Wade-to-Curtis made Vandy famous in 1950

VandyMania's resident historian <b>Howell Peiser</b> recalls Vanderbilt's 1950 upset win over Alabama in Mobile. The Commodores were led that day by fleet split end Bucky Curtis and scrappy junior quarterback Bill Wade.

Football coaches in the 21st Century frequently tell reporters and alumni how important confidence is when preparing a football team for a big game. Confidence isn't a novel concept. For decades it has played a major role in deciding the victor among near-equal competitors.

Let's travel back in our time machine to the 1950 season. Bill Edwards was entering his second season as coach of the Commodores, and 1949 had left a sour taste in the mouths of Commodore faithful. After being picked to contend for the SEC title following the outstanding 1948 campaign, Vanderbilt earned the distinction as the NCAA's biggest disappointment, with a 5-5 record. Edwards scuttled former coach Red Sanders' single-wing offense and installed the T-formation in 1949. Only one assistant coach on the 1949 staff had ever coached the T-formation.

In 1950 the entire coaching staff had T-formation experience. The only fly in the ointment was that more than a dozen players who participated in spring drills were no longer around, with many of them serving in the Korean War. As a result depth was a major concern. A few more pre-season injuries made the problem worse. Promising quarterback Bill Wade had a respectable sophomore season, but few fans expected just how good his junior year would be.

The season opened with easy shutouts of Middle Tennessee (47-0) and Auburn (41-0). In the opener against the Blue Raiders Wade hit end Bucky Curtis for a long touchdown pass and scrambled on a long gain to set up another score. Against Auburn, Vandy scored five touchdowns in just over half of the period. Wade became the first quarterback in SEC history to pass for five touchdowns in one game, while fullback Jim Tabor blasted through the Tigers' defensive line following excellent blocks by possibly the best tackle combination in school history. Russ Faulkinberry and Bob Werckle were quick, strong anchors on the offensive blocking corps.

That brings us to today's main event of yesteryear. After the two easy wins to start the season, Vanderbilt had to venture to Mobile, Ala. to take on Alabama at Ladd Stadium (site of the Senior Bowl). The Tide was coming off a big win over Tulane (which would lose only to Notre Dame the rest of the year). Coach Red Drew called his passing combination of Ed Salem to Al Lary the best in Tuscaloosa since Dixie Howell threw to Don Hutson. Alabama was a 7-point favorite to stay undefeated.

This game was named "The Game of The Week" and famed broadcaster Bill Stern gave the play-by-play to a national radio audience. An early Alabama punt pinned Vanderbilt inside its 20. Moments later, Wade dropped back and threw a long bomb to Curtis, who caught the ball on the run just past mid-field and waltzed to the end zone. Three minutes into the game, Vandy led 7-0.

Alabama took the ensuing kickoff and kept the ball on the ground as it marched into Commodore territory. Finally, Salem attempted a pass to Lary, but defensive halfback Irvin Berry stepped in front of Lary for the interception.

Later in the first quarter, The Tide drove into Vandy territory yet again, but a lost fumble gave the Commodores the ball inside their 30. Applying the old theory of capitalizing on a sudden change of possession, Wade threw long on the first play after the fumble. This time Curtis caught the bomb and was tackled at the Bama 15. One play later, Wade hit the other end, Malcolm Cook for touchdown number two. Vandy 14, Alabama 0.

Alabama held onto the ball on their next possession. The Tide offense found some holes off-tackle and outside, and finally scored as the first quarter came near a close. Vandy 14, Alabama 7 after one period.

Vanderbilt continued to move the ball with ease early in the second period. Wade completed two key passes to pick up first downs, while the running attack of Tabor, Dean Davidson, Mac Robinson, and Nelson Burton churned out enough yardage to keep the Crimson Tide defense honest. Robinson plunged across the goal to culminate a long drive and make the score 21-7.

Alabama's rushing attack was clicking at this point, and the Tide marched the distance on its next possession. The extra point failed, making the score 21-13 Vanderbilt at the half.

The defenses of both teams began the second half making amends for their poor first-half showings. Neither team could move the ball for 10 minutes. Another Alabama rocket punt pinned Vanderbilt at its 10. Wade began hitting open receivers and mixed the draw play to slow the Tide pass rush. Using Curtis as a decoy, Wade hit Cook with two long-gainers. When he finally threw one to his prime receiver, Curtis caught it for his second touchdown of the game. The extra point missed, making the score 27-13 Vanderbilt after three quarters.

Early in the final stanza, the Vanderbilt offense was backed up near its goal line. Wade attempted to throw deep once again, but this time the Alabama pass rush was too quick and forced a safety on a sack to cut the lead to 12. After a change of possessions, Wade threw his first interception of the season, and the Crimson Tide took advantage of the turnover. Bama kept the ball on the ground and scored a touchdown to cut the lead to 27-22 with just enough time to score again if it could force a quick punt.

Vanderbilt obliged and didn't move the ball. Bama took over around its 30-yard line with about 90 seconds to play. Salem completed quick passes to his ends, and the Tide advanced the ball into Commodore territory with time running out. Salem attempted to throw to the end zone on the next three plays, but every pass was off target. With 0:10 to go with Alabama facing fourth-and-10, Salem completed a pass for the first down near the Commodore 20, but time ran out before another play could be run. Vanderbilt won 27 to 22.

Edwards said his team's confidence was the most important reason for the upset win. The players were confident the T-formation and beefed up passing game would be too much for Alabama's defense. They were confident enough to believe they could stop the vaunted Tide passing combination, which they did. When a team has talent, confidence can produce upset victories.

The win would have been the big story that day, but Purdue ruined Vandy's parade. The Boilermakers, also called "The Spoilermakers," ended Notre Dame's long winning streak with a huge upset. The Purdue offensive coordinator was thrust into the national limelight that day, and it would lead to a future hall of fame coaching career in the pro ranks. His name was Hank Stram.

Vanderbilt returned home to play Ole Miss the next week. In an ugly, defensive struggle, the Commodores beat the Rebels 20-14, as the Wade-to-Curtis combo only scored once. At 3-0 in the SEC and 4-0 overall, Vandy was alone in first place in the conference in mid-October. Unfortunately, a lack of depth and more injuries began to weaken the team. Vandy was upset by mediocre Florida and LSU teams and was blown out by Tulane and Tennessee to end the season. Even with seven wins and four losses, the Commodores missed out on a bowl in 1950.


Coming Friday: Peiser looks ahead to the weekend in college football and submits his mathematical picks against the spread.

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