Rough estimates revealed that between 30 and 40 million viewers tuned in to watch the only football game of the day. As it was the only game to cover on December 31, almost every major newspaper in the country would give it page one headlines on their sports pages. Vanderbilt couldn't ask for better publicity.
As the team prepared to take the field, Guepe gave his last minute instructions. He told the team, "There's one thing you can do to beat these guys--tackle them for keeps; make them cough up the ball; pour it to them." Those words would prove prophetic over the course of the next two and a half hours.
Just seconds before the kickoff, Coach Guepe had a major decision still to make. Orr had recovered rapidly, but he had taken part in no physical contact since the injury in the Tennessee game. Guepe had decided to start Harkins at quarterback if Vanderbilt lost the coin toss and had to kickoff to Auburn. He would possibly start Orr if Vandy went on the attack first. Just prior to kickoff and with Harkins ready to make his debut at quarterback, Guepe turned to look at Orr and saw what he thought was a tear in Orr's eye. He asked Orr if he could play, and Orr quickly responded to the affirmative. Guepe sent him in as the Commodores kicked off. Orr would play close to the entire 60 minutes and not come out of the game until the decision was no longer in doubt.
Vanderbilt served notice to Auburn that they had come to play when Hayes made a vicious tackle on the opening kick off. The Commodores were certainly tackling for keeps and pouring it to them.
Neither team had much luck moving the ball on their initial possession. Midway through the opening period, Auburn quarterback Tubbs lost the ball, and Vandy tackle Tommy Woodruff pounced on it at the Tiger 39 yard line.
At this point, Coach Guepe threw a monkey wrench into the Auburn defensive game plan. He sent left halfback Horton out wide to the left flank and then sent right halfback Scales in motion to the right flank, leaving King as the lone set back. Auburn was forced to spread their defense, leaving them vulnerable up the middle. Orr handed the ball off to King three consecutive times, and the Commodores picked up a first down at the Auburn 28. After a five-yard gain on an off-tackle run, Orr threw a pass to Stephenson and completed it for a 15-yard gain to the eight. The War Eagle defensive line toughened at this point, holding Horton (Vandy returned to the full-house split-t formation at this point) to a one yard gain on a quick dive play (the bread and butter run of the split-t). King then smashed his way forward for five yards to the Tiger two. He took the next handoff into the end zone for an apparent score, but Vandy was penalized back to the seven for illegal motion. On 3rd and goal from the seven, Orr fired a pass to Stephenson in the end zone. The big end hauled it in, and Vandy drew first blood. Earl Jalufka added the point after, and Vanderbilt led 7-0 with four minutes to go in the opening stanza.
Auburn quickly evened the score. The Tigers mounted a 10-play drive, scoring when James took a short pass from Tubbs and converted into a 28-yard romp down the sidelines. The PAT made it 7-7 less than a minute into the second quarter.
Vanderbilt showed the Plainsmen that they would not wilt, for on the very next possession, the Commodores needed only four plays to go 76 yards and take a lead they would never relinquish. King powered inside for four yards. Orr then carried out a couple of fakes and scampered 44 yards off-tackle on a keeper, with excellent interference by Woodruff, to the Auburn 28. Next, Orr hit Joe Scales for a 24-yard gain to the four. Finally, Orr faked brilliantly to King and kept the ball outside waltzing into the end zone untouched. The point after sailed wide, and Vanderbilt led 13-7 with 12 minutes to go until halftime.
The remainder of the second quarter saw both teams' defenses take control. Neither team could move the ball until the clock ticked down to the final minutes. Auburn mounted a drive and was within striking distance when Tubbs lost another fumble at the Vandy 21. Reserve guard Sonny Tatum fell on it for the Commodores. As the gun sounded, Vandy took a six point lead to the locker.
In the locker room, Stephenson informed Coach Guepe that he could get behind the Auburn secondary every time on first and second down, because the Tigers were selling out to the run until third down. Guepe drew up a special pass play to take advantage of the defensive liability.
Vandy didn't wait long to utilize the new play. Following yet another Tubbs fumble, Vandy was in business just shy of midfield. Orr tossed deep to Stephenson who had beaten the Auburn secondary by three yards. The ball fell comfortably into Stephenson's hands and he galloped 51 yards for the apparent dagger in the hearts of the Tigers. A little flag was lying on the ground back near the line of scrimmage, and for the second time, Vandy saw a touchdown wiped out by an official's call. This time, holding was the infraction. The officials notified Coach Guepe that center Cunningham committed the offense; game film later showed that Cunningham didn't have a defender to block on the play and couldn't have possibly held.
After the 15-yard penalty (there were no 10-yard penalties until more than 20 years later), Vandy lost yardage and was forced to punt. Once again Tubbs couldn't hold on to the ball for Auburn, and he fumbled just across midfield spoiling yet another Auburn drive. Woodruff recovered his second fumble, this time at the Vandy 49.
Vanderbilt capitalized on this turnover. Orr kept for 16 yards to the Auburn 35. On the next play, he was sacked for an 11-yard loss while attempting to pass. On 2nd and 21 from the Auburn 46, he completed a pass across the middle to Scales for 20. On 3rd and one from the Auburn 26, Orr handed to Horton inside tackle for a 15 yard gain and first down at the Tiger 11. Horton ran again for five on the next play. Scales carried for two and King for two bringing up fourth and less than a yard at the one yard line. Since field goal attempts were seldom successful prior to the advent of kicking specialists and with hash marks almost seven feet wider than today, Coach Guepe never considered kicking a field goal. He called for Orr to Hand off to King going up the middle. King dove forward and landed in the end zone with the ball firmly entrenched in his arms. Once again, the point after failed, but Vandy now led 19-7 with four minutes left in the third period.
Auburn advanced the ball only to their 29 yard line on the following possession. A 12-yard shanked punt out of bounds followed by a 15-yard Auburn personal foul penalty placed the ball at the Tiger 26. Horton picked up five on a dive play thanks to a crushing block by tackle Demmas, and backup fullback Don Hunt scampered 20 yards to the Auburn one on the next play. Horton couldn't move the ball past the line of scrimmage as the third quarter ended.
Not scoring on the final play of the quarter turned out to be a feather in the cap of the Commodore faithful. Most of the 5,000 plus Vandy fans were situated near the opposite end zone. When the teams changed sides, Vandy faced a 2nd and goal from the one yard line in front of a throng of black and gold supporters. Those fans got what they wanted on the first play of the fourth quarter. Horton dove into the end zone off right guard with the game clincher. The extra point try went wide again, but the score was now Vanderbilt 25 Auburn 7.
Auburn was forced to go to the air to try to catch up. They were successful on this lengthy drive and Tiger backup quarterback Jimmy Cook spotted Phillips from the seven yard line for the touchdown. The snap for the point after was not on target, so no kick occurred. That left the score at 25-13 Vandy with 11:35 to go.
Vanderbilt held onto the ball running play after play away from the sidelines and using as much time on the clock as possible between plays. After punting, the defense held until the clock had too little time left for the Tigers to catch up. Coach Guepe emptied the bench and played 38 of the 39 Commodores who dressed for the game. The third team actually mounted a good drive at the end and let the clock run out with the ball just outside the Tiger five for a 25-13 win.
Orr became the first ever unanimous MVP of the Gator Bowl and possibly of any bowl. He completed four of six passes for 67 yards and a score. He rushed for 43 yards on 10 carries (actually nine rushes for 54 yards if you remove the quarterback sack). His elbow injury never affected his play. His faking ability was so magnificent that on the 44-yard keeper, three different Auburn defenders tackled three different Vanderbilt backs thinking each one of them had the ball. By the time they realized their error, Orr was running down the sideline with Woodruff leading the way.
In the locker room after the game, Mr. Vanderbilt entered to offer his congratulations to the team bearing his family name. As he saw Orr meeting with his father and the enormous celebrating by the victorious players, he was brought to tears.
The team returned to Berry Field in Nashville a day later to a welcoming cheering committee of about 2,000 fans.
My how times have changed! In 1955, Tennessee Vol legend General Robert Neyland showed up at the Gator Bowl wearing black and gold and openly rooting for Vanderbilt. When asked at halftime whether Vandy's missed extra point might allow Auburn a chance to come back and win the game, the general replied, "No, we got 'em." Then Volunteer head coach Bowden Wyatt was also in attendance rooting for Vandy. He noticed how sharp the Commodores looked in pre-game drills and said, "Vanderbilt looks on fire to me."
While the Commodores were winning the Gator Bowl and finishing in the top 20 of several polls, the basketball team was enjoying its best showing in the polls to that time. The poll released just after the Gator Bowl showed the Gold men cagers to be ranked number four behind San Francisco, North Carolina State, and Dayton.
For those who doubted whether Don Orr would play in the Gator Bowl, they only had to look at past history. Orr was not one to succumb to illness or injury. He had already conquered polio, a very bad facial injury, and a severe concussion that caused double vision. Each time, he battled back and recovered quickly.
Both Orr and tackle Art Demmas became top referees in the NFL. Both officiated in numerous playoffs including the Super Bowl. For all his excellent work, Orr is forever remembered in the NFL and especially in Houston and Pittsburgh for one play in the 1979-80 AFC Championship game at Three Rivers Stadium. The Steelers led the Oilers 17-10 near the end of the third quarter. Houston drove to the Pittsburgh six yard line, where quarterback Dan Pastorini spotted receiver Mike Renfro in the end zone for the apparent tying touchdown. Orr was the side judge and responsible for making the call; he hesitated and did not make a call. After a referee's conference, the pass was ruled incomplete. NBC showed the replay over and over with announcers Dick Enberg and Merlin Olsen agreeing that it was an obvious touchdown. Houston had to settle for a field goal, and the team fell apart after that. Pittsburgh won 27-13. Oilers' fans forever blamed Orr for the defeat; at a post-season celebration at the Astrodome, fans hanged Orr in effigy. Later, cameras for NFL Films showed an angle NBC never had. It appeared that Renfro bobbled the ball just long enough to not get both feet inbounds. Orr had made the correct call, but the media didn't spread this news to the public like they had the original story.
The 12-member Southeastern Conference of 1955 included Tulane and Georgia Tech, while Arkansas and South Carolina were not part of the league. That winter, the SEC briefly considered expanding to 14 teams by adding Miami of Florida and Houston. Florida State and Mississippi Southern (today's Southern Mississippi) were also considered. The proposal was tabled and never reconsidered.
As far back as 1955, The SEC considered splitting into Eastern and Western Divisions. Under the format discussed 50 years ago, Vanderbilt would have become a member of the Western Division joining LSU, Tulane, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Alabama.
The success of the 1955 team led to an outstanding recruiting class. Vanderbilt cornered the market on state talent. Of the 30 recruits, 14 were from the Nashville area and seven more called Tennessee their home. Included in the stellar crop was future NFL starter Tom Moore. In contrast, Tennessee failed to sign any Nashville area talent that year.
Note: Some information for this story came from The Nashville Banner, Nashville Tennessean, Atlanta Constitution, Toyota Gator Bowl Internet web page, and the National Football League.
Vanderbilt 25 Auburn 13
Scoring Summary Yard Stick Auburn 0 7 0 6-- 13 Vanderbilt 7 6 6 6-- 25 VU-Joe Stephenson, 8-yd. pass from Don Orr(Earl Jalufka kick) AU-Fob James, 38-yd. pass from Howell Tubbs(Tubbs kick) VU-Orr, 3-yd. run(kick failed) VU-Phil King, 1-yd. run(kick failed) VU-Charlie Horton, 1-yd. run(kick blocked) AU-Red Phillips, 4-yd. pass from Jimmy Cook(kick failed) Auburn Vanderbilt First Downs 15 15 Rushes/Yards 45-159 44-177 Passing Yards 142 94 Passes 7-13-0 5-8-1 Total Offense 301 271 Punts/Average 3-29.0 4-31.7 Fumbles/Yards 5-5 1-1 Penalties/Yards 6-59 5-54
AU-Joe Childress 15-58, Fob James 9-42, Robert Hoppe 6-33, Howell Tubbs 11-15, Jimmy Cook 2-6, Shell 2-5.
VU-Charlie Horton 13-57, Don Orr 10-43, Hunt 6-39, Phil King 10-33, Morgan 1-6, Scalen 1-3, Jakaley 1-(minus 1), Steve PePoy 2- 9minus 3).
AU-Howell Tubbs 4-9-0, 101 yards, Jimmy Cook 3-3-0, 41 yards, Bill Burbank 0-1-0, 0 yards.
VU-Don Orr 4-6-1, 67 yards, Gerald Sturm 1-2-0, 27 yards.
AU-Fob James 2-51, Elliott 2-41, Red Phillips 2-28, Joe Childress 1-22.
VU-Scalen 2-44, Joe Stephenson 2-23, H. Brown 1-27.
Most Valuable Player
1955 Vanderbilt football team that defeated Auburn, 25-13, in the Gator Bowl. (VU File Photo) Click for larger image.