JANUARY-- As the year 2001 dawned, Greg LaPointe's back was flaring up again; Candice Storey was out for the season with an ACL tear, and Memorial Gymnasium was being renovated again. But there was some good news too (aside from the fact that the Clinton presidency was finally coming to an end). Despite LaPointe's travails the men's team, in Kevin Stallings' second season as coach, was showing some signs of resiliency. Freshman Brendan Plavich nailed two 3-pointers in the last minute to give the Commodores an improbable upset win over nationally-ranked Florida in Gainesville. The men finished the month with a record of 14-6 and figured to have a pretty good shot at the NCAA's. When Ashley McElhiney suffered a stress fracture, it sent Jim Foster's women's team, which had started to draw some national attention, into a 5-game tailspin. Still, the ladies finished the month at 15-5 and appeared to be a lock for the field of 64 as well.
FEBRUARY-- In NASCAR news, the Grim Reaper claimed the Man in Black. In Nashville, February was a good month for everyone except the men's basketball team (ugh...I'll save them for later). Woody Widenhofer signed 26 prep football players to scholarships (but only 3 would play as true freshmen). In women's basketball, Chantelle Anderson set a school record with a 41-point performance against Mississippi State. McElhiney returned and sparked the team to a 4-1 regular-season finish, with the lone loss a close one at home to the Lady Vols. When Foster's gals knocked off Georgia at home to close the regular season, it was obvious the team was heading into March on a pretty good roll. The baseball team got off to a hot start, and the women's tennis team moved into the national Top 10. Oh yeah, as for men's basketball... the Commodores' 81-67 win over Belmont was the only win of the month. With injuries mounting, Stallings' team went 0-7 in conference play in February, and dropped out of contention for postseason play. Stallings ranted, agonized, and sweated bullets on the sidelines, but was unable to coax anything more from a team that was dominated by freshmen.
MARCH-- In the Pyramid in Memphis, Foster's Commodores pulled off an unforgettable SEC tournament upset over the No. 1 Lady Vols (snapping a long streak of losses to the team coached by the lady who wears too much mascara). The Commodores then reeled off three NCAA tournament wins to reach the Elite Eight-- but in Denver, Notre Dame senior Ruth Riley outbattled Vandy's Anderson in a classic duel of two of the game's dominant centers, and the team finished 24-10. With everyone returning for next year, plus a banner recruiting crop coming in, the bar for the women had undeniably been raised. Anderson, who just missed an NCAA record for field goal percentage, was named AP All-American. As for the men... Commodore fans had eagerly anticipated hosting the SEC men's basketball tournament at Gaylord Entertainment Center, but the Dores entered the tournament with no momentum, having lost 8 straight SEC games. Vandy was paired against Alabama, a team the Dores had already beaten once. But Matt Freije got a painful elbow in the face, and Alabama gave the Dores a painful 78-59 spanking, making for a one-and-done. The February Fade led to a cruelly disappointing 15-15 finish, and not even the NIT wanted Stallings' team. Freije did, however, make Freshman All-SEC. March also brought one of the saddest days of the whole year for Vanderbilt fans-- the day Jerry Green was fired by Tennessee (sniff-- I loved that man!).
APRIL-- In the football spring game, the stars were Benji Walker and Norval McKenzie (neither of whom saw the field much when the real season came around-- which shows you how meaningful spring games are). The most-talked-about event of the month was an event that never actually happened. Brentwood Academy's 7-foot basketball star David Harrison, son of assistant football coach Dennis Harrison, delayed his college decision until the last minute and kept the coaches (and a multitude of fans) breathless in anticipation. Ultimately he chose to join his brother at Colorado (Colorado? Do they even play basketball?) over Vanderbilt and North Carolina. Stallings did sign 6-8 power forward Brian Thornton from Louisville, and continued searching for a center. In other stories... the NCAA granted Candice Storey a sixth year of eligibility... Stallings signed a contract extension... Martha Freitag's women's golf team cracked the Top 20... and four Commodore football players were taken in the NFL draft.
MAY-- Ah, graduation is always the culmination of a Vanderbilt student-athlete's career, and several Commodore favorites walked through the line, including Greg Zolman, Greg LaPointe, and Julie Ditty. But in sports news the month was dominated by Geoff MacDonald's women's tennis team, which finished the regular season 24-4 and blasted into the NCAA team championships in Stone Mountain, Georgia. The ladies did something no other athletic team in school history had done-- they made it to a national final. They didn't win it, but finishing as national runners-up to top-ranked Stanford brought the program an unprecedented amount of respect and recognition. Freshman Kelly Schmandt's match point smash in the semifinal match against Georgia has to rank as one of the sweetest moments in all of Vanderbilt's long sports history.
JUNE-- Word finally filtered back to the mainland that Stallings' assistant coach Tim Jankovich had been recruiting in Eastern Europe, and had inked a 6-11 Polish center prospect, David Przybyszewski, with the scholarship that would have gone to that other guy. Meanwhile, a national study revealed that mosquitoes prefer Tennessee fans to fans of any other SEC school. (I wonder how in the world they were able to determine that... I mean, their brains are so tiny! But enough about Tennessee fans...)
JULY-- The Commodores finally won a national championship! In graduation rates, that is. The AFCA honored Vanderbilt and Notre Dame for their 100% graduation rates in football. Later in the month sportswriters convened in Birmingham for the SEC's annual Media Days event. The media listened to addresses from every SEC football coach, and promptly concluded that Florida would easily win the SEC (which turned out to be dead wrong), and that Vandy was destined for sixth in the East (which was dead right). About Vandy, the story line was that Woody Widenhofer's seat was getting hot-- that Gordon Gee and Todd Turner were holding his feet to the fire. Widenhofer, who had boldly predicted a winning season a year earlier, made no such predictions this year, but did say, "It's time for us to win. It's time to see how well we've recruited. This is my favorite team since I've been at Vanderbilt. This team has confidence and talent, and we just have to go out now and win close games."
AUGUST-- Students returned to campus, and the baseball team got some great news. Jeremy Sowers, a pitcher from Louisville drafted high by Cincinnati, turned down a hefty signing bonus and reported to campus to get a Vanderbilt education instead. The freshman phenom has the potential to be a bona fide difference-maker, and with a nationally ranked recruiting class coming in, baseball's future hasn't been this bright in years. As football practices got underway under the August sun, the buzz was that Widenhofer was getting more involved with his defense... but since practices were closed, no one really knew. The news that did come out of fall camp was all bad... Jonathan Shaub was lost to injury, Brandon Walthour was lost to academics... and finally the dagger, starting running back Ray Perkins was dismissed from school. Still, a lively crowd showed up on a Thursday night to see Vandy renew its rivalry with MTSU... and the unthinkable happened. MTSU's offense rolled up over 600 yards on Widenhofer's defense... and the Blue Raiders embarrassed Vandy, 37-28. It wasn't even September yet, and the football season looked to be a lost cause.
SEPTEMBER-- History will view September, 2001 as the month that shook the world. Vanderbilt's football woes looked very insignificant when measured next to the tragedies wrought by Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda. The football record stood at 0-2 on the fateful day of Sept. 11, and later that week Roy Kramer reluctantly postponed all the games that had been scheduled for Sept. 15, including Vanderbilt's game at Ole Miss. Security was beefed up the following week for Vanderbilt's game against Richmond, which was more memorable for the patriotic touches and fans' defiant pride than for the fact that Vandy finally got a much-needed win. (After which Widenhofer uttered the immortal words: "Man, it's tough to win a football game.") The Commodores still had a chance to right the ship when Auburn arrived in Nashville on Sept. 29. Lew Thomas ran wild, and the Commodores played an inspired game against Tuberville's Tigers, who at the time were leading the SEC West. Ultimately, however, the game came down to a botched fake field goal attempt. As the month came to a close, the handwriting was on the wall for Widenhofer, and Commodore fans wondered how soon basketball season could get here.
OCTOBER-- Basketball practice began Oct. 13 for both the men and the women. Stallings started out with a full deck of 13 scholarship players for the first time ever-- but you kind of had a premonition that that wouldn't last. It wasn't a week before Billy Richmond had been dismissed from the team for reasons still unspecified. The women's team received a preseason No. 3 national ranking. Meanwhile the football team lost games to Georgia and South Carolina. The Commodores did win a road game against Duke (before a crowd that included Gordon Gee and a planeload of 76 lucky VU students), but lost Lew Thomas for the season to an injury. The team finished the month with a 2-5 record.
NOVEMBER-- In an ironic twist, Art Guepe passed away this month. Guepe was the former Vandy football coach who first said, "You can't expect to be Harvard Monday through Friday, and Alabama on Saturday." Forty years later, never had those words seemed more self-evident. After losing a game to Florida by the ungodly score of 71-13, a beleaguered Widenhofer raised the white flag and resigned. Things had gotten bad before, but not since 1945 had a Vandy team given up 71 points. Todd Turner went to work looking for Widenhofer's successor, aided this time around by the clout of Gee and a promise that Vandy would pay market price for a top coach. Meanwhile Vandy men's and women's basketball teams traveled to Connecticut to play UConn on successive nights, and both quickly came to the realization that neither was ready for prime time just yet. In recruiting, Stallings signed another top-flight class that included local standouts Mario Moore and Julian Terrell. Roy Mewbourne's baseball signing class was another strong one, and Martha Freitag inked the nation's most highly regarded women's golf prospect. Todd Turner announced $83.4 million worth of capital improvement projects, including a football indoor practice facility, a soccer/lacrosse stadium, a 10-court outdoor tennis facility, and an outdoor track.
DECEMBER-- The record will show that the Widenhofer era ended in Oxford, Mississippi, with a whimper. After Vandy lost a Dec. 1 game to the Rebels that it had led 20-3 at one point, the football team ended 2-9. Widenhofer's final record at Vandy was 15-40, 4-36 in the conference. Fifth-year quarterback Greg Zolman broke or tied every major school passing record, and Dan Stricker had another banner year with over 1,000 yards receiving. Men's basketball won a big game early in the month over a ranked Western Kentucky team and finished December with a 10-3 record; the women slipped up at Texas Tech and ended the year 11-2. But the big question on everyone's mind in December was, who would become Vandy's new football coach? For about three weeks, the VandyMania message boards went nuts. Every day seemed to bring a new rumor: Tyrone Willingham? Gary Barnett? Charlie Strong? Buddy Teevens? (Don Meyer? Willis Wilson?) In the end, two days before Christmas, Santa delivered a new coach in the person of Furman coach Bobby Johnson, who accepted the job two days after playing in the Division I-AA national championship game. Johnson, a strict disciplinarian with head coaching experience at an institution similar to Vanderbilt, was deemed by Turner the perfect head coach for Vanderbilt. (Rest assured that Johnson actually played some college football and earned a degree... unlike George O'Leary.) At the ceremony Dr. Gee announced to the world that Vanderbilt was "drawing a line in the sand," and that the revolving door for coaches was going to stop revolving (or something like that). Sounds as though Vanderbilt fans had better learn to love the Steve Martin look-alike.
2002-- Charles Hawkins Field, Vanderbilt's stunning new baseball venue, opens officially... the men's and women's hoops squads get another shot at March Madness... women's tennis makes another run toward a national championship... Bobby Johnson's team opens up Aug. 31 in Atlanta against Chan Gailey's Georgia Tech squad... I can hardly wait!