That was the score that had Vanderbilt fans saying, "Don't pinch me!"
That was the score that made the Grove in Oxford a likely grave for Vandy's SEC agonies over the years.
That was the score that had visions of sugar plums… or at least, a very sweet holiday season sendoff… dancing in Woody Widenhofer's head.
Meaningful big plays on offense, ones not delivered in futile catch-up mode against Kentucky.
Meaningful big plays on defense, ones the Dores came up with early in the game, setting a tone, building a lead, and-most importantly-creating a culture of winning.
With one interception after another against Eli Manning, Vandy didn't just have a big scoreboard advantage, the Dores had full-tilt momentum, and generated legitimate expectations of winning.
It was the feel-good movie of the year. The movie synopsis went something like this: "Inspired and well-directed kids finally get it right on the gridiron, sending their beloved coach out with a road win in football's toughest conference."
Vanderbilt fans, forget the fact that all of you got pinched-and pinched hard-starting at about 2 p.m. Central Standard Time and culminating about 70 minutes later when Ole Miss had 38 points on the scoreboard. As a good Italian guy might say, "Fuh-GED-da-bou-dit!!"
Seriously. Forget about it-pretend the second half never happened. Besides, I'm sure you're already VERY, VERY EXPERIENCED at forgetting about what happens on the gridiron when the Commodores are involved.
But while you work your normal mental magic and forget the second half, there's one other thing you need to do, Vandy fans: remember the first half. How many times has Vanderbilt ever jumped an opponent the way the Dores got on top of Mississippi in the first half? How many times has a Vanderbilt team come out of the locker room with steam coming out of its ears? How many times have the Dores been able to dictate at the outset of an SEC game, never reacting to the other team; never flagging in confidence; and never needing an inordinate amount of time to hit their stride and play football with equal measures of crispness and passion? This was a time-capsule first half, folks.
It's kinda like an NFL preseason game. Looking at the first two quarters, and especially the first five series by each unit, is what really matters when coaches look for signs of development and progress. Now surely, this is not to say that the second half didn't matter, that this loss was insignificant, and that Woody didn't deserve a "W" in his swan song. Losing in the SEC should never have a good taste.
But this game did-wait a minute; speaking in the past tense means that something has been irrevocably lost-this game DOES, right now, present the Vanderbilt football program with a path toward improvement. Before this season ended, the current group of Dores was able to show Mister Next Coach-whoever he might be-that there is some talent here, and that Vandy can come out of the locker room and jump somebody, something that hadn't happened at any other point in the season-at least not against a team with at least one win (jumping Duke early on is reason for forgetting something good, as opposed to forgetting something bad, such as this loss to Mississippi in the second half…).
The next Skipper of the Commodore program will take the helm and immediately look at what went right in the first half, and use that to instill confidence into a program that can't yet close the deal, but left 2001 showing signs that it can happen. It really can.
That, Vandy fans, is why it is not only recommended but, I think, appreciably easy to forget the second half in Oxford and remember the first.
EPILOGUE: As I wrap up the 2001 season in a nice holiday package, I'll comment on one of the potential candidates for the Commodore job. Florida running backs coach Buddy Teevens-hey, let's give the bad spin before the good spin, right?-is a member of Steve Spurrier's offensive staff. Gee, what happened when another member of Spurrier's coaching tree went to a school with an awesome academic profile? Yeah: he went 0-11 in 2001, losing to Vanderbilt in the process. That's life for Carl Franks, a heroic man who saved a life this past season, but couldn't save Duke Football. Teevens would be making the same kind of jump that Franks did, without a head coaching job at a smaller school, the gridiron equivalent of a mid-major in college basketball.
But now, the good side of Teevens. The man has enormous recruiting connections in the Southeast, especially in Louisiana. Why is this significant? Given that Louisiana, unlike other Southern states, has a considerable amount of Catholic schools, Teevens would be able to recruit top athletes from Louisiana's private or parochial schools, the very athletes who would simultaneously meet Vandy's academic standards. This would obviously offer Vandy a way of having the best of both worlds: sustaining its academic excellence while still being able to build and grow as a football program. Beyond this very attractive element, Teevens would also offer an offense-first perspective, which-considering the bagel blowout loss to in-state rival Tennessee and Greg Zolman's departure-would probably be needed in the next few years.
And oh yeah, remember how the Tennessee loss revealed, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Vandy will need to recruit for speed across the board? Count on a running back coach to emphasize speed. The possibilities presented by Teevens are legitimately intriguing. If he is hired, Vandy fans can only hope that The Carl Franks Story won't repeat itself, and that Teevens will save the life… of a program that needs a Man With a Plan.