1969 saw the Vanderbilt faithful confident for the first time in a decade. The 1968 squad had forged a 5-4-1 record with a strong defense and average offense. Not only had the Vandy freshman team gone 5-0, they had won in a fashion similar to Army during World War II. Five slaughters over Tennessee, Alabama, Ole Miss (69-0), Kentucky, and Louisville had sportswriters falling over themselves to cover the babes. The Commodores were picked to win six or seven times in 1969 and contend for a bowl. With the SEC race considered wide open among five or six teams, some experts even considered Vandy a dark horse for the upper division. The only fly in the ointment was a tough schedule.
The season opened in Ann Arbor, Mich. against vs. Michigan. This game marked the debut of Coach Bo Schembechler, who had been a finalist for the Vandy job just three years earlier when Bill Pace got the nod. Michigan would eventually pull the upset of the year, beating unbeatable Ohio State and going to the Rose Bowl. On this day, Schembechler showed the fans what to expect during his tenure. Gone was the run/pass offense, and in its place was his version of "three yards and a cloud of dust."
Vanderbilt had also changed its offensive philosophy for 1969. Gone was a pro-style and roll-out pass offense, and in its place was the wing-I featuring the triple option for the first time. John Miller returned at quarterback, but many believed sophomore phenom Watson Brown would eventually take over. In the backfield, tailback Doug Mathews was the star. Mathews not only could break a game open with his rushing, his kickoff return abilities made him a dangerous threat to go the distance every time.
Against Michigan, the Commodore defense watched the Wolverines run the ball all day. The Commodores kept it close, trailing only 14-7 after three quarters. Except for an 80-yard sprint by Glenn Doughty, Vandy's defense held Michigan in check. Pace stayed with the starters almost the entire way, and fatigue reared its ugly head in the final stanza. The Wolverines broke long runs, while Don Moorehead hit future pro tight end Jim Mandich with a couple of long passes. Michigan crossed the Commodore goal line four times in the final period and won, 42-14.
The next week Army exacted revenge for being upset at West Point in 1968. The Cadets won 16-6, as the triple-option failed for the second straight week, and Army rushed for well over 250 yards. To make matters worse, Miller hurt his shoulder and would be lost for weeks. Watson Brown would now be forced into action as the starter, while former center Denny Painter would step in as the backup.
Vandy traveled to Chapel Hill, N.C. to seek revenge against the Tar Heels. UNC had scored late in 1968 to beat Vandy 8-7 and spoil the Commodores' chance to start 3-0; now Vandy was trying not to start 0-3. Once again, the Commodore defense couldn't stop an opposing tailback. Don McCauley went for more than 100 yards on the ground, and the Heels rushed for more than 300, as Vandy lost 38-22. Brown's debut wasn't much to write about, but Painter came off the bench to throw a touchdown pass to Mathews. Mathews threw a touchdown pass of his own on the halfback option, to Dave Strong.
Week four brought undefeated Alabama to Dudley Field. The Tide had just played the most exciting TV game ever, edging Archie Manning and Ole Miss, 33-32. Odds-makers only installed Bama as a 17-point favorite; they knew something. Vanderbilt pulled off its greatest upset in modern times by beating the Tide 14-10. The score didn't do the game justice. Vandy more than doubled the Tide's offensive output, both running and passing for more than 200 yards. Painter and Brown combined for an excellent night through the air, as Curt Chesley, Jim Cunningham, and Karl Weiss continually caught crucial third-down passes to move the sticks. Vandy was only 1-3, but more importantly it was 1-0 in the SEC.
With newfound confidence Vandy next faced two more Top 20 teams, but the record moved south to 1-5, as both Georgia and Florida topped 40 points. With the losses, Vanderbilt was eliminated from the bowl picture.
Week seven took the Commodores to the Crescent City to face Tulane at the venerable Sugar Bowl. In a contest which still ranks in my opinion as the wildest finish to a Vandy football game, the Commodores beat the Green Wave 26-23. Defensive back Christie Hauck grabbed a fumble in mid-air and ran 70 yards for a touchdown to put Vandy ahead 6-0. The lead seesawed, with Mathews accounting for almost all the Commodore offense. He set the Vandy rushing record that day with a 200-plus yard effort. Trailing late 21-20, Painter attempted a long pass down the middle of the field toward Strong. The pass was on the mark, but at the last moment, a Green Wave defender got a hand in the way to knock the ball away. Two plays later, facing a do-or-die situation just past the Commodore 20-yard line, Painter tried the bomb to Strong once again. This time, he threw into double coverage and two Tulane defenders were there to break up the pass; but this time Strong got a hand on it as well and batted it up in the air. As the two Green Wave defenders collided into each other, the ball softly fell into the Strong's arms. He jogged into the end zone for an 80-yard (later lowered by one yard, but I saw the play and it should have been 80) touchdown and the win.
Week eight was Homecoming. Vandy was now loose and ready to play 60 minutes of football. The victim was Kentucky. This was to be Watson Brown's day. He threw three touchdown passes in the first half as Vandy went to the locker room up 35-0. Brown then returned a punt for a fourth touchdown to put the Black and Gold up 42-0. Coach Pace emptied the bench and played the entire roster, as Vandy won 42-6. The Commodores' defense forced six Wildcat turnovers, four by interception. Brown was awarded the SEC Back of the Week Award.
At 3-5, Vandy now faced Davidson; the Wildcats came into their season finale 7-2. Coached by offensive genius Homer Smith, Davidson had given fans of the Western North Carolina school its most successful team, and the Wildcats were headed to the Tangerine Bowl to face undefeated Toledo at season's end. Vandy had beaten a much weaker Davidson team in 1968, 53-20, but these Wildcats came to Nashville as only an 8-point underdog. Davidson was averaging better than 36 points per game, and quarterback Gordon Slade had led them to the Southern Conference (Division I in those days) championship. Slade had two tall ends who had combined for over 1,500 yards in receptions after just nine games.
The offensive fireworks were ignited early from the Black and Gold side of the field. The Commodores won the toss and took the ball. On the fifth play of the opening drive, Brown kept the ball on the option and burst over 40 yards for a score. The PAT was wide. Davidson quickly punted back to Vandy, and once again the Commodores drove to paydirt. This time, it was a long, time-consuming drive almost entirely on the ground. Mathews and John Valput took turns sweeping the ends for first downs, with Valput scoring from 15 yards out. A try for two failed, and Vandy led 12-0. Once again, Davidson could do nothing with the ball and punted. Brown returned the punt just across midfield. Vandy kept the ball on the ground, and Davidson could not stop the Commodores. Running off-tackle, with huge holes being opened by star lineman Bob Asher, Vandy moved into scoring position as the opening quarter ended.
Two plays into the second quarter, Vandy scored touchdown No. 3 on a short play-action pass from Brown to Strong. The 2-point conversion failed again, and Vandy led 18-0. Davidson mounted a small drive and picked up its initial first down of the game, but the Commodore defensive front four, led by star end Pat Toomay, stopped the drive. Vandy took over inside its own 20-yard line and promptly drove 80+ yards for its fourth touchdown in four possessions. Pace opened the offense up and let Brown start throwing. He completed long passes to Mathews and Weiss. It was the halfback option pass that finished the drive, as Mathews threw to Strong for the score. This time, the two-point conversion worked, and Vandy led 26-0.
Vandy got the ball back one more time in the second quarter. Brown guided the Commodores in the two-minute drill, and connected with Weiss and Chesley on long tosses that brought the Commodores to the Davidson 20. Kicker Ernie Perez booted the field goal as the horn sounded. At the half, Vandy led 29-0.
The scoring binge continued on Vandy's first possession of the second half. Brown continued to mix the option with crisp passes, and the Commodores marched quickly for yet another touchdown. Brown did the honors on the keeper, and a successful 2-point conversion made the score 37-0.
After Davidson once again went three-and-out, Pace sent Brown back in for one final possession. He finished the day with a perfect mark of scores per possession, as he guided the Commodores on yet another long touchdown drive. Staying with the option, Brown ran for double-digit gains on consecutive plays. The drive culminated with a Brown keeper from just beyond the 10-yard line. The PAT was off the mark, and Vandy led 43-0.
With the first-team defense on the bench, Davidson finally mounted a quick drive for a score. Slade threw a touchdown pass, and the Wildcats converted a 2-pointer to make the score 49-8 after three quarters.
Vandy's scoring string finally came to a close in the fourth quarter, as the Commodores were forced to punt twice. Davidson had started to click for first downs in the second half, but Vandy's secondary caught five of Slade's passes. Midway through the final period, Painter started moving the offense again. Former quarterback Miller, now playing at wingback, broke a long-gainer on a reverse to put the Commodores in scoring range. Painter hit Weiss for the score. Finally, the Commodores converted a PAT and led 56-8.
Davidson turned the ball over deep in Vandy territory, and that left Painter with time for one more possession. Starting inside its 20-yard line, Vandy drove 80+ yards for a final score with a minute and a half left in the game. Painter connected on a pass to backup end John Ingram and then spotted Miller deep across the middle. A couple of runs brought the ball to the Wildcat 10, where Painter hit another reserve, Bill Young, for the final score. The PAT was good, making the final score 63-8.
Now for the statistics*. Vandy amassed 798 total yards! Prior to this season, no team had ever produced 775 yards in a Division I game. Don Coryell's San Diego State Aztecs had become the first team to top 750 earlier in the year against New Mexico State, and Vandy broke the record a month later. Vandy also became the first Division I team to pick up 40 first downs. The Commodores were one play short of becoming the first college team to run 100 plays from scrimmage but settled for another record with 99.
For the day, Vandy ran for 430 yards on 59 carries (7.3 avg.). They threw for another 368 on 27-of-40 passing. Davidson's Slade passed 50 times, completing 22 for 204 yards, but five of his passes were intercepted by Vandy.
Mathews ran for 138 yards and Brown ran for 118. Brown completed 13-of-19 throws for 177 yards and a score, giving him 295 total yards. Painter was equally accurate, hitting 14-of-21 for 184 yards and two scores. Mal Wall intercepted two passes, while Gary Chesley, Neal Smith, and Sam Kiser each had one. Brown was once again SEC Back of the Week, and this time he also earned accolades from Sports Illustrated. The dreaded SI jinx was about to hit.
Vanderbilt finished up in Knoxville vs. 8-1 Tennessee. The newly-awakened spirit had many thinking the Commodores were due for the upset. Tennessee had bolted out to a 7-0 start and was poised to challenge Texas in a Cotton Bowl rematch. (Tennessee's lone loss had come to Ole Miss 38-0, after Steve Kiner had publicly referred to the Ole Miss team as "mules".)
Vanderbilt's chance to upset the Vols disappeared in the second quarter. Trailing 14-7 and driving for a possible tying score, Watson Brown was hit hard in the head by two UT defenders and would leave the game with a concussion. While he was out, Tennessee quickly upped the lead to 26-7. Brown came back and played in a daze. He brought the Commodores back to make the final score (40-27) look closer than it was. Tennessee.
Vanderbilt finished 1969 4-6, and it appeared as though 1970 would be a big hit. The schedule was much easier with seven easily winnable games. It was not to be. Watson Brown was rarely healthy for the rest of his career. Before Brown sustained several injuries, Pace had called him the finest offensive threat he had ever coached. While he was offensive coach at Kansas, Pace had quarterback John Hadl and halfback Gayle Sayers in his backfield. Some claimed Brown could run the option better than Texas quarterback James Street.
*Statistics for this game came from an old press clipping from the Nashville Banner.
Notes: End John Ingram was later my junior high football and track coach.
Dudley Field was well below capacity for the Davidson game with about 15,000 fans showing up, almost half being freebies. Most sports fans stayed home to watch Ohio State play Michigan in the game of the year (at least until Texas played Arkansas two weeks later.).