The Gift of a Vanderbilt Education

Vanderbilt University is, of course, the premier academic institution in the Southeastern Conference. How entirely appropriate it is, then, that after an exhilarating triumph at Ole Miss, Bobby Johnson's Commodores are finally showing signs of passing the course this program has flunked for the past 25 seasons: Winning—the graduate school edition.

The years may come and go, and the specific names on the roster may change, but in college football—a sport that will turn 140 years old in 2009—it will always be true that a team deprived of success must discover how to win. "Winning" is not a class with neat mathematical equations or black-and-white fill-in-the-blank simplicity.

No, if a team wants to pass this elite-level course (you could call it an advanced placement or accelerated learning course; perhaps you might want to refer to it as a senior synthesis program… you get the picture), it must display an adequate amount of aptitude in the performing arts, the social sciences, and other inexact but considerably demanding elements of a quality holistic education such as the one offered at Vanderbilt. To avoid flunking a course on winning, a football program needs to answer the gridiron equivalent of essay questions, and in order to do that, it must possess an ability to think critically—and successfully—under pressure.

With that explanation serving as an extended prelude, it can be said that after the first four games of this 2008 campaign—the four games Vandy had to pounce on if this heavily-anticipated season was to finally deliver a winning record and a bowl bid—it appears that the Johnson Boys have, at long last, begun to discover what it must feel like when a team learns how to win. Coach Johnson can teach the game of football, but real life—the course of events as they unfold on a football field—truly teaches a team how to prevail in the midst of a pigskin passion play.

Saturday night in Oxford, Miss., the Vanderbilt football family must have felt a number of foreign feelings, because on this night in the Magnolia State, Vandy won the kind of game that Vandy has almost always lost over the past 25 years.

In past seasons, the Commodores would have scored touchdowns on defense and special teams, only for their offense to find a way to fail. In past seasons, the Dores would have started fast but faltered near the finish line. In past seasons—especially last year's journey through Autumn—it would have been Vanderbilt who would have fumbled inside the 10 in the game's final minutes, as the painful home loss to Georgia illustrated. (Ugh! It hurts just recalling that game.)

Yes, on so many levels, the Vandy fans who watched Saturday's game—whether on TV or in the stands at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium—had to pinch themselves and wonder, for a moment, if Ole Miss's school colors were black and gold. But if you did pinch yourself at the end of this football thriller, you then felt something truly wonderful: No, it wasn't a dream. It was real. Vanderbilt—with so much at stake—really did hit the finish line in first place… even against a souped-up Ole Miss team that figured to be far better than any Rebel outfit from the Ed Orgeron era.

With Houston Nutt on the sidelines and Jevan Snead under center, Ole Miss packed the potency that stood to give Vandy a very tough time under the lights. Despite Vandy's 3-0 mark, the smart money suggested that the Rebels should have been the favorite in this contest, especially after a quality (two-point, last-play) loss to a Wake Forest team that will face the Dores at the end of this very same season.

How much more impressive was it, then, that Vandy's defense could stand on its head all night long, limiting the UM offense to just three points (factoring in the 14 points the Rebels gained from non-offensive sources)? How much more admirable was it that Vandy could absorb two massive stomach punches in the first quarter and stay the course? How much more amazing was it that Vandy could stare defeat in the face, only to recover an opponent's fumble in its own end zone in the game's final minutes?

This is the kind of narrative that usually accompanies a somber, sorrowful locker room and a roster of broken VU spirits. This is the kind of postgame assessment that usually ends with the words, "same old, same old." The other team usually pulls through at the end. The other team finds a way to win, while Vandy is left to lament "what might have been."

But when the narrative surprisingly shifts, and the shoe of defeat falls on the other foot—the foot of the boys from Oxford, who are cursing this six-point loss to the Dores—one can begin to appreciate how satisfying it really is to finally fall on the winning side of a heated battle. After years of not knowing how to pull these white-knucklers out of the fire, the experience of one particularly satisfying SEC conquest has to give this Vandy team an even fuller awareness of what is needed to win football games with regularity.

Once again, the equation wasn't neat. The calculus wasn't clear. The journey was complicated and fraught with peril. The Dores had to answer difficult essay questions at several points along the way. But answer they did, as the ball finally bounced their way in their time of trial—funny how it happens like that when you're living on the sunshine side of things.

In this reversal of last year's Georgia loss, it was a Vanderbilt defender who produced an opponent's fumble near the goal line in a game's defining moments. In the kind of moment that makes writers happy, a young freshman linebacker named Chris Marve produced a great headline—and one of the biggest Commodore victories this side of 1982—by stripping the pigskin from Ole Miss running back Dexter McCluster at the VU 2 with 2:40 left in regulation. "Marve-lous Moment Ensures that Dores Don't (Ole) Miss." Thank you, Chris Marve, for providing some snappy copy… and giving Vandy the biggest win to date in the Bobby Johnson era.

Make no mistake: The mission has not yet been accomplished. There are at least two more ballgames to be won, ideally more. Until the deed is done, this team can't rest (just remember a squandered home game against Middle Tennessee a few years ago, in case you're feeling that a bowl bid is a sure thing right now…). Mississippi State, Duke and Kentucky—three mediocre teams at best—ought to be beaten in 2008. The Dores—of all the 120 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision—cannot let down their guard.

But what can change for Vandy is simply this: The Johnson Boys now know that whenever another tight game goes into the fourth quarter, they have what it takes to win. They no longer need to talk about hoping to win or giving themselves an outside chance; no, after this win in Oxford, a VU football team possesses the certain knowledge that it can make a play when the moment demands it. This group of guys now knows that it can find a way—any which way you can, as long as it's honest—to post a "W" on the board instead of a hard-luck "L."

That which was for so many years a subject of hope and prayer is now a matter of knowledge that merely needs to be repeated in future weeks. Yes, these young men—recipients of a quality Vanderbilt education—are close to passing one more course, the course called "Winning." By passing just a few more individual exams against the rest of the SEC, plus a couple of ACC opponents, this team—which has begun to find a winning way—will become one of the most celebrated teams in the long history of Vanderbilt football.

With a nod to Saturday night's hero in Mississippi, such a turn of events—if it does indeed take place—would be absolutely Marve-lous indeed.

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