In the college football world, Michigan and Notre Dame had split the previous season's national title awards, and they were still the two best teams headed into 1948. Neither would lose a game. The Wolverines would become the only team in history to win back-to-back national championships with different coaches, Fritz Crisler and Bennie Oosterbaan.
1948 was a year of domination for the Vanderbilt football team. Coming off a 1947 season where Coach Henry "Red" Sanders saw his team finish 6-4, the alumni were excited and expecting a big year. Vandy had the talent to win seven or eight games, and the fans were anxiously awaiting the big breakthrough.
The roster was loaded with talent, and for one of the few times in modern history, there was exceptional depth. Even when two key players were lost for the season in pre-season practice (fullback Irvin Berry and tackle Bob Werckle), there were ample reserves. Vanderbilt could go 4-deep at center and still have one of the 5 or 6 best snappers in the SEC. John Clark, Charley Hoover, Smoky Stover, and Bill Powell were all top-notch centers who could drive-block any linebacker or defensive tackle out of the way. Ken Cooper and Van Brown started at guards and were backed up capably by Jim Hutto, Darrel Shaver, and Boyd Jacoway. At the tackle spots, Carl Copp, Tom Page, Russ Faulkinberry, and Dutch Cantrell were exceptional. Regardless of whom Vandy had in the game at any one time, the Commodore line was top-notch, probably the best in the SEC and one of the best in the entire nation.
Sanders used a balanced single-wing offense with two tight ends. Bucky Curtis, who would star a few years later, ably manned one spot, while Bud Curtis (no relation), a short and stocky chap, started at the opposite end. In the backfield, Sanders had a stable of exceptional runners, ball-fakers, passers, and blockers. At wingback, Billy Fuqua, Mac Robinson, Daryle May, Joe Hicks, and occasionally Herb Rich were all multi-talented. There was a logjam at fullback with Rich, Zealand Thigpen, Jim Tabor, and Dale Boyer. The triple threat (run, pass, kick) tailback position featured Bobby Berry (brother to Irvin), Dean Davidson (a power runner like Larry Csonka), Zack Clinard (who was the best kicker on the team), Lee Nalley and Jamie Wade (the team's best passer). May occasionally moved from wingback to play tailback. The quarterback in the single wing was basically a third guard. Tom Patterson and Jimmy Calhoun, both quick and strong, manned that spot. On defense, these same players aligned in the 4-4 defense, which Sanders basically invented.
The season opened with The Battle For the Cowbell against Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets under Coach Bobby Dodd were picked to win the SEC and compete for national honors, and Vandy was an underdog at home. Tech lived up to its preseason hype and dominated the game from start to finish, winning 13-0 in front of a Dudley Field capacity crowd of 22,000. The Yellow Jackets threw for close to 300 yards, while Vandy's offense barely broke 100 total yards. It was the first opening-game loss for Vandy since 1903.
Game two was at Mobile's Ladd Stadium, where the Alabama Crimson Tide was a touchdown pick to send Vandy home 0-2. Vandy came out of the gate playing much better than the opening game. After a stalemate first quarter, The Commodores marched 80 yards in the second period to take a 7-0 halftime lead. After a scoreless third quarter, Alabama tied the game three plays into the fourth quarter by exploiting holes in the pass defense, but Vandy again marched 80 yards for a touchdown and led 14-7 with ten minutes to go. Appearing to have the game won, Vandy's pass defense once again broke down, this time on the final play of the game, as Tide passer Ed Salem threw for a score. The game ended a 14-14 tie.
Vandy traveled to Oxford for the first time in history to face heavily favored Ole Miss. The Rebels were enjoying their best success in history under coach John Vaught and were ascending toward the top nationally. For the first 40 minutes, Vandy looked poised to upset the Rebels and played them off their feet, but led only 7-0. Ole Miss pulled to within one on a long run as the third quarter neared its end. The Rebels scored two touchdowns in the final quarter to win 20-7. Vandy was now 0-2-1, and the natives in Nashville were getting restless. Rumblings about Coach Sanders and his coaching staff, comprised of head assistant Farmer Johnson, backfield coach Tommy Prothro (future UCLA, Oregon State, and LA Rams head man), line coach Jim Myers, and end coach Mike Balitsaris, were being heard around town.
Game four was in Lexington against Kentucky. Wildcats coach and former Sanders assistant Bear Bryant was in the process of making the K-cats one of the best teams in the land, but the game was a pick'em. Kentucky ran out of the Bears' T-formation with quarterback George Blanda,who could throw the ball 80 yards on the money. Vandy opened as if it would blow Kentucky off the field, moving the ball over 60 yards on the opening possession, but turned the ball over on downs at the Wildcat 5. Nalley gave Vandy a 6-0 lead when he returned a Blanda punt 88 yards for a record-breaking touchdown. The point after was missed. Kentucky relied on quick pitches to halfbacks and quickly marched down the field for a touchdown. Blanda booted the point after, and the Wildcats led 7-6 at the half.
During the halftime intermission, some of the Commodore faithful who made the trip began talking about getting together and trying to buy up the contract of Coach Sanders. Word of this would get around to Sanders when he was making a very important post-season decision.
Meanwhile in the locker room, Sanders delivered a stinging, vociferous speech to the Gold Men. The players were threatened with all sorts of running tortures if they didn't wake up and play up to their capabilities. The halftime tirade was the turning point. Something clicked, and for the next 7 1/2 games, Vanderbilt was quite possibly one of the three best teams in the nation.
Vandy came out of the locker room and ran power plays up the middle. Kentucky's defense was unable to answer the line surge and Vandy marched down the field methodically like a machine to score the go-ahead touchdown. Clinard's extra poing made it 13-7. Vandy later marched about 75 yards on the ground to score another score to make it 20-7. Bill Fuqua ran a sweep from midfield to the end zone for another touchdown, and Vandy won 26-7.
Game five saw Vandy less than a touchdown favorite at Yale. Vanderbilt announcer Jud Collins (for years the Walter Cronkite of Nashville television) interviewed famed sportswriter Grantland Rice, who was getting to see his alma mater play for the first time in years. He came away impressed, as the Commodores made fodder out of the Elis and won 35-0. Vandy put the game away early with touchdowns the first two times it had the ball. The Commodores' locomotive offense racked up close to 350 yards rushing, as three complete offensive line units blocked Yale into submission.
Playing away from home for the fifth week in a row, Vandy played Auburn in Montgomery at the Cramton Bowl. The Commodores blew the Tigers away 47-0. Every healthy player on the roster got into the game, as Vandy resembled No. 1 Michigan, running and passing with ease. Only a late Tiger run for five yards allowed Auburn to finish with positive rushing yardage. Vandy intercepted seven Auburn passes and recovered two fumbles while committing no turnovers.
At 3-2-1, Vandy returned to Dudley Field to take on LSU. After a scoreless first period, Vandy's rushing attack broke loose like a caged bull and demolished LSU. The men in black scored seven touchdowns, while rushing for 300 yards in the second and third quarters combined en route to a 48-7 win. LSU's lone score came on a kickoff return in the second quarter. The Tigers were stopped for 0 total yards in the first half, in suffering their worst defeat in over 20 years.
Marshall came to town to be the sacrificial lamb in game seven. Vandy scored four touchdowns in each half to breeze to a 56-0 win, again rushing for well over 300 yards. The Commodores threw the ball less than 10 times, but completed almost every one of them for more than 150 yards.
At 5-2-1, Vandy took the train to the nation's capital to play perennial power Maryland, which ranked in the Top 10 in both total offense and total defense. Terps coach Jim Tatum and Sanders were good friends, and their rivalry would continue after Sanders left Nashville. Maryland had embarrassed Vandy in 1947, and Tatum knew he was in for trouble this year. In the Washington papers, he was quoted as saying his team would be lucky to move the ball into Commodore territory even once. Tatum was clairvoyant, because that's exactly the number of times Maryland moved past midfield, all the way to the Vandy 48. Meanwhile, The Commodore express scored three touchdowns in the first half to put the game away and added two more in the final half to win 34-0. Maryland never threatened to score and compiled only 69 total yards. Maryland could only complete five passes; all were to Commodore defenders.
Vanderbilt still had two games to play, but there was now talk of a New Year's Day Bowl invitation coming should the Commodores beat Tennessee. The Volunteers were coming into the game at 4-3-2, but the Orange had beaten Georgia Tech and Alabama, two teams Vandy could not defeat earlier in the year. General Robert Neyland brought his Vols to Dudley Field expecting to see his troops give the Commodores their come-uppance. The Tennessee fans in attendance did not respect Vandy's last six-game results. To make matters worse, Vandy had suffered several key injuries after the Maryland game. These key players were ailing: Mac Robinson, Lee Nalley, Bobby Berry, Dean Davidson, Zealand Thigpen, Herb Rich, Bob Page, Russ Faulkinberry, and Charley Hoover.
For once, Vandy had enough depth to withstand the rash of injuries, and most of the injured played hurt. Vandy was made a 13-point favorite. Neyland rarely saw his squad as underdogs and hardly ever as double-digit dogs. His top assistant, Harvey Robinson, had told him Vandy had no weaknesses in any aspect of the game, and without a doubt had the best line in the SEC if not the nation. The one equalizing factor was that Tennessee and Vandy ran an identical balanced-line, single-wing offense. Both teams' defenses knew the other's offense inside and out.
An overflow crowd of over 25,000 (capacity was 22,000 in those days) crammed into Dudley Field with about 12,500 fans for each team. Vandy scored in the first quarter when tailback Berry fired a backward pass to fullback Rich. Bud Curtis threw a wicked block, and Rich bolted 42 yards for the score. Clinard booted the point after to put the Commodores ahead 7-0, and the score held up for the entire first half. Tennessee had been able to grind out some good yardage, but the Vols couldn't put it together in one drive. The Orange contingent was not all that impressed with the Commodores through 30 minutes of play. A scoreless third period in which Vandy tried to give the game to Tennessee gave those Vols skeptics reason to believe their team could win it in the final period.
Those same orange skeptics quickly received a black and gold education. Vandy struck for touchdowns three times in the fourth quarter, two of them coming less than 90 seconds apart. It started late in the third quarter with a 67-yard punt return from Nalley, who would lead the nation in that category and set the all-time record for punt return yardage. A few moments later, Jamie Wade threw a pass to Bucky Curtis who moved to the Vol 12. As the fourth quarter started, Wade hit Tommy Patterson on a short pass to the Tennessee 4. Wade passed again across the middle to Bucky Curtis, who caught it for the score. Vandy now led 14-0.
UT tried to move through the air on its next possession, but on the second play after the kickoff UT's J.B. Proctor, a multi-sport star from Nashville-Cohn High School, threw an interception to Joe Hicks. Hicks picked up some blocking support and returned the pass to the Vol 5. It took just one play for Wade to juice the orange, as he dragged Proctor five yards for the decisive score. Clinard booted his third consecutive point after, and Vandy was now comfortably ahead 21-0.
The Vols gamely marched 80 yards for a score later in the fourth period to cut the lead to 21-6, but Vandy quickly responded. Davidson returned the kick to the Vandy 45. Fuqua reversed for 19 yards inside the Vol 40. Davidson plunged forward for another first down to the Tennessee 27. Tabor then slanted 14 yards to the 13. Davidson followed that with a power run up the middle for 11 yards to the Vol 2. It took three dive plays, but Tabor finally scored the final touchdown. Clinard finished the day 4-for-4 on points after, and Vandy was triumphant, 28-6.
Neyland said Vanderbilt was one of the best teams he had ever seen. "We have no excuses or alibis," the General said later. "We were beaten by a better club. That's all there is to it." Tennessee fans left Dudley Field believing they had just seen one of the best teams in the nation whip their team. Sportswriters began writing that Vanderbilt might just be the best team in the nation, better than both Michigan and Notre Dame (who beat Maryland much less impressively). The Orange Bowl committee placed Vanderbilt at the top of its wish list. It just so happened that the Gold Men were scheduled to play an 11th game, and that game was on a Friday night against Miami at the Orange Bowl. The Committee would get to see their No. 1 choice first-hand.
Vanderbilt had little trouble with the Hurricanes. The Commodores scored in every quarter, ran for more than 300 yards yet again, and trounced Miami 33-6. The first (automatic) Orange Bowl bid went to SEC champion Georgia, and Vandy was bowl officials' first choice as the opponent. In those days, the automatic invitee had rights to veto an opponent, and the Georgia players voted almost unanimously to veto Vandy. Bulldog coach Wally Butts spoke up for his players by saying his squad had won the conference fair and square and would not play another SEC team. When sportswriters reminded Butts his Bulldogs had not played Vandy en route to the crown, Butts retorted, "And they aren't going to play us now." Georgia subsequently vetoed Ole Miss and Tulane before allowing a weaker Texas team to play them. Texas ended up beating the Bulldogs in the Orange Bowl game.
Meanwhile, Vanderbilt stayed home for the holidays. Grantland Rice would install his alma mater as the nation's early preseason No. 1 team for 1949. So much good talent returned that most football pundits believed Vanderbilt could go 10-0.
But as things always seem to turn out for the Commodores, there was a fly in the ointment. Make that a Boeing 747. After the season was over, other schools began calling on Sanders. He turned down a few offers at the beginning, but one job offer-- UCLA-- intrigued him. Sanders straddled the fence for a day or two before resigning from his alma mater and heading to Westwood. Although we will never know for sure just how much the antics of Vandy faithful at Lexington's Stoll Field contributed to his decision, it did play a part in the decision-making process.
Sanders would turn around the moribund Bruin program in his first season, finishing a surprising 7-3. UCLA would win the national title in 1954 with a team similar to Vandy's of 1948. With a devastating single-wing rushing game and the nation's best punt return game, the '54 Bruins would easily finish 9-0.
In Nashville, Bill Edwards replaced Sanders and immediately scrapped the antiquated single-wing for the pro-style wing-T. Vandy, picked in the top 5 in the preseason, was the nation's most disappointing team, finishing just 5-5.
Notes: The quote, "winning isn't every thing; it's the only thing" has been mistakenly credited to Vince Lombardi for several years. It was actually Red Sanders who coined the phrase.
Russ Faulkinberry enjoyed a long career as a head football coach, first at Gallatin High School and later at The University of Southwest Louisiana, retiring as the all-time leader in wins in Lafayette. After retiring from the game for almost 25 years, he returned to USL in 1997 to tutor quarterbacks. His coaching acumen was still there, as Ragin' Cajun quarterback Jake Delhomme graduated to the NFL. Faulkinberry turned down a basketball scholarship to Kentucky to play football at Vandy.
Some info and stats came from Nashville Banner, Nashville Tennessean, and The New York Herald-Tribune.