at the achievements and disappointments of our football years at Vanderbilt. As always, please feel free to leave your own thoughts and memories below.

Go Vanderbilt!


Steve said...


I'm afraid I've seen that corner turned too many times in my 50 years of following the Commodores. Each time I swear this time its for real, each time I get my heart broken.

Memorial games for me during our era were:

that incredible win over Alabama,

the misery of sitting with Steve Doogan as Louisville had the time run out on them as they tried to line up to kick a game winning field goal in that 0-0 tie.

Driving with Gary Cutler to New Orleans and back in 24 hours to see Jamie O'Rourke run rough shod over Tulane.

Taking our air horn to Mississippi State to single handedly take on those dang cow bells.

I can still see Walter Overton wide open 20 yards down the field at the end of the Kentucky game as Derrick Bryant ran an interception back the other way to win the game on the last play for the Cats.

I remember watching Ken Stone being the only thing between innumerable runners and receivers and a certain touchdown, and somehow running most of them down for the better part of two years. Ken went on to a very good career in the NFL!

Hawkins Golden kicking a 53 yard field goal (with something close to a hurricane at his back) to give us a short-lived 3-0 lead over UT our senior year. While I believe you were taking the foreign service exam.

We had some pretty decent players those four years, we just didn't have enough, and Coach Pace bore the brunt of that. We tried being a passing team and a wishbone team (As Pepper Rogers said, without the horses). We were close in several games, but some of those blow-outs were pretty sad.

Fortunately this group of players thinks that's ancient history.
It is as foreign to them as the 1939-1943 teams were to us.

Go Dores!

Do you play to post everyday now, or do I get a break every now and then?

Steve Womack

Steve said...

Number 21 in the nation!

Okay, I'm impressed.

If we can beat Auburn in two weeks at home, that will send a statement!

By the way, the Georgia fans here in the heart of the Bulldog nation haven't forgotten the last two years, and they are actually afraid of US!

Go Dores!

Steve Womack

vandypitcher said...

this yrs football team ( so far ) has the special ability to finish games....the teams the last 5-6 yrs have been almost as good BUT...they had a hard time FINISHING games for various reasons...the 2 most dominating performaces of the past few yrs were the shlacking of the gamecocks AT columbia when our defence just dominated them ( last yr i think it was ) and the first 3 qts of the game AT TENN ( last yr i think it was ) when we were ahead by about 24 to 7 , something like that in the 4th qt and then we roughed the kicker on a punt.....there arent many " stars " on this team but there must be more real good players than perhaps vanderbilt has ever had in any one yr....i think the 1982 team ( which went to a bowl...whit taylor and the win over UT ) had the most " stars " ever on a vandy football will be very interesting to see just what this team can accomplish....apparently florida and GA arent invincable....vandy pitcher