As Vanderbilt football fans prepare to bid farewell to Woody Widenhofer after Saturday's game at Ole Miss, perhaps it's time to let the star-crossed Widenhofer era pass in review-- much the same way your life passes in front of you just before you're about to die.
"Have fun, expect to win"... the SEC's best defense... Damian Allen... LSU... "On the offensive"... Steve Crosby... Western Michigan... security guarding the goalposts... Northern Illinois... ecstasy in Oxford... fake punt... one fumble short of a bowl... the JW's and their financial advice... Miami, Ohio... Jared McGrath and Ray Perkins... Mitsoo... fake field goal... Lew breaks a leg... 71-13... "It's hard to win a football game."
The images all run together. There've been highs, there've been lows... and there've been lower than lows. Oh, the humanity!
I come not to bury the mustachioed one-- but not to praise him, either. Even as fanatical a Vandy football fan as I admittedly am, I come today to step aside and take a detached view of the Widenhofer era-- and perhaps to put it all in some kind of perspective.
With one conference game left, the 5-year record now stands at 15-39, 4-35 in the SEC. Clearly, had Woody not resigned as he did on Nov. 8, Todd Turner would have been forced to hand him his walking papers. Even at a place like Vanderbilt, a .234 winning percentage (.103 in the conference) over five years doesn't get it done. The marriage was still salvageable as late as this past season with a winning record-- just one measly 6-5 record!-- but instead the 2001 season has become the latest in a series of train wrecks for Vandy football.
The era started out with such promise. Turner awarded Widenhofer the job over a number of interested suitors in December, 1996, based on the tremendous improvement Vandy's defense had shown in Rod Dowhower's final year. In an otherwise miserable 2-9 season, the fine defensive performances against Notre Dame, Alabama, Florida (with Danny Wuerffel) and Tennessee (Peyton Manning) were the only things that Vandy fans could hang their hats on. Promote the defensive coordinator, Turner figured, and perhaps we can spread some of Woody's defensive magic across to the whole team.
How Woody embraced the job in those first few off-seasons! Vanderbilt football badly needed a salesman, a charismatic persona, and Woody filled that role to a tee. No civic group was too small for an address from the Woodmeister. "Have fun, expect to win," was the mantra. It all sounded good... Vanderbilt fans had been doing neither.
That first year, 1997, Vandy's defense (with seniors Jamie Duncan, Antony Jordon, Carlton Hall and Corey Chavous) was almost unquestionably the best in the school's history. Those guys were such a joy to watch... they kept teams out of the end zone, and they tackled with authority. But the offense was inept, and the first-year record was 3-8.
In his second season Widenhofer ushered in his old friend Steve Crosby to install a wide-open offense. With all those seniors graduating on defense, we all knew 1998 would be a tough year, and it was. After Vandy dropped games to TCU and Western Michigan, it looked for a while as though the 1998 team would be the first in Vandy history to go winless. But just about the time we were all ready to slit our wrists, Woodyball II pulled off back-to-back home wins over South Carolina and Duke-- and at the same time found a quarterback in freshman Greg Zolman. The 1998 season ended 2-9, but at the time you could write it off to youth and inexperience. What would the team be like when those talented freshman and sophomores reached maturity?
The first 6 games of 1999 comprised the finest stretch of football under Widenhofer. The Dores started 4-2, and suddenly folks in black and gold were seriously talking bowl for the first time since '84. But the season took a downward turn in a home game against Georgia, and later all hopes for a bowl were fumbled away before a packed house with UK in town.
Still, the 5-6 finish in 1999 raised hopes inordinately high for 2000, and Woody (to his detriment) helped fan them. The hiring of a new, athletically-oriented chancellor and the addition of grass turf also helped raise expectations. But alas, the Commodores were unable to cash the checks that Woody had written, and finished 3-8 in 2000. And here we sit in 2001 at 2-8 with one game left to play.
For a while there he had us all going, didn't he? I think it's worth asking: where did the Woodyball era go sour? Moreover, what was Woody's single greatest failing?
I have a thesis, but first I'd like to tell you what I think it wasn't.
It wasn't his personality. Woody was by far the most congenial and accessible coach VU has had since George MacIntyre. Overall, Woody had a good relationship with the press-- why, as recently as the Georgia game, Larry Woody was writing columns of endorsement.
It wasn't his temperament. It did seem that Woody lost some of his fire as the years went by... on camera last week he maintained a stoical, emotionless stare as his team was getting drubbed by the Vols. But at other times he'd shown plenty of emotion... during halftime of a 1997 game he delivered a halftime speech that peeled paint off the walls. In his five years, he'd tried it all... mostly to no avail. (And by the way, there's no rulebook for how fiery a successful coach should or should not be. Plenty of mild-mannered coaches have won consistently.)
It wasn't that his players were poorly conditioned... one visit to campus during two-a-days would cure you of that notion. It wasn't that he was too lax with his players... sure, Vandy had a few off-the-field incidents, but far fewer than most programs have. And it wasn't that he didn't graduate his players... heck, we led the nation in that. (You see how far that gets you.)
It's wasn't even poor gameday decisions... sure, the LSU game and the fake punt against Georgia will live in infamy, but every staff is going to have a few boneheaded decisions over the course of 5 years. They didn't help, but those alone didn't doom him.
And it certainly wasn't that he didn't improve the offense. There can be no debate that Widenhofer leaves his successor with considerably more offensive talent than he inherited 5 years ago.
So what was it then? In my mind, Woody's central flaw was his failure to fill certain key needs in recruiting... mainly defensive linemen (the last 4 years), and a placekicker (this past year).
That 1997 defense had a solid four-man defensive front. But they all graduated, and soon there simply weren't enough defensive linemen on campus to slow down an SEC-caliber running game. In 1999 Woody was virtually forced by the shortage of D-linemen to switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 alignment, and he brought in Herb Paterra to run it. It seemed to work well for a while-- it held mighty Florida to 13 points in 1999.
But as Gerry Dinardo found out at LSU, the 3-4 is simply not a viable defense for the modern era. Offensive coordinators finally solved it, to the point that this year our defense couldn't stop ANYONE up front, and couldn't get ANY pressure on opposing quarterbacks. (Woody even wrested the defense away from Paterra after the MTSU game to re-energize it... a lot of good that did.)
I'm not saying I don't like our defensive linemen... I'm just saying that today there aren't nearly enough of them on the roster. I think the 3-4 in retrospect was a big mistake... a mistake which was unavoidable due to deficient recruiting on the DL those first three years.
And surely it's been obvious to everyone this year how damaging the absence of a reliable placekicker can be. A good one would have easily sent the Alabama and Auburn games into overtime. (And maybe after winning those two SEC games, our "fragile" team gains confidence instead of spontaneously combusting.)
Recruiting, despite what the ubiquitous recruiting gurus will tell you, is not about how many high school All-Americans you sign... it's about how well you fill your team's needs. Woody's first few classes included some excellent talent... names like Jamie Winborn, Jimmy Williams, Matt Stewart, John Markham, Greg Zolman, Dan Stricker, etc. I contend that there's some terrific young talent coming up through the ranks too, much of which was redshirted this year. But in these two key areas-- defensive line (the past 4 years) and kicker (this past year)-- Widenhofer's recruiting efforts have come up short.
The demise of Woodyball has some wondering whether Vanderbilt will EVER be able to manage a winning season in the SEC. Rest assured, I still believe it's possible, and that it would be a big mistake to even think of moving to another conference. That said, the new coach will have his work cut out for him. He'll of course have to coach harder, smarter and luckier than any coach we've had recently. And he'll have to succeed in these areas where Widenhofer slipped (without letting any other areas slide).
There may have been some other minor, overcomable failures along the way, but this one trumps them all. I'm suggesting that if we'd brought in a few more defensive tackles back in 1997 and 1998-- and stuck with the conventional 4-3 alignment-- who knows? Todd Turner might be naming our stadium after Widenhofer today, instead of thumbing through his black book for potential replacements.