Sloan still has regrets about leaving Vandy

Some 29 years after coaching Vanderbilt's football team to the 1974 Peach Bowl, Steve Sloan says he still has regrets about the way he departed Vandy for Texas Tech. On Saturday the Commodores (0-1) host Chattanooga (0-1) (6 p.m. ET, CSS), where Sloan is now Director of Athletics.

The memory still burns, just as clearly as if it were last week. A few days after the 1974 Commodores had put the exclamation point on an unforgettable 7-3-1 season with an appearance in the Peach Bowl, the story broke that Texas Tech of the Southwest Conference was talking with Vanderbilt's rising star of a head coach, Steve Sloan. And he was listening.

Anxious Vanderbilt fans were on edge for about 48 hours. The word on the street was that Sloan was torn. In just two seasons, the boy wonder had helped create some authentic magic at a place where fans were starved for success. He had brought new energy, new fire to West End, and had taken Vandy to only its second bowl game in school history. He could have run for mayor.

But even back then, doubters wondered if anyone could sustain that success for long periods of time at Vanderbilt, where the emphasis was always on academics first. The Red Raiders, whom Sloan's team had tied in the Peach Bowl, seemed much more committed to long-term success.

On New Year's Eve, WSM-TV sports anchor Paul Eells set fans' minds at rest. On the late newscast he aired videotape of Coach Sloan saying he would be staying at Vandy. The city of Nashville sighed a collective hallelujah!

But the next morning's Tennessean brought the shocking headline-- Sloan was headed for Lubbock. Sometime that evening, in the space of a few hours, he had evidently changed his mind.

On Saturday Sloan makes a return visit to Nashville as Vanderbilt hosts Chattanooga (6 p.m. ET, CSS). Not as coach, mind you-- but as Director of Athletics for the Division I-AA Mocs. Last winter he hired UTC's rookie head coach, Rodney Allison (who, coincidentally, was a quarterback on the 1974 Texas Tech team that tied Vandy in the Peach Bowl).

When Sloan left Nashville after the '74 season, he did so as one of the brightest young coaches in the game. He certainly had the pedigree-- he had played quarterback under the great Paul (Bear) Bryant at Alabama, and had a solid endorsement from the Bear attached to his resume. And hey, if he had turned Vanderbilt into a winner, well, what couldn't he do?

But somewhere along the line, Sloan's fast train to the top of the profession veered off track. After three years at Texas Tech he jumped again, this time to an SEC job, Ole Miss. In his tumultuous five seasons there (1978-82), Sloan was never able to coach the Rebs to a winning record. Unable to overcome the shadow left by the legendary Johnny Vaught, he was forced out.

Sloan then went to Duke, where he was unable to recreate the magic he had conjured up at Vanderbilt. His alma mater Alabama offered him a job as Athletics Director in 1987, but that stint too was ill-fated. The man who had once been looked upon as one of the game's keenest young minds was, some sixteen years later, washed up, flamed out. (It's a cruel profession, coaching.)

Here in Nashville, however, old-timers like me have never forgotten the 28-year-old coach that Clay Stapleton brought to Vandy in 1973. They've been unable to shake this nagging thought-- what if Coach Sloan had stayed? Had he been able to sustain his success, Vanderbilt might be looked upon by now as one of the SEC's top programs, and who knows-- Sloan might be mentioned in the same breath as Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno.

"Those two years were just about the most fun I've ever had," Sloan said over the phone last week. "It was just one of those times when the chemistry, the players, the assistant coaches, everything was right." Indeed, Sloan had quite a staff-- one that included George MacIntyre, Art Zeleznik, John Cropp, Rex Dockery, and a little-known defensive coordinator he had convinced to come over from Florida State-- Bill Parcells.

I had to ask Sloan... does he ever have any regrets, even today, about leaving?

"As you look back over the years, there are a few things that you regret," Sloan said. "I've always regretted the way I handled [leaving]. I really wanted to stay. In my mind I felt like Vanderbilt had made a commitment to win, but there were some things that I didn't know whether they were going to happen or not.

"And I felt some pressure from other coaches as well [to take the Texas Tech job]. I didn't like the way I changed my mind."

Does he ever allow his mind to think, I wonder what would have happened if I'd stayed? His answer surprised me.

"Yes, I have thought about that-- a lot," he said. "For someone to continue to coach there, things would have to have been just right. But the university was great, and Nashville was great to me. We had two great years there."

Indeed he did. In 1973 he became the only Vanderbilt coach ever to defeat Georgia's Vince Dooley, on a day when Hawkins Golden kicked four field goals. In 1974 Sloan's Dores ambushed Florida and tied Tennessee on the way to the Peach Bowl. (But for a bobbled punt snap in the final minute, the tie with Tennessee woulda been a win.)

But it never does any good to think about what might have been. As Vandy football fans look back over the years now, Sloan's abrupt departure is just one more in a long series of slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Stapleton could have promoted the wily Parcells to replace Sloan-- or he could have hired West Virginia's Bobby Bowden, who expressed interest in the opening after Sloan left. Instead he hired Fred Pancoast, who did go 7-4 in 1975-- but by the next year, Vanderbilt football was back in the dumper. The Commodores have had only one winning season since.

The perpetually young Sloan still bears a resemblance to the energetic 28-year-old who used to wear the headset at Dudley Field-- he still talks with an East Tennessee drawl, and I'm told he still plays a mean round of golf. His current mission is to rebuild the struggling UTC football program, which went 2-9 last season. He acknowledges that the Vanderbilt game will be a challenge.

"We're not expecting a lot," he says. "We've got a great coach, and some exciting young players, and they've been working hard.

"But going on the road and playing a great SEC team like Vanderbilt-- that's an awful lot to ask of such a young team."

Oh, oh... Vanderbilt had better be on guard. He surely sounds a lot like his old mentor, the Bear, when he talks that way.


Contact Brent at Top Stories