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Saturday Tailgate: The Dowhower Bowl

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What, you thought Derek Mason was the only head coach Vanderbilt has ever hired who had ties to The Farm?

Indianapolis Colts v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Optional Musical Accompaniment

In 1979, when Bill Walsh departed Stanford to become the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers (where he would win three Super Bowls), Stanford immediately promoted his wide receivers coach, one Rodney Douglas Dowhower, to replace him. Dowhower would win, uh, something less than three Super Bowls in his career.

Dowhower took over a team that had gone 8-4 in 1978, was ranked 13th in the preseason AP poll, and had secured the services of what was thought to be the best high school football player in the country, some guy named John Elway. The Cardinal opened the season in the Superdome and promptly fell out of the Top 25 with a 33-10 loss to Tulane, on their way to a 5-5-1 record (the tie, somehow, came against #1 USC in the Coliseum.) Dowhower left after one season to become the Denver Broncos’ offensive coordinator, then spent 15 years bouncing around various NFL teams (including a 5-24 stint as the Indianapolis Colts’ head coach, getting fired after an 0-13 start in 1986.) His last five seasons in the NFL were spent as a quarterbacks coach, first for the Washington Redskins under Joe Gibbs, then a single season under Bill Belichick with the Cleveland Browns.

It was that resume that bizarrely led to Dowhower becoming Vanderbilt’s head coach in 1995. Vanderbilt was looking to replace Gerry DiNardo, who had gone 18-26 in four seasons and hadn’t had a winning season, a resume that somehow got him the LSU job, and I remember hearing Mitch Light mention once on Chris Lee’s podcast that then-Athletic Director Paul Hoolahan wanted to move toward a pro-style offense.

The problem, of course, is that DiNardo had been running the option at Vanderbilt. Incumbent quarterbacks Ronnie Gordon and Damian Allen had been recruited to run the option, not the West Coast offense, and the result was an “offense” that managed to finish dead last in the country in both 1995 and 1996, averaging 11.1 points per game both years. The 1996 team got shut out three times and didn’t win an SEC game, beating only North Texas (which was in its second year back in Division I-A after a 13-year sojourn in I-AA) and UAB (which was in its first year in Division I-A and was coached by former Vanderbilt head coach Watson Brown, of all people.)

Dowhower was relieved of his duties after the 1996 season and replaced by his defensive coordinator, Woody Widenhofer, who was roughly the only person keeping the 1995 and 1996 Vanderbilt football teams competitive. Widenhofer had his own issues (namely, a 12-31-1 record as Missouri’s head coach a decade earlier) but, well, there’s a reason why Woody is regarded as a cult hero at Anchor of Gold and Dowhower is... mostly forgotten. But a constantly overlooked point that people miss when talking about the bad old days of Vanderbilt football is how much the administration would shoot itself in the foot by hiring guys whose resumes certainly did not even remotely suggest that they should be a head coach in the SEC.

And you thought Derek Mason was the coaching connection I was going to go with between Stanford and Vanderbilt.


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