Larry Schmittou had just seen his Commodore baseball squad win its second consecutive SEC title and advance to another NCAA tournament. The two-year winning percentage was close to .667. The team was loaded with star talent including pitchers Rick Rhodes and Mike Coyne, catcher Steve Tinsley, an excellent keystone combination in Gene Menees and Ted Shipley, and outfielder/ first baseman Rick Duncan. Shipley would be the Minnesota Twins' first draft pick in 1974; Duncan would be a second-round pick of the Twins, and Menees would become a 14th-round pick of the San Diego Padres a year later. Menees and Duncan would team up once again in 1979 to lead the Nashville Sounds to their first Southern League title (not including the multiple titles won by the Nashville Vols in the old Southern Association).
1974 was the year the Vanderbilt football program joined its successful brethren and became a winning team. With 19 of its top 22 players returning, second-year coach Steve Sloan had instilled a winning attitude. A fluke botched punt was the only thing that kept Vanderbilt from beating Tennessee in 1973 and finishing 6-5. The 1974 team was confident it could win at least seven times; it would prove to be clairvoyant.
Sloan was confident his starting 22 players could play with anybody in the SEC. There were only three or four reserves on each side of the ball he could count on to step in and not lose a beat. On offense, the front line was strong and quick. Center Bill Holby anchored a blocking corps that featured David Alsup and Gene Moshier at guards and Tom Ballman and Howard Buck at the tackle spots. Barry Burton was a star tight end and punter. Jesse Mathers, Walter Overton, and Doug Martin rotated at the wide outs. The running backs in this split-back (Houston) veer offense were Jamie O'Rourke and Lonnie Sadler, with Adolph Groves spelling them. Fred Fisher and David Lee split the quarterbacking duties, with Fisher starting the early games and Lee starting from mid-October on after Fisher was slowed by injury.
Defensively, coordinator Bill Parcells used the Oklahoma 54 (5-2) alignment. The one spot where the black and gold were deep was in the defensive trenches. Tom Galbierz was the anchor at nose guard. The tackles were Jim Schellenberg and Mickey Jacobs, and the ends were Joe Reynolds and Tate Rich. Mark Llewellyn, Freshman Dennis Harrison, Bob Latimer, and former quarterback Steve Lainhart were key DL reserves. The two-man linebacking crew consisted of Damon Regen and Mark Adams, who also served as the kicker. The magnificent backfield, without a doubt Vandy's best in modern times, included Steve Curnutte, Ed Oaks, Jay Chesley, and Scott Wingfield.
The season began with the annual kickoff against neighbor UT-Chattanooga. Joe Morrison was in the middle of bringing the Moccasin program back to respectability. After for the 1970 game, UTC had played The Commodores close for three consecutive years; this year would be different. Coach Sloan kept the ball on the ground the entire day, as the Commodores rolled up close to 350 yards rushing and just 50 yards passing to win 28-6. The defense was successful on three goal-line stands and had numerous quarterback sacks. Vandy's only weakness was five offensive turnovers.
In game two, Vandy thoroughly demolished VMI 45-7. The Commodores ran about 35 more plays than the Keydets and rolled up close to 600 total yards. Fisher and Lee combined for close to 300 of those yards and each scored a touchdown. They connected on 14-of-16 passes. Reserve back Groves scored three times.
Next came a visit to Tuscaloosa. Except for a 24-23 loss in the Sugar Bowl to Notre Dame, Alabama had won 13 consecutive regular-season games. Bear Bryant's wishbone offense was a little down, but his defense was even better than 1973's squad. Oddsmakers weren't impressed with Vandy's 2-0 start and made Bama a four-touchdown-plus favorite.
Any idea the Tide might have had that this was going to be an easy day quickly gave way to the fact that Vandy was ready to compete. The teams went head to head in the first half with neither offense able to make much headway. Alabama booted a long field goal on the last play of the half to take a 10-3 lead.
Vandy had a golden opportunity to tie the score early in the third quarter when wide receiver Jesse Mathers beat his defender deep inside the Tide's 20-yard line. Fisher threw the bomb right into the end's hands. Mathers had it in his grasp for two steps and watched it fall out of his hands to the ground. It would have been a touchdown, for Mathers was a speedster who could not be tackled from behind. Alabama went on to win 23-10, but the stats showed the game was even closer. The Commodore defense actually outplayed Alabama's in the second half.
Vanderbilt had a week off prior to a game against undefeated and No. 5 Florida. Luckily for Coach Parcells and the Commodore defense, Florida ran a wishbone identical to Alabama's; Vandy would in essence have three weeks to practice against it. Florida had a two-quarterback system, with Don Gaffney being the better runner and Jimmy Fisher being the better passer. Halfback Tony Green was a speedster who could turn a quick pitch into a game-breaker. Wide Receiver Lee McGriff was a deep threat on any pass play. When the Gators stalled inside the opponents' 30-yard line, kicker David Posey's foot was near perfect.
Florida's 4-0 start was even more impressive when you examined the teams they had beaten. The Gators had edged California (which would miss out on a Rose Bowl trip when it lost 22-20 to Stanford in their finale), Maryland (which would win the ACC), Mississippi State (which would go 9-3 and win the Sun Bowl), and LSU.
Vanderbilt had an excellent week of practice leading up to this game. There were several Floridians wearing black and gold, most of whom were not offered scholarships by Gator coach Doug Dickey. Among them was quarterback David Lee, who grew up dreaming of playing for the orange and blue; Jamie O'Rourke, Scott Wingfield, and Mark Adams.
A large contingent of Gator followers made the trip north expecting a double-digit victory, but the oddsmakers, not wanting to underestimate the Commodores a second straight time, made Florida only a touchdown favorite. A pleasant October fall day greeted a crowd of 25,000 fans.
In the first half, Vanderbilt's offense did everything it could to let Florida win the game. The Commodores committed six (yes, six) turnovers! Fisher threw two quick first-quarter interceptions before leaving for the remainder of the game with a shoulder injury. The Commodores also lost four fumbles. The first three possessions all ended in turnovers.
While some fans in the stands were saying they'd seen this before (no, I didn't hear the term "Same old Vanderbilt" back in those days) and knew how it would come out, Coach Parcells had his stop troops ready for war. Florida only scored one time in the entire first half, and that was when Vandy fumbled at its own 8-yard line. The Gators' wishbone offense looked slow compared to the one Alabama showed the Commodores. Time and time again, a Commodore individual made a great play to stop Florida short of a first down. Defensive back Chesley made multiple tackles for loss, as Parcells placed him near the line in a 6-2 look several times. Galbierz stopped everything Florida ran between its guards. When the Gators went wide, Reynolds, Rich, Brogdon and Adams won the pursuit battle.
Meanwhile, Vanderbilt was running successfully inside the tackles. O'Rourke and Sadler picked up big yardage on the inside dive and first leg of the inside veer. Lee came in for the injured Fisher and hit Martin on a play-action pass and Burton on a crossing pattern. On Burton's catch, he had to bat it up in the air over a Gator defender and pull it down; it wouldn't be the last time that day. Vandy scored when O'Rourke leaped over the line from the one, but Adams missed the point after. At the break, Florida led 7-6.
The Gators mounted their only sustained drive of the day after the Vandy score. They made it inside the Vandy 20, before the Commodores held firm. Posey booted a field goal to cut the lead to 14-10. Vandy mounted two more short drives but could not score. Burton punted out of bounds inside the Gator 10 as the third period came to a close. With 15:00 left, it was 14-10, anybody's game.
Florida could do nothing in three plays and punted back to Vandy. The punt was downed at the Gator 47. The Commodores' inside rushing attack looked more like Ohio State on this short touchdown drive. Sadler and O'Rourke took turns running inside dives for five and six yard gains. Finally Lee faked the dive and hit Burton in the end zone to put Vandy up 21-10. Florida had to abandon its usual grind-it-out rushing and resort to the pass, but neither UF quarterback could hit any receiver deep. Most of their completed passes went for less than 10 yards. On a crucial third-and-five, Fisher aimed for McGriff, but Oaks was there to break it up. Florida punted, and Vandy began another long drive. The Gators had begun to overpursue to stop the option, and Vandy resorted to the counter dive and counter option. It paid huge dividends, and when Sadler burst up the middle for 20+ yards, Vandy was knocking on the door yet again. An errant pitch on the option lost yards, and Vandy could only make it back to the four. Adams booted a short field goal to give Vandy a 24-10 lead with time now a factor.
Florida was unable to pick up a first down on its final possession. Coach Dickey went for it on fourth down deep in Gator territory, but a heavy pass rush forced a wide pass. Vandy took over with a chance to score another time, but Sloan called off the dogs. Lee ran out the clock, and the Commodores won by two touchdowns over the fifth-ranked Gators.
The win moved Vandy to 3-1 for the first time since 1956. The UPI poll placed VU No. 14, tied with Nebraska, while the AP Poll had Vandy among "teams receiving votes." Lee, who had completed 8-of-11 passes for 128 yards, was chosen as SEC Back of the Week. O'Rourke carried 22 times for 104 yards. Burton caught 5 passes for 93, ran 3 times for 43, and punted for a 41-yard average. Vandy amassed 434 yards, 263 yards rushing, against the SEC's No. 2 defense.
Vanderbilt's defense was brought back to reality the following week in Athens, Ga. Georgia took a 31-7 lead midway through the third quarter. Vandy fought back and scored three touchdowns and a field goal in little more than a quarter to tie the game at 31 apiece, but the Bulldogs mounted a victorious touchdown drive to win 38-31.
Ole Miss ventured to town to meet 3-2 Vandy. In a must-win situation, the Commodores prevailed 24-14. Vanderbilt then traveled to West Point to take on the Army. The Cadets were no match for the Commodore offense or defense, as Vandy breezed to a 38-14 win that could have been much worse. At 5-2, Athletic Director Clay Stapleton received a phone call from Atlanta. The Peach Bowl asked Stapleton if Vandy would like to accept a bid to their game. The bid was accepted, even though the Commodores could still lose four games in a row to finish 5-6.
The awful thought took root on the road the next week, as Vandy was drilled on regional TV by Kentucky, 38-12. The Wildcats were rolling and would slaughter Sugar Bowl-bound Florida the following week.
5-3 Vanderbilt then entertained Tulane. After a nine-win season in 1973, The Green Wave had started the season 5-0, but had since lost three straight. After a controversial decision that led to Tulane coach Bennie Ellender mouthing off in the press, Vandy won 30-22 to insure a winning season. The Commodores bussed up the road to Louisville. Playing its best game of the season on a cold November night, The Commodores annihilated U of L 44-0 to move to 7-3.
That brought Tennessee to Dudley Field. After a 2-3-1 start, the Volunteers had won four in a row and were Liberty Bowl bound at 6-3-1. Vanderbilt was in control of the game for most of the afternoon and led 21-13 with mere moments left in the game. Facing a fourth down deep in its own territory, Vanderbilt needed to punt the ball away and then hold Tennessee for three or four plays to clinch the game. But for the second year in a row, a botched punt snap gave the Vols the ball inside the Vandy 10-yard line. Tennessee scored and then converted the 2-point attempt. The game ended at 21-21.
Vanderbilt played Texas Tech in the Peach Bowl. The Red Raiders had pulled off a major upset early in the year by demolishing Texas on national TV, but they had waned late to finish at 6-4-1. On a dreary day at Fulton County Stadium, neither Vandy nor Texas Tech could reach the end zone. Texas Tech had the better total yardage and had the chance to win the game. However, one Vandy defender saw to it that two Red Raider field goal tries never got off the ground. Freshman giant Dennis Harrison blocked two kicks, including what could have been the game-winner, as the teams played to a 6-6 tie. At 7-3-2, Vanderbilt concluded its best season since the last bowl year of 1955.
What followed next was not so wonderful. After the Peach Bowl, Texas Tech coach Jim Carlen resigned to take the head-coaching job at South Carolina. The Red Raiders liked the coach they faced in the bowl game and asked Steve Sloan if he wanted the job. Sloan at first declined the offer, but a few days later, he changed his mind and accepted it. Much has been written on why he did, but the entire story remains unknown. The young head coach left with a two-year record of 12-9-2.
Since 1974, seven coaches have walked the sidelines at Vanderbilt. None of them left the school with an overall winning record. Only the 1975 and 1982 teams won more than they lost. The 1975 team may have been the weakest 7-4 team in the history of major college football, as they were outscored 200-119 for the season.
Vandy did turn the corner for a brief period in the mid-1970's and looked as though it was headed for a return to the good times. But they made a few wrong turns along the way, and since Sloan left on New Year's Day, 1975, Vandy's record is 91-238-1, an average of 3-8 per season.
* Statistics for the Florida game came from the box score in the Sunday, Oct. 13, 1974 edition of the Nashville Tennessean.
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