June 4, 2014
By Jerome Boettcher | Subscribe to Commodore Nation
Confidence permeated the corridors of the McGugin Center.
Months after an unprecedented restructuring of the athletic department, a winning attitude replaced any sense of uncertainty.
Ten years later, 2004 remains a banner season in Vanderbilt athletics.
“To be able to walk around the hall and see that everyone felt like a winner was awesome,” lacrosse coach Cathy Swezey said. “It was the one year I remember where everybody was like, ‘We’re winners. We’re winners.’ You did feel a change in tone in this department at that point. The expectations became ‘we should win’ instead of ‘we hope to win.’”
If the Commodores are in the golden era of Vanderbilt athletics, 2004 provided a jumpstart.
Trophies were hoisted, nets were cut down, postseason runs were ignited and firsts were accomplished. Eight teams made NCAA Tournaments and the women’s track team sent individuals to both the indoor and outdoor NCAA Championships.
Lacrosse, less than a decade old, reached the program’s first Final Four. Women’s tennis reached the Final Four for the second time in four years. Baseball, in just the second year under coach Tim Corbin, made a magical run to the first Super Regional in program history. Both basketball teams danced to the Sweet 16. Men’s tennis stormed to the quarterfinals.
In the past 10 years, Vanderbilt has won a combined 13 conference regular-season and tournament championships and one national title. In 2004, the Commodores won four (women’s basketball, women’s golf, women’s lacrosse and women’s tennis). Five individual SEC crowns were captured in men’s tennis, women’s golf and women’s track and field.
In the standings for the Director’s Cup, which the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics presents every year to the athletic department with the most success, the Commodores finished a school-best 28th.
“What made it much more (special) was that everybody (outside of the department) basically thought it would be a bad year,” athletics director David Williams said. “In some degree we were overdue. It sent a message internally, not only in athletics but in the university, that we can actually compete with other people in this conference. And we didn’t have to sacrifice academics. I think that was the most positive thing.”
On Sept. 9, 2003, Gordon Gee, Vanderbilt’s chancellor at the time, dissolved the athletic department. By doing so, Gee intended to integrate the 300 student-athletes with the rest of the student body. Intercollegiate sports and recreational athletics fell under the same department—Division of Student Life and University Affairs.
He abolished the athletic director position and put Williams, who had been on campus as a vice chancellor since 2000, in charge of athletics in addition to his duties as the university’s general counsel and a fully tenured professor of law.
National media attention ensued. Critics claimed Vanderbilt’s coaches would flee and recruiting would take a hit. Williams even remembers some doubters believing the Commodores would eventually be relying on intramural students.
“It sort of gave you that edge in that everybody thinks we’re stupid, we’re crazy,” Williams said. “Maybe it was the way I grew up, those things sort of motivate you a little more. I think we were motivated.”
As soon as the calendar flipped to 2004, the Commodores were off and running.
Coach Kevin Stallings broke through in leading the men’s basketball team to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1997. Behind senior captain and All-American Matt Freije, Vanderbilt went two steps further. They upset No. 3 seed North Carolina State in dramatic fashion, erasing a 10-point deficit in the final 2:44. Corey Smith’s game-winning layup on a backdoor pass from Mario Moore with 21 seconds left catapulted the Commodores to their first Sweet 16 in 11 years.
The next day, the women’s basketball team followed suit by punching their ticket to the Sweet 16 with a dominant win over UT-Chattanooga. It was Vanderbilt’s third trip to the regional semifinals in four years but the first under coach Melanie Balcomb, who was only in her second season.
The Commodores, led by the high-low combination of Ashley Earley (now a VU assistant) and Jenni Benningfield, peaked at the right time. They won 10 straight, including four in a row to win the Southeastern Conference Tournament crown. And they were a play away from reaching the Elite Eight until Stanford prevailed with a game-winning shot at the buzzer.
“That was probably, at the time, maybe the best team I’ve ever had here,” Balcomb said. “I was devastated when we lost on that buzzer shot to Stanford. That was one of those years where we had everything. Five starters (averaging) double figures (in scoring). We were very explosive on offense and had great leadership. I absolutely loved that team. If there was any year we should have got to the Elite Eight that was it.
“I do think it legitimized the starting of my career here. We had really high expectations.”
From the hardwood to the track, the momentum carried over.
Josie Hahn (heptathlon) and Erika Schneble (5,000 meters) captured SEC championships. Both qualified for the NCAA outdoor championships, with Hahn finishing sixth in the heptathlon and Schneble taking eighth in the 5,000 meters.
Women’s tennis, under the direction of coach Geoff Macdonald, was three years removed from becoming the first Vanderbilt team—in any sport—to reach the NCAA championship game. The Commodores got back to the Final Four and also won the SEC regular-season championship.
The men’s team made a postseason run, too, reaching the quarterfinals. Zach Dailey and Chad Harris also accomplished a rare feat—sharing the SEC indoor singles championship. The teammates both reached the final but opted not to play each other, instead sharing the unique honor as co-champions.
“Both of these guys played so hard all week,” former Vanderbilt tennis coach Ken Flach said at the time. “I’m so proud of the way they played, and I think it is fitting to honor both of them.”
Both golf teams qualified for the NCAA Championships. The women’s golf team had arguably its best year. The Commodores won the SEC Tournament championship for the first time in program history, and May Wood collected the program’s first individual conference crown.
That team also won the NCAA East Regional title and notched its best finish at the championship. The Commodores placed fifth, and Sarah Jacobs tied for sixth.
While the ‘Dores were making unprecedented strides on the links, the lacrosse team was stunning the rest of the country.
Vanderbilt added lacrosse in 1996. Eight years later, the sport was still very much dominated by the Northeast.
But that changed in 2004 when, in just its second appearance in the NCAA Tournament, the Commodores reached the Final Four.
“Women’s lacrosse was not a sport they played in the South, and we made it to the Final Four,” Williams said.
Led by future Vanderbilt Hall of Famer Jess Roguski, a pair of All-American transfers Michelle Allen and Lauren Peck and All-American defender Bridget Morris, the Commodores got on a roll.
It started with the last regular-season game of the season, when Vanderbilt knocked off Northwestern in overtime on the road to win the American Lacrosse Conference championship for the second time in three years. Swezey believed the win pushed the team off the NCAA Tournament bubble and into the 16-team field as the No. 13 seed.
“Once we were in the NCAAs, the attitude of the team was so awesome,” Swezey said. “They really believed they would win. They really did. The first team they played was the fourth seed (Loyola) in the country. Then we drive down to play the No. 6 seed (James Madison) in the country, and we beat them. Our road to the Final Four was a tough one, but we did what we had to do and our kids had the mentality that anything was possible.”
Corbin and the Commodores ended the school year with an exclamation point.
In his first season as Vanderbilt’s baseball coach in 2003, the team qualified for the SEC Tournament for the first time in seven years. The encore was far better than anyone had imagined. The 2004 team set a then-school record with 45 wins. They reached the SEC Tournament championship game for the first time in 10 years and made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1980. But the Commodores weren’t happy with just being there—sweeping through George Mason, Princeton and Virginia for the program’s first regional championship and a trip to the Super Regional.
After 2004, doors opened for the ‘Dores.
Playing lacrosse at Vanderbilt became a “viable option,” according to Swezey, for Northeastern recruits. Women’s golf and men’s and women’s tennis have starred on the national stage for the past decade.
The 2004 run showed that women’s basketball would remain an SEC and NCAA Tournament contender under Balcomb. It was the first of six trips to March Madness over the next nine years and helped Stallings and his staff attract top-notch recruits like Shan Foster, Derrick Byars and Jermaine Beal. Baseball also drew the country’s best talent in David Price, Mike Minor and Pedro Alvarez as, starting in 2006, the Commodores made the next eight NCAA Tournaments (they hope the streak continues in a month).
All the success throughout his department showed Williams it wasn’t limited to one sport. As football struggled through a 2-9 season in the fall of 2004, Williams knew the bar had been set.
“I thought that first year was as an important year to what happened later in football,” he said. “All these of the other teams are doing it. I kept asking the question, ‘Why can’t we do it in football?’ It does give you an attitude. If you plan and work hard you can do it. I thought it was an important year. “(A) 9-4 (record) is not good enough for (the football players). And that’s good. I always say the biggest problem to being great is good. We get good, and you got to fight through the good. That year told us we could be great.”