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Because Of Course: Vanderbilt’s Quarter-Century of Futility

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COVID stir-crazy and insomnia are a bad combination. Vanderbilt and must-win football games are worse.

Jamie Duncan, in a rare photograph not taken in an opponent’s backfield.
For real, that jersey is seriously awesome.
D. Patrick Harding / For The Tennessean, Nashville Tennessean via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Permit me as I begin, if you will, a teen girl diversion.

2008, truly a tremendous year for teen girl music. Lady Gaga released The Fame. Katy Perry released One of the Boys. Taylor Swift released Fearless. Adele released 19. A watershed year for pop music. Squee.

And now that “Hot N Cold” or “You Belong with Me” are stuck in your head (where they belong, thank you), allow me to link the opening credits of Yor, The Hunter from the Future:

There is a man from future! A man of mystery! YOR’S WORLD!

Vanderbilt football managed to extend a losing streak of seasons from the release of THAT cinematic abomination to “Poker Face.”

Not so long ago, insomnia and I did battle, and insomnia won. Thankfully for me, the SEC Network had shown a replay of the 2008 football game vs. Kentucky, and I had that sucker recorded. Vanderbilt won, picked up their sixth win, and went bowling for the first time since 1982.

Late in the game, one of the announcers threw out a stat that hurt my brain. During the streak, Vanderbilt was 0-19 in games where they could have reached six wins. I figured that couldn’t possibly be true, so I looked...and it wasn’t! No, it turned out Vandy was only 0-17 in streak-breaking games.

It turned out they were counting two losses from 1993. Those don’t count, because Alabama forfeited a win after the fact, moving Vanderbilt to 5-6. Hurr!

Filled with hubris from my Pyrrhic victory over the announcers, I turned my attention toward the streak. What I found was not pretty, and full of moments likely attributable to Vertigo, God of Insanity. By the time I was done, it was clear that Vanderbilt had no business cobbling together a 25-year losing streak, and I needed to do something else with my time. But it’s 2020, so here we are!

It took at least four of the stupidest games imaginable to keep the streak alive, and they all went the opponent’s way. Because of course.

October 6, 1984: Tulane 27, Vanderbilt 23

The Background: Vanderbilt rolled to a 4-0 start in 1984, winning games against Kansas State, at Maryland, Kansas, and at Alabama. Seriously, look at that litany of power-conference wins! George McIntyre’s team was rightfully ranked #19 in the AP poll, and headed on home to play 0-4 Tulane.

The Play Setup: Take your pick. QB Kurt Page lost his mind and threw four interceptions. I would pinpoint the exact one, if I could. This was well before my time, and unsurprisingly, there’s scarce information available about a 1984 football game between Vanderbilt and Tulane.

Why It’s Unbelievable: Let’s talk about Kurt Page, Kyle Shurmur, and the 1980s for a minute. The fans of that time still talk about what a great quarterback Page was. I never understood why, until I saw his growth from 1983 to 1984:

Kurt Page: 1983-84

Year Completions Attempts Percentage Yards TDs INTs INT % QB Rating
Year Completions Attempts Percentage Yards TDs INTs INT % QB Rating
1983 286 493 58.0% 3178 14 29 5.88% 109.77
1984 203 350 58.0% 2405 16 9 2.57% 125.67

Now, that 1984 stat line looks pedestrian today, but 1984 football was a whole different beast. Page’s 125.7 QB rating was good for 21st in the country. Jim Everett, Steve Beuerlein, and Mike Tomczak all finished within four spots of Page. That’s some elite company for a college QB.

What does all this have to do with Kyle Shurmur? Remember how the 2014 QB carousel failed to produce anything, so Shurmur got inserted halfway through his freshman season in 2015? He really improved in the second half of his junior season, and carried it over to his senior season.

Imagine if Shurmur had gone from QB carousel replacement to his senior performance level in a single year. The fanbase would be over the moon. Kurt Page literally did that in 1984. No wonder the older fans respect him so much. (Ed. Note: But also, imagine if Shurms had played high school ball down the road at Father Ryan. The older fans love them some local products.)

Page only threw five interceptions in ten games — in 1984! — except for the Tulane game. By the end of the year, he had the 10th lowest INT percentage in the country.

And the winless Green Wave picked off four passes, because of course they did.

Long-Term Ramifications: If I’m being honest, probably not that many for the team. From what little I understand, George McIntyre was likely to retire after 1985 anyway. Watson Brown probably still gets hired, and maybe he has some slightly better players to squander for the next five years.

The biggest change is probably to McIntyre’s legacy. Vanderbilt football was a frighteningly bad place when Fred Pancoast left and McIntyre arrived in 1978. Vanderbilt was in the middle of losing 33 SEC games in a row. For his first three years, they were outscored by an average of 36-14 per game. They lost 53-2 to Kentucky, and got beat by The Citadel.

Going 8-4 in 1982 should have gotten him a statue built on West End. Maybe having a second winning season in three years would’ve been enough to order the marble.

September 21, 1991: LSU 16, Vanderbilt 14

The Background: The year was 1991. Windows 3.0 sexied up the computing world, Color Me Badd inexplicably topped the charts, and the Watson Brown Experience had spectacularly derailed.

Gerry DiNardo was brought in from Colorado as the new football coach. DiNardo proceeded to wow everyone by beating SMU 14-11, and took his team on the road to Baton Rouge. LSU was coming off a 45-7 beatdown by Texas A&M, and so far down that they were Vanderbilt’s lone 1990 win.

The Play Setup: Vanderbilt trailed 16-14, and drove down to LSU’s two-yard line with only 1:16 left. On third and goal, DiNardo called for tailback Corey Harris to dive over the left side of the line. He’s either going to score or stay in bounds, running down the clock.

LSU is out of timeouts, so even if they stuff the run, Vanderbilt’s just going to hit a chip shot field goal for the lead with :30 left. (The kicker was 20 of 20 on extra points in 1991, so despite Vanderbilt’s special teams history, he’s not likely to shank a 19-yarder.)

Why It’s Unbelievable: LOOK AT IT, MAN:

Corey Harris was the best tailback Vanderbilt had seen in years. He was a senior in 1991, and ran for 1,103 yards. The Houston Oilers thought enough of him to draft him in the third round, and he spent the next 12 years in the NFL.

A 12-year NFL veteran has the ball wrapped up with both hands, somehow takes a perfect hit, and fumbles two feet from the end zone.

Long-Term Ramifications: Despite going 5-6, Gerry DiNardo won the SEC Coach of the Year in 1991. If he goes 6-5, and wins a bowl game, who knows? Maybe he wins National Coach of the Year, and leaves Vanderbilt even faster.

That sounds bad on the surface, but it means being able to hire literally anyone else than Rod Dowhower as a replacement.

(Then again, this is the early 1990s. Eddie Fogler’s basketball team went 28-6, made it to the Sweet 16, and the administration let him walk in 1993.

Can you imagine Vanderbilt losing a Sweet 16 coach AND a bowl-winning coach in the same season? Everyone would have totally given up and Vanderbilt would be playing in the Big South now, to avoid the high-dollar OVC teams like Jax State. I’m pretty sure I’m convinced of this. The only thing that would be even stupider is losing both coaches, and then announcing that the football team is moving to a soccer stadium at the Nashville Fairgrounds. But that would never happen.

Let’s just say we get THREE years of Dowhower instead of two, and move on from this depressingly long and pointless parenthetical.)

November 13, 1999: Kentucky 19, Vanderbilt 17

The Background: By this point, the streak was up to 17 years, and crushing depression had really set in. Somehow in the midst of this, Vanderbilt found a reasonable game manager under center in Greg Zolman. Between him and the running game, the defense was able to stay off the field for once, and something akin to optimism reigned. It was beautiful.

Woodyball shocked an 8-4 Ole Miss team on a 11:30 JP Sports broadcast, and took advantage of a weak schedule to run out to five wins. All they had to do was knock off Kentucky at home.

The Play Setup: With three minutes left, Kentucky fumbled on its own 40. Vandy had the ball, down by two. John Markham was a godsend at kicker after years of KICK AND KICK! WHAT IS KICK? on special teams.

Ten yards would put him in range, and twenty yards would make the points automatic.

The Commodores used two running backs in 1999, Jared McGrath and Rodney Williams. If I remember right, McGrath had essentially been beheaded late in the 3rd quarter on a personal foul. He picked up 15 yards for his trouble, but was a non-factor for the rest of the game. Either way, Woody elected to go with Williams.

Williams picked up 9 yards on the first two carries. The Commodores had it 3rd and 1 at the 31.

Why It’s Unbelievable: Williams ran it up the middle again, because this is 1990s Vanderbilt football. But in a very non-Vanderbilt event, he actually got the first down! And then he immediately fumbled the game away, because of course.

Now, I’m going to admit that I don’t know anything about 1999 Kentucky football. But Mark Story at the Lexington Herald-Leader does, and according to him, the fumble was forced by a friggin’ walk-on safety.

What are the odds of this? HOW? It’s 3rd and 1, late in the game, against a team obviously milking the clock. Why does Kentucky even need (at best) the #5 defensive back on the field? Were they seriously playing the nickel, and if so, why was Hal Mumme not immediately committed to an insane asylum?

Long-Term Ramifications: There are so many random variables, I don’t know where to begin.

The team probably doesn’t quit at the end of 2001, and Widenhofer almost certainly doesn’t get fired after that season. That probably means no Bobby Johnson.

The recruiting cupboard was completely bare by 2002, although perhaps it’s not *quite* so bad with a bowl game to trumpet. In this alternate timeline, maybe the team does enough to beat Miami of Ohio in the 2000 opener, and even Ole Miss. That’s a respectable 5-6 finish instead of 3-8, and one you can *maybe* still sell to three-star recruits. (That’s right, we’re debating a win over Miami of Ohio. 1990s Vanderbilt football, everybody!)

I figure the bowl buys Woody two or three more years, with him probably going after 2003 and no later than 2004, unless he gets his act together on the recruiting trail and that really does pick up. But what happens then?

Charlie Strong was doing a one-game interim coaching stint for Florida’s bowl game in 2004. Steve Spurrier was through with the Redskins after 2003. Were either of those a realistic possibility, save for one fumble? I don’t know, but it would’ve been interesting to see.

Then again, Furman went 10-3 in 2004, losing to national champion James Madison by a point. Maybe Bobby Johnson does enough to beat the Dukes, Furman wins a national title, and Vanderbilt signs him anyway.

October 1, 2005: MTSU 17, Vanderbilt 15

The Background: Go back and re-read the 1984 Tulane background, because it’s pretty much identical. Vanderbilt was 4-0 with wins over Wake, Arkansas, and Ole Miss. (...and Richmond. The Spiders would go on to nurse seething rage over the loss for six years, until the 2011 NCAA Tournament. Alas, I digress and depress myself again.)

MTSU was 0-3 with losses to North Texas and Akron. North Texas was so bad that after beating MTSU, they lost their next two games 54-2 and 54-7 (to Tulsa and a 5-6 Kansas St., no less).

Vanderbilt is about to atone Woody’s losses to the Blue Raiders, and how. Except no, because of course.

The Play Setup: MTSU punter Colby Smith got off on the best punts you’ll ever see, downing it at the one-inch line. Vanderbilt’s offense took over with 2:47 left in the game, down 17-15. Jay Cutler completed 6 of his first 7 passes in a hurry, and a 15-yard illegal participation penalty on the Blue Raiders moved the ball to the MTSU 29.

One more completion to tight end Dustin Dunning set the ball on the MTSU 18. Bryant Hahnfeldt came in for a 36-yard FG, which MTSU promptly blocked to escape Nashville with a win.

Why It’s Unbelievable: The easy option is to say “it’s not, Hahnfeldt was wildly inconsistent,” but that wasn’t true at this point. He was 8-10 on the year, and had already hit three field goals in this game alone. The stupid didn’t infect his leg until 2006 and 2007, when he was only 10 of 24 from 30+ yards.

It’s unbelievable because it should have never come down to this. I liked Bobby Johnson, but his offense was way too conservative at times. Sure, it helped prevent blowouts against better teams. It also kept the offense from finishing off lesser opponents, and never more than on this night.

Even during the game, I remember thinking that the offense needed to step on the gas. Vanderbilt finished with 347 yards on 78 plays. That’s a paltry 4.4 yards per play, and for comparison, that would’ve ranked 108th nationally in 2005. Cutler only completed one pass over 20 yards, and that was to a tight end.

MTSU had a good Sun Belt defense, but come on, Jay Cutler and Earl Bennett should have carved up a good Sun Belt defense. The offense spent three hours trying to dink their way down the field, and it cost them a win.

Also, the Blue Raiders had 13 defenders on special teams to block the final field goal.

Long-Term Ramifications: After the Music City Bowl, Bobby Johnson’s recruiting greatly improved. He started signing full classes of three-star players, instead of the occasional three-star player. Those classes laid the groundwork for James Franklin’s run.

If Vanderbilt goes bowling in 2005, Bobby Johnson likely starts pulling in three-star classes for three extra years. At the very least, the Commodores make another bowl in 2008 and probably in 2007. We’ll never know exactly how high Bobby Johnson’s ceiling was, but we would’ve had the chance to find out.

2007: THE WHOLE YEAR

Background: No, for real man, THE WHOLE YEAR.

The Play Setup: I don’t care if they beat Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, or if they actually show up for the Wake Forest game. Just pick one and go 6-6, and never speak of this year again.

Why It’s Unbelievable: By this point, nothing was unbelievable for Vanderbilt football.

Long-Term Ramifications: Apparently lighting a fire under everyone and finally getting to the Music City Bowl in 2008.

And nothing stupid ever happened to Vanderbilt football again.

(ノಠ_ಠ)ノ彡┻━━┻

Poll

Go on, admit it: Which was your favorite 2008 album?

This poll is closed

  • 28%
    Lady Gaga, The Fame
    (13 votes)
  • 8%
    Katy Perry, One of the Boys
    (4 votes)
  • 33%
    Taylor Swift, Fearless
    (15 votes)
  • 28%
    Adele, 19
    (13 votes)
45 votes total Vote Now