Loyte's epiphany leads to historic U-turn

One summer day in 2002, Jonathan Loyte and his father made a 180-degree turn that some fans think might be the start of a similar turnaround for the Vanderbilt football program.

Legendary sportswriter Fred Russell used to tell the story of how in 1904, young University of Michigan assistant coach Dan McGugin received a telegram offering him the head coaching job at Vanderbilt. McGugin had just sent off a wire accepting the head job at Western Reserve University, and decided that he would accept the Vanderbilt opening only if he could recall the wire to WRU before it was sent out by Western Union.

He made it by three minutes.

It was a legendary moment, one that would change Vanderbilt's football history. McGugin came South and for the next 30 years turned the Commodores into a powerhouse, a feared name on gridirons across the South.

Almost 100 years later, another little-known event occurred that some fans are already speculating might become a defining moment in Commodore football history. It happened in the summer of 2002-- and it involved another young Yankee gentleman who ultimately decided to seek greener pastures down South.

That summer Jonathan Loyte, a rising senior and highly regarded prep football star from Gloucester, Mass., was making a driving tour of Southern colleges with his father Al. The pair had spent a Saturday in Nashville taking in one of Bobby Johnson's Top Prospects Days, a day in which football prospects are treated to an overview of what the Vanderbilt program has to offer. Young Jonathan had been favorably impressed.

But there were three other noteworthy schools the pair hoped to visit on their excursion through Dixie-- North Carolina, Duke and South Carolina. After bidding goodbye to the Vanderbilt coaches, and with a firm scholarship offer in hand, father and son had set out on Interstate 40 East, bound for Chapel Hill / Durham.

They never made it.

"We got about three-and-a-half hours into the drive, and Jon asked me to pull over and turn around," recalls Loyte's father, Al. "So we just pulled over and talked. He told me how much he had liked [Vanderbilt], and instead of going on to North Carolina, he wanted to go back and find out more about the area and meet more of the people.

"So we spent the next three or four days in Nashville."

"I was just thinking the whole time, I really didn't want to look anywhere else," Jonathan remembers. "I figured Vanderbilt was the place I wanted to spend the next four or five years of my life. I just had to come back and check it out some more."

So what was it about Vanderbilt that impressed Jonathan so much?

"The coaches are definitely the best coaches I've ever met," replied Jonathan, when asked that question. "And the players-- they're warm, friendly, just a great bunch of kids. It's just fun being with them.

"And playing in the SEC, obviously."

So thusly Loyte, one of the top prospects in the Northeast at St. John's Preparatory School in Danvers, committed to become the gem in Bobby Johnson's first full recruiting class. Other schools tried mightily to convince him he was making a big mistake going to a school with a recent history of losing. But the following February he made good on his pledge.

Like a good number of the other freshmen, Loyte reported to Nashville early in the summer, hoping it would help him get a jumpstart on learning the position of tight end in Ted Cain's offense. But at the opening of fall camp, it turns out, Loyte was asked by the Vanderbilt coaching staff to make another unexpected U-turn.

"Coach Johnson took me aside the first day I got here and told me that the defensive line was pretty thin, and they could use my help over there," Loyte said. "I told them I'd do whatever it takes to help the team get better."

Loyte acknowledges that, had he been given a choice, he'd probably have preferred to start on the offensive side of the ball... but he quickly adds that he's fine with the switch. He played defensive end all four years at St. John's Prep, as well as tight end and some offensive line.

"Defensive end is a lot of fun," says Loyte. "You get to hit people a lot more, and it's more physical. Coming in, sacking people, pass rushing-- it's a lot of fun.

"The only thing that's tough for me now is getting to know the plays. I spent the whole summer working on tight end plays, and now I've got to get used to the defensive side.

"[Defensive line] Coach [David] Turner is an intense guy. You get your job done for him. He pushes you hard, but you know he's on your side."

Like the 20 other true freshmen, Loyte is struggling hard to find a place, trying hard to demonstrate to the coaching staff that he can help the team win. At a very muscular 6-6, 255, he already possesses the raw physical gifts necessary-- not to mention the team-first attitude.

Should his career in Nashville go as some folks envision, Commodore fans may one day point back to the summer day in 2002 when Loyte asked his father to pull to the side of I-40 as the day when Vanderbilt's football fortunes took a similar U-turn.


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Contact Brent at brent@vandynation.com

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