By his senior year in 1970, "Archie Fever" had spread throughout the South, and any game involving Elisha Archie Manning III created a circus. He was everything you'd want in a quarterback-- he was tall, strong and smart. He ran the 100-yard dash in 10.2 seconds, and his pinpoint, bullet passes were almost always on the mark.
Part of the Manning lore is that in his first year opposing fans at away games hung "Archie Who?" banners in an attempt to taunt the Rebels' much-hyped signal-caller. The banners usually did little but inspire the young Manning-- he'd respond by putting on a show that fans would be unable to forget. Wherever he played, a circus followed, and his legend grew.
I am blessed to be able to say I witnessed "Archie Who?" play in person in his senior season, on an October night in 1970 when the Rebels made a visit to Dudley Field. I was a callow lad of 12. I had anticipated this night for weeks-- not only would I get to see Archie the Great in person, I would get to stay up past my bedtime to do so!
In 1969, the year before, my dad and I had witnessed an unforgettable Vanderbilt win over Alabama and Bear Bryant; in 1968 we had seen the Commodores tie a ranked Florida team. As we snaked along with the crowds towards the stadium that Saturday evening in 1970, even though on paper Vanderbilt's team was not on par with Johnny Vaught's nationally ranked Rebels, we were hoping for a similar lightning strike.
The rains fell hard before and during the game-- we poked head-holes in some Hefty bags and wore them to stay dry. It was the first season for Vanderbilt's newly installed Astroturf, and Monsanto had not yet figured out how to keep the hard rains from causing enormous puddles. It was not unusual that night for a tackle to result in a splash, and ball carriers slid for several yards on the sloshy turf after going down.
Perhaps because of the wet conditions Ole Miss kept the ball on the ground, and the game wasn't remembered as one of Manning's best performances. Archie scored on a ten-yard run in the first half, but completed only nine passes out of 18 attempts. Bill Pace's Commodores had the ball with three minutes left and a chance to take the lead, but a late fumble extinguished Vandy's hopes. Archie left Nashville a 26-16 winner in his only contest ever against Vanderbilt.
Some 24 years later, Vandy fans got their first glimpse at one of Manning's sons. Peyton Manning was only a touted freshman when Tennessee came to Nashville on Nov. 26, 1994 to meet Gerry DiNardo's Commodores, but that Saturday he was a non-factor. The Vols didn't do much passing that day... they didn't have to. (I won't mention the score-- the memory is too painful. But shortly afterwards, DiNardo was hightailing it for LSU.)
Over the next three years, Vanderbilt would face Peyton three more times. Tennessee would win all three games, but none of them were easy-- the scores were 12-7, 14-7 and 17-10. Woody Widenhofer's cagey defenses were notorious for flummoxing Manning, who was seldom rattled. Few coaches were able to get inside Peyton's head as well as Widenhofer did.
Peyton, most people will remember, could have turned pro after his junior year, but didn't. He returned for a chance to win an SEC Championship in 1997, to the delight of those folks to the East. He had an incredible senior season, and did lead the Vols to a conference championship. But many people believe to this day that a subpar performance vs. Widenhofer and Vandy on national TV in the regular-season finale cost him the Heisman. In four years, Peyton managed only one touchdown pass against the Commodores.
Widenhofer tried to recruit Peyton's younger brother Eli, but never really got his foot in the door. Eli spurned Vandy, Tennessee and a host of others for his father's alma mater, Ole Miss. He chose to play under David Cutcliffe, the offensive mastermind who had been instrumental in Peyton's success at Tennessee. Delirious Rebel fans convinced themselves that the Era of Eli would signal a return to glory for Ole Miss.
As of today, while Eli has been spectacular at times, the "return to glory" is still on hold. But Eli does own a 3-0 record against Vanderbilt. He played only two series in the 2000 game in Nashville, a 12-7 win for Ole Miss, as Cutcliffe used him sparingly in relief of senior starter Romaro Miller. (What was Cutcliffe thinking?)
In 2001 Vandy stormed out to a 20-3 lead in the third quarter at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, and appeared poised to give Widenhofer an upset victory in his final game as head coach. But alas, it wasn't to be-- Eli, then a sophomore, guided Ole Miss back for a 38-27 win. In 2002, again in Oxford, Eli threw for 386 yards and two touchdowns in a memorable shootout won by the Rebels, 45-38.
So you see, we Vanderbilt fans are experts on Mannings. Vandy is 0-8 all-time vs. the Manning clan (0-1 vs. Archie, 0-4 vs. Peyton, 0-3 vs. Eli). For whatever reason, Vanderbilt almost always seems to play inspired football when a Manning is on the other sideline-- but so far, every time the Mannings have left the field as winners.
Following in Peyton's footsteps, Eli has returned to school for his senior season. Archie and Peyton will almost assuredly be at Vanderbilt Stadium Saturday, sitting in the visitors' section as they did in 2000. Like other Ole Miss fans, they'll be cheering the Rebels on, and cheering Eli on to a performance that they hope will be Heisman-worthy. (Archie finished third in the Heisman balloting in 1970; Peyton finished second in 1997. The ideal script would be for Eli to win it in 2003.)
For Commodore fans, Saturday's game will mark Vanderbilt's last chance to notch a win against Mississippi's First Family of Football-- at least until one of Archie's grandchildren comes along. (Archie, I'm told, has no grandsons yet, but does already have a granddaughter by his other son, Cooper. Geez-- suddenly I'm feeling really, really old.)
Photo of Archie Manning courtesy of University of Mississippi. Photo of Peyton Manning courtesy of tennessee.theinsiders.com. Photo of Eli Manning courtesy Associated Press (Dave Martin).
Contact Brent at firstname.lastname@example.org
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