"I have lived long enough to see Vanderbilt win a bowl game."
Mark this date. As the books were being closed on the cataclysmic year of 2008, Bobby Johnson's Commodores were closing the book on a 25-year string of losing seasons. Their 16-14, come-from-behind win over Boston College in the Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl Wednesday provided the school's long-suffering football fans with what amounts to one of the most significant wins in school history.
Ironically, the year 2008 is roundly being dismissed by pundits as one of the least memorable in this country's history. Yet Vanderbilt closed 2008 out in style, providing its downtrodden fans with a season they are going to want to frame, mount above the mantle, and remember forever.
This one was for all those sidewalk fans and alumni who suffered resolutely through the Doc Kreis scandal... the Watson Brown years... the ignominy of the departure of Gerry DiNardo... the futile ineptitude of the Dowhower/Widenhofer era... etc. It's for those who remained faithful as Vandy bumbled through 2-9 season after 2-9 season, losing football games in every conceivable way.
An entire generation had grown into adulthood not having seen Vanderbilt experience a winning season or a bowl invitation-- neither had happened since 1982. And heck, I'm now old enough to be a grandpa, and I'd never seen Vanderbilt actually WIN a bowl game-- for the record, it hadn't happened since 1955.
Now it has. A hideous era of futility has officially come to a close.
Now it can be said, and said officially: Vanderbilt has a winning football program! 7-6, baybee. Music City Bowl Champions.
Not that any of it came easily. Nothing ever has, and it probably never will for Vanderbilt football. For starters, LP Field felt more like Lambeau Field Wednesday, after a frigid cold front moved across the state the night before. My toes are still numb.
Yet bowl-starved Commodore fans showed up in surprising numbers, pushing the attendance to a respectable 54,250. I don't know that I've ever seen a larger number of fans assembled in one place bedecked proudly in licensed Vanderbilt apparel. Chilled to the bone, they consumed mass quantities of hot chocolate, and steadfastly encouraged their padded gladiators.
And disappoint the team didn't. Demonstrating right off the bat that Vandy was ready to "Do Whatever It Takes", Bobby Johnson gave inexperienced redshirt freshman Larry Smith the start at quarterback. Yes, you read right. The staff dispensed with more experienced hands Chris Nickson and Mackenzi Adams, and gave Smith the first start of his career-- in a bowl game.
Undeterred by the circumstances or the glacial conditions, Smith was able to move the offense on a pair of early drives, and the Commodores jumped to a 6-0 lead on a pair of Bryant Hahnfeldt field goals. The Eagles from BC answered with a long drive to take a 7-6 halftime lead, but Vanderbilt was playing with confidence. It was hanging tough.
Then came the strangest play of the game. Brett Upson's rugby punt glanced (evidently) off an Eagle player and rolled into the end zone, where a host of alert Commodores pounced on the ball for a touchdown. In all fairness, I watched the replay six times on the Tennessee Titans' giant replay board, and I'm still not entirely convinced the ball touched an Eagle-- but replay officials evidently were. 'Dores led, 13-7.
The lead seesawed back to Boston College with 6:38 left in the game when Dominique Davis found Colin Larmond on a 55-yard bomb. Larmond had beaten his man, Vanderbilt cornerback Myron Lewis, to get open by three steps. But don't fret for Lewis-- he would later go from goat to hero.
With a bowl game hanging in the balance, Vanderbilt's much-maligned offense had one last drive left in it. Who knew? With Bobby Johnson now shuffling quarterbacks in and out in Spurrier-esque fashion, the Commodores drove to the Eagle 28, setting up Hahnfeldt for one last field goal attempt. With the wind gusting at his back, he nailed it.
The Eagles would have not one, but two more possessions to try to salvage a win. Not until the aforementioned Lewis jumped in front of a BC receiver to intercept Davis' final pass was the hardware in hand.
Giddy, frostbitten Commodore fans poured into the streets shouting, high-fiving, and heading for the establishments that line Second Avenue. Their New Year's Eve celebration, doubtless, went on well into the night.
Back in August, few of those same fans would have guessed that this team would have been the one to break the long bowl-less streak. Now, the image of the Commodores hoisting the Music City Bowl trophy aloft as fireworks popped in the background will be fixed in fans' minds through a long offseason.
This 2008 team will be long remembered as a team that played with great heart. After losing six of its last seven games, very few national pundits thought Vanderbilt would be able to compete with the Atlantic Coast Conference runners-up. Yet this resilient bunch of Commodores beat the odds, earning their place in Vandy's athletic lore and gaining a measure of SEC pride in doing so.
Lucky? Maybe-- but Vanderbilt would probably prefer the term "opportunistic." Yes, the team's only touchdown came on a crazy play by the punt team, and the winning drive was aided by a pair of silly BC penalties. But as this team has done all season, it took advantage when opportunities presented themselves.
And what of Bobby Johnson, who received a well-earned postgame Gatorade shower? He's now the only coach in school history besides Art Guepe capable of boasting a bowl win. In seven seasons at Vanderbilt, he's beaten Tennessee, he's taken Vandy bowling, and he's delivered a winning season. (Gasp) What's left for him to accomplish?
OK, maybe next year he can get us to a bowl where it's actually warm.