Vanderbilt has been operating for several months without an athletic director. Fans talked all summer long about Vanderbilt basketball after the Commodores' stellar record the previous season, which included an undefeated out-of-conference record and a big upset over an ACC power. Those same fans have also been anxiously awaiting the start of the gridiron season.
No, I'm not talking about 2004. I'm talking about 40 years ago, 1964.
Commodore football head coach Jack Green had several experienced players returning, including two able quarterbacks. He planned on opening the offense with more passing. Prognosticators were predicting the Commodores to end the long, four-year stretch of losing seasons and go 6-4 or better.
Dare I say more? I'll bet you can figure out what happened next. The Commodores opened the season with a trip to Atlanta to visit Georgia Tech in the Yellow Jackets first game after leaving the Southeastern Conference. Coach Green predicted his new offense would tally the points and hoped his defense would hold the Techsters at bay.
The new offense featured Vandy's very first dedicated split end. Bumpy Baldwin was called "The Lonely End" named after Bill Carpenter, the famous lonely end at Army. The new offense featured Toby Wilt as a slot back inside Baldwin. An unbalanced line with the strength to the two-receiver side left just a guard and flex end (split just wide enough not to be a tight end) to the weak side. The backfield resembled a wing-T alignment with Dave Waller and Dave Malone splitting quarterbacking duties, Charlie Trabue at fullback, and Bob Sullins at halfback.
This offensive scheme looked promising in game one, as Waller completed 20 passes for more than 200 yards. The only problem: Vandy didn't score any points on offense. The defense registered an early safety, which held until halftime. Vandy led 2-0 starting the third quarter. The Commodores thrice drove deep into Georgia Tech territory but came away empty-handed each time. Meanwhile Tech scored twice in the final half to win 14-2.
The next week Vandy hosted Georgia with first-year coach Vince Dooley. Georgia had just lost big to Alabama, and Vandy was actually a slight favorite. Once again, the offense got lost on its journey toward the Bulldog goal line. For a second straight week, no points were scored. Georgia was equally inept against the Commodores tough stop troops, and the Bulldogs didn't score as well, until intercepting a Vandy pass and returning it deep into Commodore territory in the fourth quarter. The Bulldogs ran the ball into the end zone and won 7-0.
Week three saw Vandy traveling Birmingham's Legion Field to take on undefeated and soon-to-be national champioin Alabama with Joe Namath and Steve Sloan at quarterback. Hurricane Dora was now a tropical storm heading on a beeline for Birmingham. The first half was played in a quagmire, and neither team threatened to score. Vandy had the ball at the Tide 15 yard line early but the Tide defense stopped the Commodores on downs. In the second half, the rain let up, and Namath guided the Tide to three touchdowns. Bama won 24-0. Vandy had now played three games, and the offense had produced no points.
About this time, the media began calling for Vanderbilt to follow the lead of Sewanee and Georgia Tech and leave the SEC. Tulane was already considering it and would make the decision to leave within a year. Meanwhile, Coach Green tried to keep his team focused with a game coming up against Wake Forest and its star halfback Brian Piccolo. Vandy didn't score a touchdown in this game either, but this time kicker Dick LeMay became the first Commodore ever to boot three field goals in a game. Vandy won 9-6, as Piccolo was held to one touchdown by a hustling Commodore defense.
Vanderbilt finally scored two touchdowns in week five against lowly George Washington, winning 14-0. At 2-3, the Commodores faced pre-season No. 1 Ole Miss at Dudley Field on a cold night. That's today's flashback game.
Ole Miss boasted the SEC's top passing offense, but Kentucky and Florida had exposed weaknesses in the Ole Miss defense and pulled off upsets. Though the Rebels had won 11 consecutive games against the Commodores, Green was confident his team could compete and even beat the heavily favored Rebels.
The game started out as another defensive struggle, with neither team able to score for the first 25 minutes. As the second quarter clock neared three minutes, Vandy switched its offense to a wing-I against a surprised Ole Miss defense. The Commodores ran inside the tackles and found success (one of the aforementioned Ole Miss weaknesses).
Waller hit Wilt with a couple of key passes on crucial third downs, and Sullins finished the job with a blast into the end zone to put Vanderbilt on top 7-0 at the half.
The third quarter and first 10 minutes of the fourth quarter were carbon copies of the first quarter. Neither team threatened to score. With the biggest upset in years looming, Ole Miss had one last possession with four minutes left in the game. Rebel quarterback Jim Weatherly rolled out and completed a couple of short passes. He then fooled the Commodores with a rare dropback pass and spotted a Rebel receiver alone deep for a touchdown. Coach John Vaught went for one point and the tie, and that's how the game ended, 7-7.
At 2-3-1, a much-improved Vanderbilt faced four final opponents all enduring losing or break-even seasons. 6-3-1 looked possible, while 5-4-1 was definitely realistic. Fate was unkind, as the Commodores played only half a good game in each of those contests. The defense broke down in a 22-21 loss to Kentucky. The offense failed in a 7-2 loss to Tulane, and turnovers and mistakes saw Miami win 35-17.
At 2-6-1, The Commodores closed out the season with a stellar defensive effort and upset Tennessee 7-0. Vanderbilt's defensive statistics that day lowered their season averages enough to finish on top of the SEC on that side of the ball. The 3-6-1 record would turn out to be the best in an eight-year period. That 5-4-1 season would have to wait until 1968. By then Green was no longer the head coach, and Jess Neely had filled the long-vacant athletic director's chair.
Coming Friday: A look back at college football's second week, and a look ahead to some of the coming weekend's most tantalizing games and point spreads.