Oct. 17, 2012
When former Vanderbilt running back Jamie O’Rourke (1971, 1973-74) finished his eligibility, he was on top of the Commodores all-time career-rushing list with 2, 202 yards. That small stat might not seem so impressive now, but being the best all-time is always an achievement to be proud.
“That’s pretty sad,” joked O’Rourke about his one-time record. “It’s nice to have done that, but I only played for three years and two of them were after I recovered from surgery on my knees. I think that was a low number for an all-time rushing leader. So be it. I also have a lot of carries. My yards per carry was something like 4.4.”
O’Rourke was born in Bay Shore, New York and grew up in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., prepping at Chactawhatchee High School. O’Rourke was recruited by Paul “Bear” Bryant of Alabama and Florida State in the pre-Bobby Bowden era. Also in the hunt for O’Rourke’s ability was Coach Bill Pace of Vanderbilt.
“I wasn’t too serious about Alabama and was close to going to Florida State,” said O’Rourke. “I did not sign on signing day. I actually waited. The bottom line for Vanderbilt, I felt if I went to there I would have an opportunity to contribute to something and help turn the program around. At Alabama, the best you could do was to keep up with the current. Back then you could travel with as many players as you wanted. Alabama was using about six running backs in a game I felt that I could do more good at Vanderbilt and getting a law degree from Vanderbilt had a nice ring to it.
“The biggest thing for me, I really didn’t have a hometown. My parents were living in Thailand when I was playing football in high school. I was thinking about where was I going to get a job out of college and what was I going to do. I felt that if I did well in football, I’d have more opportunities in the city that I played. If you look around the Southeast, Vanderbilt is one of a few schools in a large city. That was a big reason for me to choose Vanderbilt and it turned out that way as I stayed in Nashville and still live there today. I never went to law school”
In this era of college football (1970), freshmen were ineligible for varsity play so freshmen teams were organized and games played among the first year players. O’Rourke was going to have to wait in pursuing his rushing records. When O’Rourke began practicing for the first time on the Vanderbilt campus there was some confusion as to which side of the practice field he belonged.
“In my sophomore year of high school, I played defensive back and was recruited to Vanderbilt as a defensive back by Coach [Bob] Patterson” said O’Rourke “Then I played running back as a senior. When I got to Vanderbilt, we were basically dummies. Then finally we had to get ready for our freshman games and they sent me over to the defensives backs. Doug Mathews was a graduate assistant at the time on defense. Doug was so mean giving me a hard time during the first practice. He was yelling at me like how was I going to be an All-American playing like that. I thought this isn’t fun.
“So I went over to Bobby Cope the head freshman coach and said, ‘there has been some kind of mistake here. I’m not a defensive back. I’m a running back.’ He said, ‘oh, all right then go over there to the offense.’ So that’s how I became a running back at Vanderbilt. I have thanked Doug many times for that. The first game I played in as a freshman was against Louisville. I’d never been hit so hard and so much. I busted my lip open. We didn’t have much time to practice together as freshmen, but I think those guys from Louisville had practiced more than we did. They were knocking the crap out of us. I think we won the game, but I didn’t fell like we’d won.”
When O’Rourke became eligible for the varsity in his sophomore season (1971), Pace was beginning his fifth season leading the Commodores. His previous records were 2-7, 5-4-1, 4-6 and 4-7. The 1971 team was 4-6-1. O’Rourke led the Commodores in rushing with 677 yards recording his top rushing performance against Tulane. He rushed for 187 yards and a school-record 35 carries. O’Rourke’s effort that season earned a place on the SEC All-Sophomore team. He ranked fifth in the conference in rushing and had two other 100-plus games (Kentucky-101 and Tampa-120).
“The Tulane game was a lot of fun to be able to make that much yardage,” O’Rourke said. “I remember Coach Pace’s wife coming up to me after the game to hug me and saying, ‘thank you.’ I think maybe she thought I’d saved his job. Apparently not though. It might have bought him another year. I had never seen that many homecoming queens before since we played for most people’s homecomings. We didn’t spoil many of them. Playing in that old Sugar Bowl Stadium [Tulane’s home field] was awesome and we played before only 8,000 people.
“Just before the fall of my junior year, the writers asked me who was the toughest defense we played against. I think I disappointed them because I told them it was most certainly Louisville, which of course was not in the SEC. They asked me why Louisville. I told them all the other teams stopped when the whistle blew. I can remember getting hit when I got up after a play against Louisville.
“They asked me why I thought Louisville played that way. I suggested that they might have been recruiting from a different part of the city than the rest of the SEC teams were recruiting. These guys were really messing with you in the piles and just kept coming after you. They asked me about the Alabama linebackers, but I explained to them that I really never got that far [laughing]. I wouldn’t really know that much on how they hit. I pretty much got stopped at the line of scrimmage.”
Just before O’Rourke was to begin his junior season, a very unusual injury would slow down the Vandy tailback’s progress as an SEC rusher. That one play would cost O’Rourke time on the gridiron and in school.
“As far as I know it is an NCAA record to tear up both knees on the same play,” joked O’Rourke. “I never had any knee trouble before or since. I was running a goal line offense and unfortunately as usual, there was not a hole to go through. I always believed you play like you practice so I dove over the top. That was August 31, 1972 the last scrimmage before the season started.
“The late Jeff Peeples, a great Nashville athlete, hit my legs going low when I was going high. He caught my legs and spun me over really fast and I landed on my heels in the end zone. I tore ligaments in both knees. It was like a wishbone. They operated the next day on both knees. I was in a wheel chair for about six weeks and then I began my rehab.”
During that fall, with O’Rourke recovering from his injuries, Pace’s Commodores were 3-8 with wins over Chattanooga, Virginia and William & Mary. They lost the last six games and were 0-6 in the SEC. Pace was replaced by 28-year old Steve Sloan the former Alabama quarterback without any head coaching experience. O’Rourke was concerned about the future of Vanderbilt football and he revealed his leadership ability by expressing those concerns.
“I was not enrolled in class in the fall of 1972 because I couldn’t get out of bed and to classes with two casts,” O’Rourke said. “When I got the casts off, football was very important to me; probably too important. I was halfway into my college career and I became very active in trying to turn things around at Vanderbilt. I couldn’t do anything, but sit and think. I tried to analyze and focus on why is it I saw these guys at Alabama and Florida State where I was being recruited getting the best recruits. When I got to Vanderbilt we didn’t win football games. I think we did figure out what was going on at Vanderbilt that no matter what we put into the Vanderbilt machine it came out hamburger. I met with every member of the Board of Trust. They did not ask for my opinion, but I gave it. I gave them a plan of what I thought fundamentally should be changed not just a new coach.
“I told them I had been working on this and thinking it through because I’m in the middle of it. I gave an opinion on why we lose in the second half. And why were these players who were Division I, SEC players when they came here, end up not playing that way. Eventually I met with Chancellor [Alexander] Heard not that anything substantial happened from that meeting. When you come in as a freshman football player you are nothing on the field. You are a dummy and people treat you that way. That is the nature of being a freshman. At least on most competing college campuses the fact that you are a football player you can hold your head up. That was not the case at Vanderbilt. It’s not that there was anything wrong with that it was more that Nashville was the Athens of the South thing.
“Steve Sloan came in and made these players feel important by virtue of his personality. He teats people the way he would like to be treated. He treats people with respect and is a very friendly guy that made his players feel important. And pleasing Steve Sloan became important. And, of course, he had Bill Parcells who was the defensive coordinator. They made us believe we were working harder than everybody else and there were enough players that could play and believed in him. They changed the attitude around and attitude is everything.”
O’Rourke, 60, did rehabilitate both knees after a year off and returned to lead the Commodores again in rushing with 592 yards. In the fourth game of the season, Vanderbilt defeated Virginia, 39-22. A Vanderbilt press release dated October 10, 1973 reports on O’Rourke’s game against the Cavilers:
“Vanderbilt tailback Jamie O’Rourke’s favorite style scoring touchdowns from one or two yards out is the classic dive over the line to pay dirt. It was a happy sight to Commodore fans to see the gritty 5-11, 185-pound junior tailback leaping into the end zone twice Saturday in Vanderbilt’s 39-22 victory over the Virginia Cavaliers. Add 171 yards and 28 other carries to O’Rourke’s rushing totals and you have his final stats for the afternoon-30 attempts for 173 yards on the ground.
“Thirteen months and many hours of pain and of weightlifting had passed since Jamie had performed his acrobatic dives for touchdowns. But after a year of redshirtdom, O’Rourke came back strong. The Virginia performance helped him to top Vandy rushing stats with 199 yards in 39 carries for an average of 5.1 yards-per-carry and 67.3 yards-per-game, which ranks fifth in the SEC. He missed the Vanderbilt-Alabama game with a hip injury.”
Under first year coach Sloan, Vanderbilt was 5-6 with its lone SEC win over Georgia, 18-14 in Athens. Other than Virginia and Georgia, victories came over Chattanooga, William & Mary and Tampa.
“The Georgia game was a very good game for us,” O’Rourke said. “It was the first major win we had while I was playing at Vanderbilt. Several of our players like David Lee, Fred Fisher, Dennis Harrison and maybe 10 or 12 of us would get together before every game in my hotel room and pray. We would always say a prayer about the game. God help us to play well and nobody get hurt. I’d say that every time I came out of the game.
“We were in the fourth quarter and the Georgia quarterback was putting on an aerial circus. We won the game with Hawkins Golden kicking four field goals. All of a sudden my prayer turned towards Lord, I know this game isn’t important to you, but it is important to me and I want to win it and I’d appreciate any help you could give us. That was a big win and we were excited.”
In O’Rourke’s final season in a Vanderbilt football uniform, his Commodores made school history with its second appearance in a bowl game. The only other bowl for Vanderbilt was a victory over Auburn in the 1955 Gator Bowl. The Commodores were 7-3-2 with wins over Chattanooga, VMI, Florida, Mississippi Auburn, Tulane and Louisville. The win over the No. 8 ranked Gators was in Nashville. As a senior, O’Rourke again led Vanderbilt in rushing with 937 yards.
“We had guys on the line that were moving people out and I was just finding some cracks and falling in them,” said O’Rourke. “I never had any real long runs and coach was very generous in letting me run the ball a lot. I held the dubious record of having carried the ball the most and gaining the most yards. If you run the ball enough and fall forward you should make some yards. Bill Holby, Gene Moshier, David Alsup and Howard Buck were opening some decent holes in the line. Obviously I didn’t make the holes. I just tried to find them.
“I wasn’t fast enough to make my own or switch directions. Holby was the center and only weighed 185 pounds, but they made things happen. They played hard and wanted to win. The defense did a good job. Scott Wingfield and Jay Chesley did a good job intercepting passes and getting us the ball back. A lot of people were working hard and when you do that a lot of good things happen. That was a wonderful season for all of us involved. Martin Garcia was my blocking back. I always kid him because I see him all the time. I say that Martin ran a lot further as my blocking back, but I was the one that had the ball.”
The regular season finale was a heartbreaking tie with Tennessee on Dudley Field. With Vanderbilt leading 21-13, one minute remained in the game when the Commodores were in a fourth down situation and the ball resting on their 22-yard line. Punter Barry Burton was sent into the game standing inside the 10-yard line to receive the snap.
The snap was a perfect spiral that went straight into Burton’s hands, but he bobbled the grab and was unable to get the kick off. He was tackled at the 11-yard line with only 47 seconds left. The Vols scored a touchdown and two-point conversion to end the game, 21-21. O’Rourke rushed for 152 yards with 31 carries.
“UT tied us, we didn’t tie UT,” said O’Rourke. “I was the upback on that play so I did not see what had happened. Usually you have a guy that leaps through. You hit him and usually he falls down, gets up and runs the other way. In this case the guy gets up and starts running towards Barry. I thought, ‘oh no.’ By then the kick should have been off. I turned around and saw Barry running with the ball, but not very far. That was a big disappointment.
“Barry was the greatest athlete ever that I had seen on Vanderbilt football teams. It was a miserable game since it was so cold and the turf held the ice water. We all suffered through the game. To be ahead and ready to win when we only had to kick the ball was a disappointment. Anyway we didn’t lose. UT tying us was certainly not as good as winning, but it was better than losing.”
In the Peach Bowl in Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium, Vanderbilt played Texas Tech to another tie game this time in a defensive struggle, 6-6. O’Rourke led the Commodores in rushing with 76 yards.
“It was a defensive struggle, which was never fun for me,” O’Rourke said. “I would rather the defense cooperate more with my running and they did not. The biggest thing of course was Dennis Harrison blocking a field goal. Everything else was a tug –o-war. It was a great privilege to be in a bowl game and represent Vanderbilt. When we beat Florida that year Coach Sloan said, ‘I don’t think we will be jumping out of the bushes surprising anybody anymore. They are going to take us seriously so we are going to have to play that much harder. We will not have the advantage of them not being ready anymore.’”
Soon after the Peach Bowl, Sloan surprised the Vanderbilt fans and Nashville community by announcing that he was going to Texas Tech and replace Jim Carlen who bolted for South Carolina. Though O’Rourke would be graduating from Vanderbilt, he would always respect Sloan and wanted the best for him.
“I was a senior so I was going to be gone,” said O’Rourke. “We wanted the best for him. We were semi-adults at the time and knew nothing would last forever. It was a little weird like finding out your wife ran off with your best friend. He took Jim Carlen’s job at Texas Tech. Coach Sloan and I are friends. I probably talk to him once a month. He has always had regrets on how he handled that and maybe the decision he made. A couple of years ago we had a Peach Bowl reunion and Coach Sloan was in town on the radio. A Vanderbilt fan called in and said, ‘I’ve been mad at Coach Sloan ever since you left. So Coach Sloan said, ‘well when did you quit getting mad?’ And the fan said, ‘just now.’”
So if O’Rourke did not have size and speed why did he find so much success on the football field?
“As I told coach, I may be small, but I am not slow,” said O’Rourke. “I just always tried to fall forward. My dad used to tell me the next play is the most important play of the game. So I just tried to play every play like it was the most important play of the game and get as much yardage on every play that I could. I certainly didn’t have size and I didn’t have speed, but I wasn’t slow. I think I had quickness to find the hole. I was taught to take the hit and try to give some back. I think for most of my yards I ran for two yards and fell forward for two yards. There is your 4.4 average [Laughing].
O’Rourke said that Dallas and the Patriots asked for his telephone number before the NFL draft just in case they decided to select him. He was not drafted nor invited to any NFL camps. Jacksonville of the World Football League did invite him to their camp, but O’Rourke felt that he had accomplished more with his limited skills than he hoped to. He was married in college and was ready to make a living and provide for his family.
O’Rouke held the Vanderbilt career rushing record (2,202) until Frank Mordica passed him in 1979 with 2,632 yards. He currently ranks fourth all-time rushing behind Mordica, current Commodore Zac Stacy and Carl Woods (1983-86). O’Rourke added 20 rushing touchdowns in his career. Current senior Commodore Zac Stacy entered the 2012 season with 2, 002 rushing yards and is in position to become Vanderbilt’s all-time career rushing leader.
O’Rourke enjoys living in Nashville and owns eight season tickets for Vanderbilt home games. He likes what he sees with Coach James Franklin bringing in a new era of Vanderbilt football with excitement and enthusiasm.
“Coach Franklin has done the same thing that Coach Sloan did when he first came to Vanderbilt,” said O’Rourke. “He has changed attitudes. Coach Franklin came in and showed respect towards his players. Football becomes more important and they will play like their life depended on it. You have the same players and a different outcome. Coach Franklin is bringing that to every facet to what it means to me a college football coach. I think he is the greatest coach in America and not because he is at Vanderbilt.
“I believe that in just watching him as a coach. Everything he does has a purpose. And his purpose is lined up with what he believes is necessary. Whenever he is being interviewed, his audience will be the players. He is not there to build up anybody, but the players. Then he becomes their world. Then all of a sudden, playing well, playing hard, practicing hard becomes the most important thing to players. Then you start winning games in the fourth quarter. It is that simple. Coach Franklin knows what he is doing and how to do it.”
If you have any comments or suggestions you can contact Bill Traughber via email WLTraughber@aol.com. Traughber’s new book on Vanderbilt basketball, “Vanderbilt Basketball, Tales of Commodore Hardwood History,” is now available online and in Nashville area bookstores.