Soon afterwards, recruiting "gurus" like Tom Lemming, Forrest Davis, Max Emfinger and others appeared on the scene to rank prospects and analyze recruiting for anxious college football fans. The modern-day era of the recruiting "guru" was under way. It later exploded to unprecedented levels in the mid-90's with the advent of the Internet.
Which recruiting class was the best in the history of Vanderbilt football? We're going to make a valiant attempt to answer that question below-- but first we need to set two parameters.
First, we're not going back beyond 1980, for two reasons: (1) accurate information is not easily available, and (2) recruiting was a whole different ball of wax before the scholarship limitations of the late 1970's were put into place. (For instance, Steve Sloan had 45 new players in his "recruiting class" in 1974... back then a coach could sign as many as he pleased.)
Secondly, we're not going forward beyond 2001. As we've stated many times before, we ardently believe one must wait three or four years to properly assess a recruiting class's impact on a football program. Yeah, we know, that's unpopular, but we're sticking to our guns.
All of that said, we examined every football recruiting class between 1980 and 2001, and here are our choices for Vanderbilt's top five recruiting classes within that period.
Head coach: Gerry Dinardo.
Studs: Brian Boykin (DT), James Manley (DT), Jermaine Johnson (TB), Royce Love (FB), Cliff Deese (TB), Matt Schuckman (LB), Owen (Tank) Neil (OL), Ronnie Gordon (QB), Bill Marinangel (P), Allen DeGraffenreid (TE), Bryan DeGraffenreid (DT).
Comments: Boykin and Manley may have been the best pair of defensive tackles ever to play together at Vanderbilt. The class, which some pundits ranked in the Top 25 nationally, helped Dinardo win 13 games over the next three years. Dinardo unquestionably gets our nod as the school's best recruiting head coach of the modern era.
Whatever happened to: Brent Rhoades, OG, Roswell, Ga.
Head coach: Woody Widenhofer.
Studs: Jovan Haye (DL), Jay Cutler (QB), Moses Osemwegie (LB), Matthew Tant (FB), Brandon Smith (WR), Dominique Morris (DB), Kelechi Ohanaja (DB), Otis Washington (LB).
Comments: Ironically, the best recruiting class of the Woody Widenhofer era came in the wake of one of his most disappointing seasons (2000). If the 2004 season is to be a turnaround season for Vanderbilt, much rests on the shoulders of this class. Cutler, Tant, Haye, and Osemwegie almost certainly have NFL futures ahead, and several more could if things break right in the next two seasons.
Whatever happened to: Tommy Johnstone, LB, Lubbock, Tex.
Head coach: Gerry Dinardo.
Studs: Jamie Duncan (LB), Antony Jordon (TB), Eric Vance (DB), Carlton Hall (LB), DeReal Finklin (DB), Robert Sheffield (DB), Jay Stallworth (DE/LB), Jason Tomichek (TE).
Comments: Note that most of the talent in this class was on defense. Four years later (1997), the seniors from this class, coached by Widenhofer, made up a defense that led the SEC. (Alas, the offensive talent couldn't match the defense, and the team with the SEC's best defense struggled to a 3-8 record.)
Whatever happened to: Bart Cason, FB, Maywood, Ill.
Head coach: Woody Widenhofer
Studs: Jimmy Williams (RB), Jamie Winborn (LB), Greg Zolman (QB), Matt Stewart (LB), Nate Morrow (LB), Pat Green (OL), Jared McGrath (RB), John Markham (PK).
Comments: In retrospect, Widenhofer's first recruiting class was nothing to sneeze at. Williams, Winborn and Stewart all became solid NFL players, and Zolman, Morrow and Markham have flirted with making it in the league. Zolman went on to set the school's all-time passing record, Markham set the school scoring record, and McGrath became the fifth-leading rusher in school history.
Whatever happened to: Ryan Heimpel, DL, London, Ontario.
Head coach: Watson Brown
Studs: Corey Harris (RB), Derrick Payne (RB), Clarence Sevillian (WR), Marcus Wilson (QB), Carlos Thomas (RB), Mike Healey (QB), Derrick Gragg (WR).
Comments: This was the best of Brown's five recruiting classes, and one of the school's best assemblages ever of players at the skill positions. Brown, one must remember was something of an offensive genius; on defense, however, the talent was often lacking. Still, by the time this class reached its junior and senior years, Gerry Dinardo rode it to two moderately successful years.
Whatever happened to: Kenny Toney, C, Memphis, Tenn.
And how about the worst recruiting class in history? Well, we really didn't want to go there, but...
Vanderbilt's weakest recruiting class in history almost certainly would be the disastrous class of 1995. It happened in the aftermath of Dinardo's December decision to bolt for LSU and to take most of his staff with him. Athletic Director Paul Hoolahan, some may recall, took almost a month before naming Rod Dowhower head coach.
Dowhower did his best to salvage recruiting that first year, but it was pretty much a write-off. The only name that most people would remember from the class of 1995 is Fred Vinson (DB), who was drafted by the Packers four years later. The impact of this one weak recruiting class was felt through the program for the next three years.
Disagree with our selections? Let us know about it on our Vanderbilt football message board.