As I watched Booker and his colleague Bob Neal go through their pre-game spiel Monday evening, a thought flashed through my mind... coincidentally Booker and his mates had been part of Vanderbilt's only win over the Indiana Hoosiers, a 79-75 win in Nashville in December, 1986.
Wait-- make that the only win over Indiana until last Monday. In case you've been in a cave, the Commodores and Memorial Maniacs unleashed several years worth of frustrations Monday by knocking off the Hoosiers for only the SECOND time in history. It was a landmark win for Vanderbilt and Head Coach Kevin Stallings, one which fans are hoping signals a return to prominence for Commodore men's basketball.
Sort of like it happened in 1986.
Even though Head Coach C. M. Newton was widely admired by his colleagues, there were plenty of fans in 1986 who were wondering whether Newton was the right man to steer the Commodore ship. The boo-birds had gotten especially vocal after Vanderbilt finished with a disappointing 13-15 record in 1985-86, Newton's fifth year at Vandy. (This was long before there was such a thing as VandyMania message boards, which is probably a good thing.)
Newton graduated his players, who adored him. He had done wonders at Alabama, winning three SEC championships and over 64 percent of his games at a school that boasted very little basketball tradition. But in his first five seasons after inheriting the Vandy program from Richard Schmidt, Newton had found the sledding much tougher at a school where athletes actually had to attend classes.
Little did anyone realize, however, that Newton was quietly building a program. He entered 1986-87 with a dandy trio of sophomores in Booker, Barry Goheen and Frank Kornet. He had brought in a freshman from Kentucky named Scott Draud, who could shoot the lights out. He had good senior leadership from the quartet of Steve Reece, Bobby Westbrooks, Randy Neff and Glen Clem.
Meanwhile, a 7-foot junior had been working out in the summer with big-man coach Ed Martin to improve his skills. Some had considered Will Perdue a bust when he had arrived in 1984 from Merritt Island, Fla.; little did anyone know that the new, improved Perdue was about to "bust" on the SEC scene.
Newton had grown close to Indiana coach Bob Knight, and had assisted Knight with the 1984 USA Olympic basketball team that won the gold in Los Angeles. Then as now, Indiana was a marquee name in college basketball, and Vanderbilt had secured a home game on the mighty Hoosiers' schedule only because of Knight's fondness for Newton.
The Indiana team that Bob Knight brought to Nashville featured All-American guard Steve Alford, Rick Calloway, Daryl Thomas and junior-college transfer Keith Smart. No one knew it at the time, but the Hoosiers that came to Memorial Gym that December night in 1986 would go all the way to the Final Four the following March, and would win a national championship, Knight's third.
But on this night, everything came together for Newton's young gang of sharpshooters. The 3-point shot was relatively new to college basketball back then, and some coaches were even dismissing it as a passing fad. Newton, on the other hand, embraced it. In Goheen, Booker and Draud, Newton had three players who could drain it from behind the arc on a split-second's notice. They and a few others would soon, famously, become known as the "Bomb Squad".
For two hours on a wintry Nashville night, Vanderbilt was golden. As Knight fumed and stomped around on the end line, his Hoosiers went down to a 79-75 defeat to Newton's Commodores. Goheen, guarded most of the night by Alford, led the way with 26 points.
The win was a shot heard 'round the SEC, as if to say, "Vanderbilt's back!" Newton's team would finish 16-15 that year, but would advance three games deep into the NIT. The next two seasons brought consecutive NCAA appearances, breaking a 14-year drought. Perdue would win SEC Player of the Year before heading off to the NBA. And of course, Vandy would come within a tennis ball of an SEC championship in 1989.
Flash forward 17 years... you've got a coach with impeccable credentials who's nonetheless found the sledding tough in his first four seasons. He's struggling with every fiber of his being to get the Vanderbilt program back to where he wants it to be, where fans think it should be. The fans fidget nervously, wondering when and if the master plan is going to fall together.
On a cold December (OK, November) night at storied Memorial Gym, Vanderbilt springs the upset over a favored Indiana team. They do it not with 3-point bombs from outside... but because Matt Freije was playing like "da bomb".
Can history repeat?
Contact Brent at firstname.lastname@example.org