Single-game tickets to Vanderbilt home games go on sale Monday morning at the McGugin Athletics Center Ticket Office. One would hope that all loyal Vandy fans would have already purchased their season tickets long ago, but I'm appealing now even to those who might have procrastinated in doing so.
The home schedule offers something for everyone, from $10 tickets to the Rutgers game to the crucial opener against South Carolina on Sept. 4 ($35). But the game that really ought to get the blood of every black-and-gold-bleeding Vandy fan stirred is the season-ending home game against Tennessee on Nov. 20.
Why is this game so significant? It will mark the first time Tennessee has played at Vanderbilt Stadium since 1998. I hesitate to dredge up painful memories, but the Tennessee-Vanderbilt game of 1998 has to rank as one of the lowest and most embarrassing moments in Vandy sports history. It was a scene that must never be repeated.
Some of you weren't around six years ago, so let me give you a quick reminder.
Tennessee entered the game 10-0, ranked in the Top 5, and on its way to the Fiesta Bowl and a national championship. The Vols, quarterbacked by Tee Martin, had one of their most powerful teams in history.
Vanderbilt, on the other hand, was playing a lot of young players and stumbling through one of its most difficult seasons in history. For a while there, in fact, it appeared as though the Commodores might be headed to the first winless season in school history (though Woody Widenhofer's team did rally for late-season wins over South Carolina and Duke).
I don't remember how many points Tennessee was favored by in 1998, but it was off the charts. Vanderbilt fans obviously realized their home team was doomed to a drubbing, and simply didn't bother to show up. They were right, of course... Tennessee won the game, 41-0.
But that wasn't the worst part... perhaps at no time in college football history had a home team had so little support from its home fans. Vanderbilt fans had been outnumbered in their own stadium before, but never like this. To be totally honest, it looked as if 90 percent of the crowd was wearing orange... and by the fourth quarter, it was difficult to spot anyone in the stands wearing gold.
When a Vanderbilt player took a particularly hard hit that day, the predominantly orange-clad crowd cheered lustily. After one blatantly bad call went against the Big Orange, the crowd booed and jeered the referees for several plays afterwards. Yes, in Vanderbilt's stadium!
What, one wondered, had happened to the 20,000 or so Vandy fans who had bought season tickets? Presumably, they had scalped their seats to rabid Tennessee fans... either that, or Vol enthusiasts had purchased Vandy season ticket books simply for the purpose of seeing this one game. (One has to give the Vol fans credit-- they are incredibly loyal and clever about worming their way into enemy stadiums.)
To his credit, former Vandy Director of Athletics Todd Turner took several steps to see that the ugly scene would never be repeated. First, he petitioned the SEC to move the annual game back a week, so that it could be played when students were on campus. The SEC honored the request, and as a result the game is now played the Saturday before Thanksgiving instead of the Saturday after.
Second, he moved the 2000 and 2002 Vandy-UT games to 67,000-seat Adelphia Coliseum, and raised the ticket prices for the single game to exorbitant levels. Though Tennessee still had the majority of fans at those two games, it didn't seem nearly so bad, since the games were played at a "neutral" stadium.
Meanwhile, Tennessee fans who wanted to see the game had to pay $55 and $75 (while Vandy fans with season tickets paid only $40-- hee hee). It's called "milking the Big Orange cow." Though UT fans bought up all the extra tickets in 2000, many of them took the hint in 2002, and the game was far from a sellout.
It's now time for Tennessee to return to Nashville, and Vice Chancellor David Williams has decreed that the game shall move back to Vanderbilt Stadium. That means several things. First, it means the players will get to play their final home game at home (which didn't happen in 2000 and 2002).
Second, it means that the game will definitely be a sellout. The north stands have been removed, and seating capacity at Vanderbilt Stadium is now only 39,000 and change. Let me give you a tip: by Nov. 20, trust me, there won't be any tickets remaining.
At $55 a pop, are Vandy-UT single-game tickets a good investment? Well, it's hard to say what will happen between now and Nov. 20. If Tennessee enters the game 9-1 and Vandy is 2-8, then probably not.
On the other hand, the media last week picked Vanderbilt fifth in the SEC East, Tennessee only third. The Commodores, with 21 of 22 starters returning and a savvy fourth-year junior at quarterback, look to be vastly improved. Tennessee, though talented as always, has no quarterback who has taken a snap, has a coach that is increasingly under fire, and is coming off a pair of less-than-stellar seasons.
What if Vanderbilt enters the game 7-3, and Tennessee enters the game 7-3? How much would you be willing to pay for a chance to see Vanderbilt defeat Tennessee for the first time in 22 years?
OK, I might be dreaming just a little. But one thing is certain: no team should have to suffer through the indignity that the Vanderbilt seniors of 1998 had to suffer. Though outmanned that day, the 1998 team fought until the final gun; sadly, the team's fans did not. Their conspicuous absence, of course, was duly noted by the local newspapers.
The game on Nov. 20 shapes up as the biggest test in many years for the Vanderbilt fan base. Has anything changed in six years? Will Commodore fans be as lackadaisical about supporting their team at home as they were in 1998? Shouldn't playing at home rightfully give the home team an advantage?
It's not too late for Vanderbilt fans to buy season tickets, mind you. The kind folks at McGugin should be happy to accommodate. There should be plenty of tickets remaining at this point for the opener against South Carolina Sept. 4. The Mississippi State and Florida home games are intriguing. Tickets to the Rutgers game only cost ten bucks each.
But if you can only buy tickets to one game this year, make it the Tennessee game on Nov. 20. It's more than just a game... it's black-and-gold vs. orange. It's good vs. evil. If nothing else, your purchase will prevent some orange-clad Vol enthusiast from worming his way into Vanderbilt Stadium.
The number to call is 322-GOLD, or you can do it over the Net at vucommodores.com. Act now. Do it Monday, for the love of all that is good and decent.
Contact Brent at brent(at)vandymania.com