JANUARY: America lost a number of its icons to death in 2003 (Bob Hope, Katherine Hepburn, Johnny Cash); in January, Vandy lost sportswriting icon Fred Russell, the best friend it had ever had in the media. The legendary Nashville Banner columnist passed away at age 96. Kevin Stallings' men's basketball team knocked off No. 4 Alabama in its home SEC opener (left), but from that point, the season proceeded to go into a tailspin. Vandy led Kentucky 36-28 at halftime of an ESPN-televised game, but withered under the Wildcats' relentless pressure in the second half and lost by 22. The Dores did beat 15th-ranked Georgia at home, but finished the month a lackluster 9-8. In Melanie Balcomb's first season coaching at Vanderbilt, the women's team was faring much better. Her Commodores hit a few rough spots when Ashley McElhiney missed some games with an ankle sprain, but finished the month by rallying from 21 points down for a huge win at Auburn.
FEBRUARY: After an early-February home loss to South Carolina, Kevin Stallings (right) remarked on his postgame show, "There's got to be somebody out there who can coach this team better than me right now"-- and some fans were ready to agree with him. February had traditionally been a bad month for Stallings' teams, and 2003 proved no exception-- Vandy ended the month 10-14 after going on a six-game losing jag (that would stretch to nine in March). Balcomb's team fared somewhat better-- the ladies went 5-2 in February, with both losses coming to the fearsome Lady Vols. Football coach Bobby Johnson was giddy over the 22 players on National Signing Day... unfortunately, his top recruit would be arrested on a rape charge one week later.
MARCH: America invaded Iraq looking for Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. Back home, Vandy took down a great LSU team on March 2, as Chantelle Anderson and Ashley McElhiney played their final home game. But the pair's remarkable careers came to a tearful end in Norfolk, Va., two weeks later in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The two beloved seniors had hoped to go further, but a last-second shot in overtime by Boston College ended the dream. The men lost to No. 2 Kentucky at Rupp Arena... nothing unusual about that. But the 106-44 margin (no misprint) made for Vandy's second-worst loss in school history. Vandy's 3-13 SEC record was also the worst in school history. The SEC Tournament brought a ray of hope, as the Commodores upset Alabama for a second time, then cut the margin of loss vs. UK from 62 down to a mere 18; but Kevin Stallings knew he would have to make some serious reevaluations in the offseason. In football, spring practice concluded, and the team elected two sophomores and a junior as captains-- a measure of just how young the 2003 team would be.
APRIL: Amazingly, in Tim Corbin's rookie season as baseball coach, the Commodores were hovering around first place in the SEC East (usually under the previous regime, they'd been mathematically eliminated by the first weekend). Make no mistake, this Corbin guy could coach some ball. Hunter Hillenmeyer was drafted by the Green Bay Packers, and Dan Stricker and Rushen Jones signed rookie free agent contracts. Kevin Stallings signed Indianapolis sharpshooter Dan Cage to a cage scholarship. In men's tennis, Bobby Reynolds (right) and Vanderbilt upset top-seeded Florida to win the SEC Tournament, an omen that this would be no ordinary year for Ken Flach's team. Stellar freshman kicker Greg Johnson, perhaps the MVP from the 2002 football team, abruptly decided to leave school.
MAY: Few months in Vandy's long history could top the month of May, 2003 for unforgettable moments. Men's tennis made an incredible run through the NCAA Tournament to reach the national final in Athens, Ga. The Dores blew past Texas A&M, Baylor and UCLA to reach the final, where they lost a thrilling 4-3 match to top-ranked Illinois. It was only the second time a Vanderbilt team has reached a national final in any sport (women's tennis did it in 2001). Bobby Reynolds, who spent most of his junior season as the nation's top-ranked singles player, concluded the year with an incredible 46-7 overall record, including a 25-1 mark in dual matches. Tim Corbin's baseballers vaulted into the SEC Tournament with a thrilling, season-ending three-game sweep of Tennessee; no one who was there will ever forget Worth Scott's walk-off homer, one of the sweetest moments in Vandy sports history. But wait, there's more... Ken Flach (men's tennis) and Martha Freitag (women's golf) both won SEC Coach of the Year... women's tennis knocked Tennessee out of the NCAA Tournament... golfer Brandt Snedeker won SEC Golfer of the Year... and on and on it went. The Tennessean, however, chose to sensationalize the athletic department's budget cutbacks... which, as it turns out, were pretty much non-existent.
JUNE: Life could hardly have gotten any better for Luke List in June-- the Vandy golf signee qualified to participate in the U.S. Open with a bravo performance in regional competition. (Plus, List is the boyfriend of Vandy golfer May Wood.) Heptathlete Josie Hahn (right) made it to the NCAA Track and Field Championships in Sacramento, and set a new school record for the high jump at 5'10.75". The American Football Coaches Association once again honored Vanderbilt for graduating over 90 percent of its players. Sophomore basketballer Brian Thornton, frustrated by a drop in playing time, announced his plans to transfer. Frank Crowell retired as Vanderbilt's P.A. announcer. Melanie Balcomb's seven recruits, which composed the nation's best recruiting class, reported to campus for summer classes. The Chicago Cubs drafted Robert Ransom, and the junior right-hander would opt to leave Vandy for the bigs. "I'd definitely like to pitch at Wrigley Field someday," he said. Meanwhile, The Tennessean reported that Vandy had sold less than 2,000 season football tickets. "No, wait!" the school protested. "We've sold at least 5,000!"
JULY: July is typically the quietest month on campus, and a time when sports columnists struggle to fill their spaces. Knoxville's John Adams and Birmingham's Paul Finebaum both wrote moronic columns explaining why Vandy should leave the SEC (how original). Meanwhile, former Commodore linebacker and current San Francisco 49er Jamie Winborn returned to campus to finish his degree. Men's tennis took a hard blow when Bobby Reynolds, perhaps the most dominant singles player in school history, announced he would skip his senior year to turn pro. Stallings hired former Illinois State coach Tom Richardson as an assistant. At SEC Media Days in Birmingham, Bobby Johnson said Vandy was still behind the rest of the SEC talent-wise, but that the Commodores weren't planning to take a back seat to anyone.
AUGUST: The men's hoops team left for a trip to Spain that would give the players a jumpstart on fall practice. After a successful Dore Jam, football practice got underway. Running backs Norval McKenzie and Ronald Hatcher both made successful returns to the team after leg breaks in 2002, and a more mature Jay Cutler solidified his hold on the quarterback position. The opener vs. Ole Miss loomed as one of the biggest in a long time, and Jefferson-Pilot TV requested that it be moved from an evening game to an 11:30 a.m. kickoff. Predictably, the weather on Aug. 30 was suffocatingly hot. Bobby Johnson's team used every ounce of energy it had against Eli Manning (right, being sacked by Moses Osemwegie) and the Rebels but lost 24-21; the Commodores pretty much played Ole Miss toe-to-toe, except in the kicking game.
SEPTEMBER: The football Commodores opened the month with an easy win over Chattanooga. But the month's news was dominated by Chancellor Gordon Gee, who on Sept. 9 "declared war" on the culture of greed and corruption in college athletics. Director of Athletics Todd Turner was shown the door, and the entire athletics department was placed under the control of the school's department of Recreation and Wellness. The move drew impressive endorsements from USA Today and other quarters; predictably, The Tennessean called Gee's announcement "self-indulgent". Confused by the controversial announcement, some reporters and talk shows inferred that Vandy was shutting down its sports programs, and Gee and Vice Chancellor David Williams had to go "on the offensive" to assure the public that just the opposite was true. "If I'd have done this at Ohio State," acknowledged Gee, "I'd probably be pumping gas in Utah now." If the intent was to give the athletic teams a boost, you couldn't tell it from the football team's late-September performance-- Vandy was crushed by a struggling Auburn team, and snatched defeat from the jaws of sure victory in a game vs. Georgia Tech.
OCTOBER: The football team went 0-for-October, with losses to Mississippi State, Navy, Georgia and South Carolina; the loss to the Dawgs assured the Commodores of their 21st consecutive losing season. As hopes for a bowl trip went by the wayside, Vandy fans began turning their thoughts to roundball. At SEC Basketball Media Day, Kevin Stallings said the previous year was by far the most difficult experience of his professional career. "I underestimated how long it would take," he said. "Hopefully we're on the verge of turning that corner." Little did he know, they were. The SEC media named Matt Freije preseason player of the year. In tennis, Kelly Schmandt and Aleke Tsoubanos of Vanderbilt's women's team captured the doubles title at the 2003 ITA All-American Championships. The Tennessean's Larry Woody (sportswriting's answer to Homer Simpson) caught up with former Tennessee Vol assistant coach Doug Mathews, who gleefully told him Gee's restructuring was doomed to failure (go figure that one!).
NOVEMBER: When Duke won an ACC football game on Nov. 9, Vanderbilt inherited the nation's longest conference losing streak-- but would hold it only for one short week. Just when Bobby Johnson's team appeared inexorably headed toward a 1-11 season (which would have been the worst in school history), the Dores surprised Kentucky on Senior Day at Dudley Field for a 28-17 victory. The losing streak fell, as did the goalposts, which were last seen heading down West End on the shoulders of exuberant students. The Commodores finished 2-10 to match their 2002 record. Kevin Stallings signed three players, including blue-chip 6-6 wing forward Shan Foster, who said he was attracted by Vandy's total-person approach (take that, Larry Woody). Stallings' team got some national notice it they knocked off Indiana at Memorial Gym behind Matt Freije's 32 points. On the women's side, Tom Collen finally got to coach a game in Memorial Gym, but Melanie Balcomb's Commodores edged his Louisville team in an early-season thriller.
DECEMBER: U.S. forces located Saddam Hussein in a spider hole, looking a lot like Woody Widenhofer after a bad loss. The Tennessean's Larry Woody exhumed former Vandy football coach Fred Pancoast to coerce him into explaining why Vandy's restructuring will never work (yawn). Meanwhile, the men's basketball team "restructured" Michigan to go 2-for-2 vs. the Big Ten, and won the first ten games on its schedule for the first time since Roy Skinner days. Scott Hundley (right) became the leader of a bench corps that has come to be affectionately known as the "Grizzlies." The Vandy football coaches hit the recruiting trail. Offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell was almost lured to South Carolina by Lou Holtz, but ultimately came to his senses. Starting guard Abi Ramsey got into a bit of off-the-court trouble, but the women's team won its first ten games without her, as several of those talented freshmen stepped in to pick up the slack. As the year came to a close, Vanderbilt's basketball teams sported a collective record of 20-1, and both were ranked in the national Top 25. Who woulda thunk it?