Happy New Year, and a look back at 2002

Can it be? 2002 is gone already? It must be time again for our annual retrospective look at the past year in Vanderbilt athletics. It was a year of wins and losses, highs and lows, hellos and goodbyes...

JANUARY-- The American Football Coaches' Association honored Vanderbilt in January with an award for having the nation's highest football graduation rate. Ironically, the man most responsible for the award, Woody Widenhofer, wasn't there to receive it-- he had been forced to resign for failing to win enough games. As the year dawned, Widenhofer's replacement Bobby Johnson was scrambling to hire a staff and recruit some players. Vandy upsets GeorgiaMeanwhile Kevin Stallings' men were scrambling to win some games. An 0-3 start in the SEC and a nagging injury to point guard Russell Lakey had the team, coach and fans on edge. But the men bounced back to win three straight, including a heartstopping home upset of nationally-ranked Georgia that had fans aglow once more. Jim Foster's Top Ten women's team ended the month with disturbing losses to Florida and Arkansas. The best news of the month came when senior wide receiver Dan Stricker announced he'd return for a fifth year of eligibility.

Vandy upsets GeorgiaFEBRUARY-- In recognition of the 50th season in stately Memorial Gym, the court was christened "Ingram Court" in honor of the family whose generous gifts helped usher in a new era for Vanderbilt facilities (heartfelt thanks from Vandy fans everywhere). That very day, Feb. 2, Foster's women demolished Pat Summitt's Volunteers 76-59 on national TV, making for a giddy day to be a Commodore. (Not in our house, Michelle.) The ladies ended SEC play in February with a 10-4 record, good for a tie for second. The men finished SEC play a disappointing 6-10, but posted two unforgettable February wins. They vanquished the Vols in Knoxville, then came home to post a landmark 86-73 win over Kentucky, a victory which ended an 18-game losing streak to the Wildcats. On football national signing day Bobby Johnson, the Steve Martin-lookalike from Furman, signed 20 players to grants-in-aid, including an unknown Tampa running back named Kwane Doster (remember that name).

Vandy upsets GeorgiaMARCH-- Having fallen one game short of the Final Four one year earlier, Jim Foster's team was primed for March this time around. At Nashville's Gaylord Entertainment Center, the women defeated Auburn, Arkansas and LSU on the way to Vanderbilt's first SEC Tournament title in nine years. The NCAA selection committee-- ha, what a wacky bunch of jokesters!-- threw Vanderbilt and Tennessee together into the same Midwest Regional, and sure enough, the two teams met up in the region championship game in Ames, Iowa, in a tussle for a Final Four berth. Alas, the Commodores came up short in "The Fray in the Hay." But when the dust settled, the ladies could look back on a stellar 30-7 season, and Chantelle Anderson took home the SEC Player of the Year award. Kevin Stallings' men made the NIT-- an improvement over the previous year-- but finished a disappointing 17-15. Still, with a promising five-man recruiting class coming in, fans looked to the future with hope. Roy Mewbourne's baseball program got a shot in the arm with the opening of Hawkins Field, a state-of-the-art baseball facility.

APRIL-- Quick... which Vanderbilt team went undefeated in its conference? That would be Cathy Swezey's lacrosse ladies, who won the ALC championship and earned Swezey Coach of the Year honors. The women's golf team briefly reached a No. 1 national ranking. But April, the cruelest month, was marred by two cruel and untimely departures: Brendan Plavich, who led the men's team in three-point shooting, inexplicably decided to depart after his sophomore year; and women's head coach Jim Foster mysteriously decided to jump to Ohio State after 12 seasons at Vandy. Stallings quickly replaced Plavich by signing New Jersey native Adam Payton. Director of Athletics Todd Turner began looking to replace Foster... and looking... and looking... and finally he found his man in the person of...

Vandy upsets GeorgiaMAY-- Colorado State's Tom Collen, who was introduced to the fans and media on May Day with great fanfare. But hold everything! When Collen was thought to have (ahem) enhanced his resume (a charge which later was found not to be true, but let's not let that get in the way of a good story)... he was forced by Vandy to resign in disgrace. After another seemingly interminable delay, Turner settled on Xavier's Melanie Balcomb; perhaps never in the history of sports had a resume been so closely scrutinized. In other stories... Zuzi Klimesova landed a spot with the WNBA Indiana Fever... Bobby Reynolds led the men's tennis team into the NCAA Tournament... women's tennis didn't advance to the national finals as it had a year before, but nonetheless set a school record with 27 wins... Roy Mewbourne turned in his baseball cap after 24 seasons as the Commodore skipper... and Kylene Kownurko won the steeplechase at the SEC track meet (yes, Virginia, Vanderbilt does indeed have a track team).

JUNE-- Turner, continuing a hiring spree, brought in Clemson assistant Tim Corbin for baseball, and SMU's Tim McClements for men's soccer. Men's golfer Brandt Snedeker was named second-team All-America.

Vandy upsets GeorgiaJULY-- It was a slow news month. The SEC found a new commissioner in Mike Slive. OK, here's one for you... former football coach Woody Widenhofer accepted a job as defensive coordinator for Southeastern Louisiana University under Hal Mumme. On the last day of July, Bobby Johnson told a group of sportswriters at SEC Media Days that the first time his team lined up to kick, he'd be covering his eyes on the sidelines.

Dore JamAUGUST-- The women's basketball team said arrivederci for an Italian trip. Meanwhile in the states, great optimism surrounded the opening of fall football practice, and almost 5,000 fans showed up to meet the team at Dore Jam. (The free ticket giveaway didn't hurt the numbers any.) Fans got to meet Coach Johnson and walk on the team's new state-of-the-art artificial practice surface (christened the "John Rich Football Complex"). In the intense practices under the hot August sun, freshman Jay Cutler won a battle for the starting quarterback position over veteran Benji Walker. On the final day of August the team's long-awaited road opener proved to be somewhat like a foray into a Yellow Jackets' nest; alas, the Johnson era began with a thud, as Georgia Tech crushed the Commodores, 45-3. Not since General Sherman had the city of Atlanta seen such devastation.

Dr. Gee on bass drumSEPTEMBER-- September brought the dedication of another new facility, the soccer/lacrosse stadium (although unfortunately, the men's and women's soccer teams would just as soon forget their inaugural seasons on the new field). Bobby Johnson dodged a major land mine by picking up his first win at Vandy in his second game-- the victim was the Furman Paladins, the team he'd left to take the Vandy job. The win was exciting enough to prompt Chancellor Gordon Gee to step in on bass drum (right). The football Commodores then lost to Auburn, but finished the month playing fairly decent football in close losses to Mississippi and South Carolina. Cutler was winning good reviews for his performance at quarterback, and Greg Johnson proved to be a more-than-adequate punter/placekicker. Kwane Doster set an SEC record with 243 return yards vs. Ole Miss. But unfortunate injuries ended the seasons of running backs Ronald Hatcher and Norval McKenzie.

OCTOBER-- The Commodore football program got some fine free publicity when ESPN did a feature on Johnson's strict no-cursing policy, but the team wasn't playing worth a *&$%#. Forced to play MTSU sans starting quarterback Jay Cutler (suspended for some late-night hijinks involving an emergency phone), Vandy opened October with a bitter one-point loss to the Blue Raiders. Could things possibly get any worse? How about a bus accident on the way to the Georgia game? The Commodores did earn a comeback win over Connecticut to keep the Homecoming crowd assuaged, but by now it was obvious that the football team was on its way to a 20th consecutive losing season. On the good side, Aleke Tsoubanos and Sarah Riske, the nation's top doubles team, won the prestigious Riviera/ITA All-America Tournament in California. Tim Corbin brought in an excellent 12-man baseball recruiting class, one which included some much-needed pitching. Not to be outdone, Melanie Balcomb inked six impressive signees for women's basketball, and USA Today proclaimed her class the nation's best.

NOVEMBER-- More unexpected departures-- longtime athletic department fixture Brad Bates decided to fly the coop for Miami of Ohio; and basketball assistant Tim Jankovich jumped ship three days before the opener for a position at Illinois. Matthew Tant vs. AlabamaJohnson's Commodores went 0-for-November against a Murderer's Row of Alabama, Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee, and finished 2-10; at the finale against Tennessee at the Coliseum, there were over 25,000 empty seats. Despite the record, Johnson impressed fans as a gritty, no-nonsense, old-school kind of coach who would eventually get the program turned around. A number of his players received post-season honors-- Kwane Doster, who set a freshman record for rushing yards, was the consensus SEC Freshman of the Year. Hunter Hillenmeyer, who led the SEC in tackles, was honored as a National Scholar Athlete, and a first-team All-SEC and Academic All-American. Captain Dan Stricker, who didn't get as many receiving opportunities as he'd hoped for in his senior year, nonetheless made second-team All-SEC.

DECEMBER-- For four years Vandy basketball fans had been asking Kevin Stallings to beef up the Commodores' non-conference schedule, and this year they finally got their wish. Thinking his beefed-up Commodores were ready for some top-flight competition, Stallings scheduled Connecticut, Indiana, Michigan and Notre Dame. The men's team beat up on the customary litany of directional schools, but couldn't get past the big four and finished 2002 with a 6-4 record. The ladies, still adjusting to playing an unaccustomed up-tempo game under new coach Melanie Balcomb, were jolted by Purdue and TCU but cruised to a 7-2 pre-conference mark.

PREDICTION FOR 2003: A few weeks ago I boldly predicted Kevin Stallings' men would break their NCAA drought in 2002-03. Suddenly that prediction is looking pretty shaky, and I'm hesitant to jinx any other teams. Nonetheless, I have one prediction for 2003... Vanderbilt will win its first-ever NCAA championship in any sport...

It will come in women's golf. You heard it here first.

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The most-discussed events of 2002 on the VandyMania message boards were...

  1. The hiring and subsequent firing of Tom Collen as women's basketball coach.
  2. The departure of guard Brendan Plavich from the men's basketball team.
  3. The women's basketball team's post-season run through the SEC Tournament and NCAA Tournament.
  4. The one-game suspension of quarterback Jay Cutler and receiver Grant Brigham from the football team.
  5. The departure of Jim Foster as women's basketball coach.

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