OK, have you guessed the year? No, it's not 2004... I'm talking about 1955, when the Brooklyn Dodgers finally brought home the brass ring.
1955 was to be a special year for Vanderbilt football fans, much as it was for followers of "dem bums." "Next year" would finally arrive. After teasing the Commodore faithful in 1937, 1941, 1948 and 1950, the black and gold finally played a game after Christmas Day.
Let's start at the beginning
Coach Art Guepe left Virginia to assume head duties at Vandy in 1953. From the start, Guepe made sweeping changes. Gone was the pro-style wing-T offense that ex-coach Bill Edwards used. In was the split-T, a prehistoric cousin to the wishbone. Guepe's first season saw Vandy play six very good teams and go 3-7. Season number two started against national power Baylor in a home night game. Refusing to punt on fourth down, even deep within their own territory, the Commodores almost pulled off the shocker of the year, falling just short by giving up a late touchdown. Vandy would proceed to lose its first seven games before closing with two wins, the finale being a shocking 26-0 whitewash over Tennessee.
The 1955 squad was expected to be better, but no pundit was calling for Vanderbilt to post a winning record. The best any "expert" expected was 5-5. As often seems to be the case even in modern times, depth was a big concern. The first 11 were as good as any starting 11 in the SEC, but Guepe could only really rely on four reserves to play in the SEC battles. Quarterback Don Orr was a magician with his faking ability and was a threat to break free on any keeper. Halfback Charley Horton and fullback Phil King (a reserve at the start of the season) were as good as any ball-carrying duo Vanderbilt ever had. Both could break a long gainer, and both could get the extra yard or two on the power runs.
An excellent blocking contingent opened holes for the backs. At the ends were two excellent blocker/receiver combos in Tommy Harkins and Joe Stephenson. Tommy Woodruff and Art Demmas held fort at the terminal positions; Larry Frank and Larry Hayes teamed together to make an excellent pair of guards. Jim Cunningham was the center.
The philosophy of the Split-T offense of the 1950's was to widen the splits in the line to isolate defenders and allow a blocker to control his area, creating huge holes for the backs to run through. If the defense refused to widen with the offensive lines and played in the gaps, this created excellent blocking angles, where the regular (double) option could be used with great success. No linemen pulled; they all charged straight ahead. The quarterback made all handoffs at the line of scrimmage, making fakes more explosive. Bud Wilkinson at Oklahoma and Jim Tatum at Maryland had already won national titles using this offense.
Vandy kicked off the 1955 campaign with a road game against Georgia, a team coming off a 6-3-1 record for Wally Butts in 1954. The underdog Commodores battled gamely with the Bulldogs in oppressive summer heat and humidity. Vanderbilt scored two touchdowns two take a 13-0 lead through three periods, but the team wore down in the final stanza and surrendered two touchdowns to the Bulldogs. Trailing 14-13 late, the Commodores drove into Bulldog territory, but a long field goal attempt was short on the game's final play.
Week two saw Vandy trounce a pathetic Alabama team, 21-6. The Tide would go 0-10 for the season. Vandy only outgained Bama by about 50 yards, but defensively, Vandy forced four 'Bama fumbles to give them excellent field position. Horton had the best run of the day, scoring from 44 yards out on a dive play over a big block by Demmas.
Vanderbilt next faced Ole Miss in a night game at Crump Stadium in Memphis. Johnny Vaught was turning the Rebels into a national power, and this unit was on its way to a 10-1 season. Vaught's teams were lightning fast and one wrong defensive move usually cost an opponent. Vanderbilt played the powerful Rebs close, even out-gaining them by a few yards. But Ole Miss piled up a huge chunk of its yardage in the opening drive, which went for a touchdown in 13 plays. Vaught's team won 13-0, scoring its other touchdown in the second quarter.
The next three games were against pushovers, and the Commodores came through with three wins. In Chattanooga, Vandy defeated UT-Chattanooga, 12-0. The Commodores held the Moccasins to less than 100 total yards, to make up for a turnover-riddled offense. Vanderbilt produced over 300 yards of total offense, but fumbled the ball away four times.
The Commodores moved on the plus side of the ledger at 3-2 with a 46-0 blowout over MTSU (Called MTSC in those days). Phil King carried the ball four times that day. He produced 138 yards, including a 77-yard scamper on the off-tackle give play. Later on the same play, he scored from 49 yards out. Vandy chalked up close to 400 yards rushing, while the defense extended is string of scoreless quarters to 10.
Victory No. 4 came the next week with a 34-7 stomping of Guepe's former team, Virginia. Quarterback Orr tossed a 43-yard pass to halfback Horton for one score, and Horton added a 74-yard touchdown run on an option pitch. The most exciting play of the day was a 94-yard kick return by Jack Hudson after the Cavs cut the lead to 20-7 in the third quarter.
At 4-2, Vanderbilt entertained Kentucky at Dudley Field. In the '50's, Kentucky was a perennial winner. Bear Bryant had turned the program around and left a full cupboard for Blanton Collier. Collier, who one day would guide the Cleveland Browns to an NFL championship, had a crackerjack outfit in Lexington. Kentucky had pegged the lone loss on Ole Miss and tied pre-season conference favorite Auburn, and came to Nashville 4-2-1. The winner of this game would put itself into contention for a big bowl game.
Kentucky's best weapon was the forward pass. Quarterback Bob Hardy and end Howard Schnellenberger were one of the top passer-receiver combos in the league. Vandy's trio of backs, Horton, King, and Don Hunt, had combined for more than 1,050 yards in six games at a rate of almost 7.5 yards per rush. Oddsmakers installed Kentucky as a 7-point favorite, based on the fact the Cats had played a much tougher schedule. A beautiful November afternoon with temperatures in the 60's greeted the Homecoming crowd.
The tone for the game was set early when Kentucky quarterback Hardy threw two early interceptions, after which he was injured making a tackle on defense. It was Vandy's quarterback, Don Orr, who picked off the first Hardy pass. Covering Schnellenberger tight, Orr leapt and grabbed the ball away from the all-conference end. King intercepted Hardy's second pass, and then pitched the ball on the return to teammate Joe Scales, who ran inside the UK 25-yard line.
After the interception return, Vandy kept the ball on the ground. Horton ran inside tackle, and King ran outside tackle for a first down. Orr kept on the option, and Hunt carried up the middle on a fullback counter for a first down inside the five. It took four plunge plays to break the plane, but Horton slanted off tackle for the score. Vandy led 7-0 after one quarter.
With Hardy out, Kentucky could not move via ground or air. The Wildcats punted back to Vandy, and return man Jack Hudson hauled it to the Vanderbilt 40. Again Vanderbilt marched to paydirt, running on every play, with Orr spreading the ball-carrying load to all four backs. Horton broke free for a 19-yard run to give the Commodores a first down near the Kentucky 30. The fleet halfback scored his second touchdown moments later on a dive play from the UK 11, making the score 14-0. The seven-man blocking team had done its job isolating the Wildcats defenders and opening up quick holes for the backs to run through.
Kentucky marched inside the Vandy 25 for its only serious scoring threat of the first half, but Cunningham picked off Kentucky's third pass of the day and returned the pass 15 yards. The Commodores would drive to the UK 5, but Kentucky held firm and Vandy turned the ball over on downs. The first half ended with Vandy up 14-0.
In the third quarter, the Commodores picked up where they had left off. Vandy marched 60 yards on 10 plays with Hudson scoring from 19 yards out; the point after made it 21-0. Orr completed two passes on the drive.
Vanderbilt iced the game when Horton fielded a Kentucky punt at the Vandy 38 and eluded two Wildcat tacklers; he then veered to the sideline and picked up a wall of blockers. 62 yards later, Vandy led 28-0. Hardy re-entered the game at that point, but there was nothing he could do to move the Wildcat offense.
Midway through the fourth quarter the Wildcats gambled on fourth down near midfield, and Vandy stopped them cold. Taking over with a short field ahead, the Commodores put a dagger through Kentucky's heart. Guepe sent in the second team with backup quarterback Billy Holmes to run the attack. Holmes hit reserve end Earl Jalufka on a 21-yard pass to put Vandy in scoring range once again. Halfback Pete Tkac then went off guard for 10 yards to the Kentucky one and dove across for the score on the next play. The extra point was missed, and Vandy led 34-0.
UK returned the ensuing kick into Commodore territory, but a short drive was stopped when reserve end Bob Taylor (one of the previously mentioned four able reserves) sacked the Wildcat quarterback for a big loss. Kentucky turned the ball over on downs, and Vandy ran out the clock for the 34-0 win.
The Commodore defense held Kentucky below 75 yards rushing and 75 yards passing. The "Hardy to Schnellenberger Express" was derailed by an excellent defensive effort. Vanderbilt rushed for 250 yards, while the backs combined for another 68 yards passing. Horton rushed for 81 yards on 17 attempts for a 4.8 average.
Gator Bowl Bound
At 5-2, this Vanderbilt squad was being compared to the great 1948 squad. Coach Guepe was worried about a letdown the following week against a good Tulane team; he need not have worried. The defense once again played brilliantly, holding the Green Wave to 132 yards and one score. King and Horton combined for 148 yards on 27 carries, as the Commodores won 20-7 to guarantee a winning season. Talk of a New Year's Day bowl invitation began to stir.
Victory No. 7 came against Florida at home by the score of 21-6. The Commodores once again rushed for more than 250 yards, with King and Horton combining for 163 on 35 carries. The defense had now surrendered just 20 points in the six-game winning streak.
There was much at stake in the finale against arch-rival Tennessee-- a win meant a trip to the Cotton Bowl. Bowden Wyatt was in the middle of rebuilding the Vols, who had fallen on hard times after General Neyland retired from the sideline. Tennessee was 5-3-1 coming in to the game. This Volunteer contingent, led by multi-talented Johnny Majors and Bill Anderson, was a year away from running the table in the regular season and finishing No. 2 behind Oklahoma (the Sooners were in the process of winning 47 straight games).
Vanderbilt held the advantage for the first three quarters, leading 14-7 and dominating in rushing and total yardage. Vandy moved the ball to the Tennessee 20 and was threatening to put the game away, but a penalty killed the drive and a long field goal attempt missed. UT converted several crucial third downs and marched deep into Commodore territory. Trying to make a tackle, Don Orr dislocated an elbow and was lost for the rest of the day, which was one of the dangers of having to play your quarterback on defense in those days.
Tennessee proceeded to tie the game at 14-14 after the Orr injury. With Orr out, Vandy was unable to move, and UT got the ball back late. Coach Wyatt called for his offense to pass the ball, and the Vols responded, scoring in just two plays. Majors completed the first pass for 15 yards, then Anderson caught the long pass on the next play for the 43-yard game-winner. The final was 20-14 Tennessee, and Vandy's Cotton Bowl Bid didn't arrive in the mail.
But at 7-3, Vandy was still worthy of bowl mention. The Gator Bowl, looking for a Southern school to invite to play Auburn, which almost counted this bowl as part of its regular schedule. The Tigers were 7-1-1 and just two years away from winning part of a national title. Vandy was chosen to be the sacrificial lamb for the War Eagles-- but somebody forgot to tell Don Orr. Playing the best game of his career and still ailing from the elbow injury, Orr put on a show for the TV audience that ranked as the best performance in the bowls that year. He threw for one touchdown and ran for two others, garnering the MVP award. Vandy shocked the Tigers 25-13. The Commodores finished the season 8-3.
Enough talent returned for fans to think about a possible run to the conference title in 1956. Vanderbilt would bust out of the gate to a 3-0 start, but in that third game (a 32-7 pasting of Alabama) Orr would go down for the season on what many thought was a cheap shot from a Tide defender. The Commodores struggled to finish 5-5. Vandy posted consecutive winning seasons in 1957, 58, and 59, but at 5-3-2, 5-2-3, and 5-3-2 couldn't quite attract the attention of another bowl. Each year, the Commodores came up one win short. It would be 19 long years before another bowl invitation would come.
Notes: On Coach Guepe's staff during his tenure at Vandy was his identical twin brother Al. Al Guepe was the backfield coach. Bob Cummings (not the actor), Buford "Baby" Ray, and Frank Thorsey rounded out the staff in 1955... In the 1950's, Vanderbilt practiced at what is now Hawkins Field. It was called McGugin Field in those days... the Southeastern Conference was referred to as the "Big 12" in the 1950's. Vandy was often referred to as "The Gold Men" or "Vandymite."... In the 1950's, Vandy's primary mode of transportation to away games was rail. Several times after big road wins, crowds went to Union Station to welcome the team home... The Vanderbilt record in the 1950's was 49-44-9, the last winning decade at Dudley.
Statistics taken from accounts in the Nashville Banner and Nashville Tennessean.