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1984 was George MacIntyre’s chance to show he was building something sustainable at Vanderbilt

George MacIntyre’s sixth Vanderbilt team might have stopped the bowl drought before it started.

Chargers V Oilers

Good morning! Since we don’t have anything better to do, we’re looking back at the past. This series will cover some of the more interesting seasons in Vanderbilt football and basketball history — not necessarily the best, mind you, but some of those that set the course for multiple seasons. Or just that were interesting on their face.

Rebuilding a program is hard, but the really hard part is sustaining the rebuild. There’s a reason why Steve Sloan jumped ship to Texas Tech after a Peach Bowl appearance (ironically, against Texas Tech) in 1974, and there’s a reason why James Franklin parlayed back-to-back nine-win seasons into the Penn State job. Winning once at Vanderbilt is hard enough; continuing to win once the players and assistant coaches who got things off the ground are gone is even harder.

That was the situation that George MacIntyre faced following an 8-4 campaign in 1982. To say that MacIntyre inherited a difficult situation is an understatement; Vanderbilt had lost 18 consecutive SEC games when MacIntyre took the job, a streak that would reach 33 before a 27-23 triumph over Ole Miss (ironically coached by none other than Steve Sloan, who’d headed for Oxford after winning 23 games in three years in Lubbock) in 1981. But even with that monkey off his back, it was still a surprise when a team that had beaten just Maryland, Ole Miss, Memphis, and UT-Chattanooga the year before suddenly won eight games, capped by a 28-21 win over Tennessee to close the regular season. Yeah, the Hall of Fame Classic loss to Air Force was a bit deflating, but nevertheless Vanderbilt had won eight games for the first time since 1955.

And then the hard work would start, and surprisingly, MacIntyre would be around for it. But most of Vanderbilt’s offensive punch would be gone, with quarterback Whit Taylor ceding to rising junior Kurt Page, and Taylor’s top two targets (tight end Allama Matthews and running back Norman Jordan, now better known as the color commentator on Vanderbilt football radio broadcasts) were also graduated. And offensive coordinator Watson Brown, who’d overseen an offense that went from 125th nationally in scoring offense in 1980 to 78th in 1981 and 39th in 1982, had taken the head coaching job at Cincinnati in the offseason.

The new offensive coordinator for 1983 was Lynn Amedee, hired away after a season as the offensive coordinator at Southwestern Louisiana, and that came after two years as the head coach at UT-Martin (ironically, MacIntyre had also been the head coach there in the 1970s.) And yet, even with Kurt Page throwing for 3178 yards and leading the country in both passing completions and attempts, Vanderbilt slumped to 89th nationally in scoring offense at 16.6 ppg. A big culprit: Page also led the country in interceptions with 29, and while some of that was the simple result of throwing the ball a lot, Page was also four clear of Ball State’s Neil Britt, who was second in the country in interceptions — and nine clear of third place.

But Page would return for 1984, one of nine starters on the offensive side of the ball to do so. The talk going into the season was that Vanderbilt might have one of its best offensive lines ever, anchored by 6’3”, 270-pound senior tackle Rob Monaco, though the real star would turn out to be 6’6”, 275-pound junior guard Will Wolford (who would develop into a first-round pick in the 1986 NFL Draft and play thirteen years in the league.) And there were other weapons on the offense: Chuck Scott, who would end up being a 2nd-round pick in the 1985 draft, was coming off a season in which he’d caught nine touchdown passes; and Gallatin product Carl Woods, who had produced 828 yards of total offense as a freshman in 1983.

The defense, though, was a different matter. Never a strongsuit of MacIntyre’s teams, Vanderbilt would have to replace All-American cornerback Leonard Coleman (the 8th overall pick in the 1984 draft) and All-SEC defensive end Steve Bearden. But the hope was for stepped-up offensive production to cover for a young defense.

The other issue was the schedule. On the one hand, the SEC in 1984 only had a six-game conference schedule; on the other hand, there was nowhere to hide in the nonconference schedule in 1984. Division I-A in that year consisted of just 110 teams to today’s 130; most of the current Sun Belt and Conference USA teams — the teams you’d typically schedule for easy wins — were still in I-AA. And unlike in 2020, in 1984 teams couldn’t count a win over a I-AA team toward the six required for bowl eligibility. So in 1984, Vanderbilt would play what looks like a murderer’s row schedule outside of the SEC: they’d lead off September with Kansas State, Maryland, and Kansas. Then, after opening SEC play at Alabama, they would host Tulane. Virginia Tech (then an independent, now in the ACC) would come to Nashville in November. Now, Kansas State and Kansas were pretty bad in the 1980s, and Tulane is Tulane, but Maryland was coming off a bowl appearance and Virginia Tech a 9-2 season fueled by the nation’s #1 defense featuring future Hall of Famer Bruce Smith.

September 8: Vanderbilt 26, Kansas State 14

In a sign of the times, Kansas State and Vanderbilt, two teams that had combined for five wins the previous year, would open the season before a near-sellout crowd at Vanderbilt Stadium.

If there was a reliably bad team in college football in the 1980s, Kansas State was it. Yes, the Wildcats had been to the 1982 Independence Bowl, but that was their first bowl game ever, and coming into 1984 the Wildcats had had two winning seasons in the previous 29 years. And early on in the season opener, it looked like Vanderbilt might have an easy time of it. Carl Woods, the sophomore running back, would open the scoring with a 1-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. After K-State pulled within 7-3, Kurt Page would find Keith Edwards for his first touchdown of the season, a 55-yard strike that sent the Commodores into halftime with a 14-3 advantage.

Things would get dicey in the third quarter, though. A Steve Willis field goal cut the margin to 14-6, and then the Wildcats’ Brad Lambert would score the first of his three defensive touchdowns of the season when he returned an errant pass by Page 25 yards for a score, and K-State converted for two to even the score at 14. But Vanderbilt’s Ricky Anderson would connect on a pair of field goals beyond 40 yards in the fourth quarter, and Woods put the game out of reach with his second score of the day.

Page had a fine day in spite of the interception, completing 15-of-23 passes for 196 yards, but Woods was the workhorse, carrying the ball 29 times for 116 yards. The postgame quotes were revealing (hat tip to the Google Newspaper archives, which has the AP gamer in the Tuscaloosa News):

“Vanderbilt ran the ball more than I thought they would,” said Kansas State coach Jim Dickey. “We were working on defending the pass, and they caught us a couple of times. We were blitzing, and that made their runs look all the better.”

“We knew from the start we were going to run the ball,” the Commodore sophomore (Woods) said. “It took me a little time to get untracked, but after that everything was all right.”

September 15: Vanderbilt (2-0) 23, Maryland (0-2) 14

After the 26-14 win over Kansas State to open the season, the competition would step up a bit in the second week. Maryland was coming off an 8-4 season that ended with a Citrus Bowl loss to Tennessee (ha, there’s a joke in there somewhere), and while the Terrapins had opened 1984 with a 23-7 loss to Syracuse, they were clearly a team to be taken seriously. And with Carl Woods getting bottled up (87 yards on 24 carries), Vanderbilt would have to rely on Page’s arm in this one.

And the defense. Before a crowd of 34,100 at Byrd Stadium, Vanderbilt would hold Maryland to a pair of field goals on early drives after third-down sacks of Maryland quarterback Frank Reich (yes, that Frank Reich.) In between, Page connected with Chuck Scott for a 23-yard touchdown strike. Another touchdown pass to Scott, this one from 19 yards, gave Vanderbilt a 14-6 second quarter lead, but Reich would find paydirt to tie the score at 14.

Ricky Anderson, the kicker, would take things over from there. Anderson gave Vanderbilt a 17-14 lead just before halftime on a 46-yard field goal. And even though Maryland managed 343 yards of total offense on the day, the Commodore defense was able to force a pair of long field goal attempts that Maryland’s Jess Anderson missed — two of his three misses on the season. Atkinson added two more field goals in the second half to give Vanderbilt a 23-14 win. Chuck Scott had the big day with 10 receptions for 162 yards; Page was 25-of-35 for 316 yards, and his interceptions were becoming a thing of the past: through two games, he’d thrown just one interception in 58 attempts.

At the end of the season, this would be a really good win. After the 0-2 start, Maryland would run the table in the SEC and close the season with a Sun Bowl win over Tennessee, finishing with a 9-3 record and ranked 12th in the final AP Poll.

September 22: Vanderbilt (3-0) 41, Kansas (1-2) 6

After two tight games to open the season, Vanderbilt was in for a laugher in its third game of the season. Kansas wasn’t terrible in 1984 — the Jayhawks would go 5-6, 4-3 in the Big 8, and somehow beat second-ranked Oklahoma later in the season — but this wasn’t their day. After falling behind 6-0 on a pair of chip-shot field goals in the first half, Vanderbilt would roll up 505 yards of total offense and reel off 41 unanswered points.

And, again, the attendance numbers in the days before Nashville had an NFL team were something to behold: 41,125 fans attended this one. Now imagine what a game between Vanderbilt and Kansas would draw in 2020, and make yourself sad.

September 29: Vanderbilt (4-0) 30, Alabama (1-3) 21

Oh, sure, Vanderbilt could beat Kansas State, Maryland, and Kansas, but this is Alabama, son. In Tuscaloosa, a place where Vanderbilt had won literally never. On Alabama’s homecoming. (The Tuscaloosa part is a neat trick and an artifact of Alabama frequently playing home games outside of Tuscaloosa for a long time. Prior to 1984, Vanderbilt had only played in Tuscaloosa eight times, with previous games being played in Birmingham or Mobile. But I digress.)

But this was hardly a vintage Alabama team. Alabama had opened the season ranked 9th in the AP Poll, but fell out after opening the season with losses to Boston College (not as embarrassing as it sounds; this was the Doug Flutie year) and Georgia Tech (which was about as bad as it sounds; Georgia Tech would finish 6-4-1.) The Tide righted the ship with a 37-14 win over frequent 1980s SEC patsy Southwestern Louisiana, the school now known as Louisiana-Lafayette, but Ray Perkins was having a hell of a time of it in his second year following the legend.

And, the Tuscaloosa News has this hilariously 1980s paragraph in the recap:

The Commodores were forced to report to work early. Kickoff was at 11:22 RPFT (Ray Perkins Football Time) to accommodate Alabama’s exclusive pay-per-view network, TideVision. But, obviously, Vanderbilt prefers the normal kickoff time of 1:30.

If this wasn’t a JP game in fact, it was a JP game in spirit.

But Vandy tried to Vandy this up. The Commodores opened the game with a 14-play, 75-yard drive that took 6:40 off the clock... but settled for a field goal. Vanderbilt then elected to attempt an onside kick — in the first quarter — which was recovered by Alabama. Alabama scored a touchdown, aided by a key pass interference penalty on Vandy’s Thanh Anderson and an offsides penalty on a 19-yard field goal attempt; the Tide then scored on 4th and goal from the Vanderbilt 1.

Ricky Anderson connected on his second field goal of the game early in the second quarter, this one from 47 yards. Vanderbilt then got a defensive stop, but a muffed punt gave Alabama the ball at the Vanderbilt 25 — but the Commodore defense held them to a field goal. And an interception by Thanh Anderson late in the first half set up another field goal drive to cut Alabama’s margin to 10-9 at halftime.

In the first half, Vanderbilt had gained 13 first downs to Alabama’s 6; Vandy had run 43 plays for 186 yards, while Alabama had run 33 plays for 90 yards. Yep, you’re reading that right: Vanderbilt had outplayed Alabama for a half.

But it looked early in the third quarter like Alabama might survive in spite of it. Another turnover, this one a fumble by Kurt Page, gave Alabama the ball in great field position again at the Vanderbilt 21 — but Vanderbilt forced another field goal. And then, finally, the dam broke. Vanderbilt unleashed a 6-play, 82-yard scoring drive to take the lead on Page’s 18-yard pass to Scott, and it was 16-13. And then Mike Shula made an appearance, throwing a single pass that resulted in Thanh Anderson’s second interception of the day; Page would find Joe Kelly on 3rd and goal at the 1 five plays later, extending the lead to 23-13. Carl Woods put the nail in the coffin with a 30-yard touchdown run with 2:14 left. Alabama would score with 11 seconds left in the game to make the score marginally less embarrassing, but the 30-21 final was Vanderbilt’s first win over Alabama since 1969 (and, as of 2020, is also Vanderbilt’s most recent win over Alabama.)

On the heels of the win in Tuscaloosa, Vanderbilt found itself in a place it hadn’t been in 26 years: the AP Top 25. The 4-0 Commodores debuted at #19 in the October 2 AP poll. Up next was a good chance to move to 5-0, with winless Tulane coming to Vanderbilt Stadium on Saturday.

Now, of course, if you were around in 1984, you know how this ends — but even if you weren’t around in 1984, you probably have a good idea how this ends. We’ll explore the middle of the season in the next post.