Nov. 15, 2012
It is that time again when the Tennessee Vols roll into Nashville for it’s November football clash with the Commodores. And it is that time again that former Vanderbilt quarterback Whit Taylor (1979-82) will be called upon to talk about the last time Vandy defeated, “That team from the East” in Nashville in 1982. Though the last victory over UT came in 2005 in Knoxville, Vanderbilt fans are ready for the 14 home losses since 1982 to come to a halt.
“I used to get calls by the boatloads until [Jay] Cutler beat them in Knoxville that year,” Taylor said recently from his Shelbyville, Tenn. home. “Then it died off, but I’m sure I’ll get more calls when that week rolls around.”
Taylor hurt his passing shoulder before his senior season in high school at Shelbyville Central where he lettered in football, basketball, baseball and track. In football, he was named the MVP of the all-Midstate team and an Honorable Mention high school all-American. Taylor had football scholarship offers from Ole Miss, Western Kentucky, Memphis State and MTSU. But he chose to sign with Vanderbilt who was coached by Fred Pancoast.
“I really did like David Lee [Vanderbilt quarterbacks coach] the guy that recruited me and of course by the time I’d got there he was gone,” said Taylor. “I never did get to play for David. Vanderbilt was close to home and I felt like I could play in the SEC. I wanted my family to see me play. It took a little while, but I finally got a chance.
Taylor was recruited as a quarterback and spent most of his freshman year running the scout team’s offense. Due to injuries in the secondary, Taylor was thrown into his first varsity action against Auburn at Vanderbilt. He wasn’t expected to play at all that season expecting a redshirt.
“In my freshman year, the week before we played Auburn, I had a message in the cafeteria that I needed to see the defensive backs coach,” Taylor said. “He said I was going to start at free safety this week against Auburn. I thought, ‘oh boy.’ I didn’t play defense in high school. It was a shock, but I was going to play. I had not practiced in the secondary until the week before that game.
“Auburn was really good running the ball. They were running the wishbone with [Joe] Cribbs, [William] Andrews and that bunch. Needless to say I got banged up pretty good that day. Auburn threw it my way one time. They didn’t feel like they needed to throw the ball. I had surgery on my shoulder the Thursday before Thanksgiving that year. I ended up with a medical redshirt that year.”
Auburn smashed Vanderbilt that day in Nashville, 49-7 and was the only game Taylor played that season. The Commodores finished the season 2-9 (0-6 SEC). Pancoast, who was in his fourth season guiding the Commodores, resigned at the end of the season. George MacIntyre replaced him. Taylor said that it didn’t take long to see that MacIntyre was a good coach that cared about his players.
As a redshirt freshman, Taylor began the season as the third-team quarterback, but during the fifth game of the season at Auburn, he was once again suddenly thrown into action. Van Heflin was Vanderbilt’s starting quarterback while Jeff Swab was the back up.
“It was a series of events that happened very quickly that got me in that game,” said Taylor. “The two guys ahead of me went down on back-to-back series. I never will forget this, but I couldn’t find my helmet. I had no idea I was going to play. I had my baseball cap and my clipboard when the second guy [Swab] went down I believe with a concussion. Heflin hurt his ribs the series before that. I was running around trying to find my helmet. Then Coach MacInyre corralled me, and put both hands on my shoulders, looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘whatever you do, don’t get hurt. We don’t have anybody else.’ I thought great words of wisdom.”
Though Vanderbilt lost the game to the Tigers, 52-35, Taylor led the Commodores to four touchdowns in two-and-one-half quarters. Taylor just exploded and was all over the field moving the offense. This was the game that everyone learned about the ability of Whit Taylor.
“That was such a blur for me,” said Taylor. “I do remember the first play where we called a screen pass that settled my nerves. It wasn’t something I had to do a lot of reads on. I just had to get the snap, run the play with that short pass and complete it. Then I had a big run for about 55 yards. I guess all the cobwebs went out and they called the right plays that I could run since I didn’t get a lot of reps that week.”
That next week Taylor would become the Commodores starting quarterback, a position he held through his senior season. MacIntyre was asked about this “hidden” talent from his redshirt freshman quarterback. “Well, during practice this week I quit calling him ‘No. 10,’” said MacIntyre.
Taylor completed that first season passing for 609 yards (46-for-80) and three touchdowns. Vanderbilt was 1-10 (0-6 SEC) that season. Taylor was 5-foot-10, 180 pounds and took a lot of punishment running the veer offense. Taylor believed he was not equipped to be a veer quarterback.
In Taylor’s sophomore year he passed for 899 yards (72-for-173) and one touchdown in a 2-9 (0-6 SEC) season. Wins came over Memphis State and Chattanooga. But Taylor’s career and the Commodores chances for success changed with the arrival of Watson Brown as the offensive coordinator in 1981.
“Needless to say I was pleased when Coach Brown came in and we were able to throw the ball all over the place and I didn’t have to run as much,” said Taylor. “I will never forget the very first offensive meeting we had. His first question to us was, ‘how many people in here believe we are going to lead the SEC in total offense?’ Some hands kind of went up, but they weren’t real positive about what he was saying. But he was dead serious.
“He took me into his office very early and told me what we were going to do and it was going to be on my shoulders. If I did well, we’ll do well. And if I didn’t play well, we weren’t going to play well. He said, ‘I need to know right now can you handle that?’ I said, ‘yes sir.’ We were doing so many things at that time that nobody else in the conference was doing. We were doing a lot of West Coast stuff that people weren’t doing.
“The SEC was a tailback-driven league. Everybody had great tailbacks and ran the football. I hate to say that we surprised a lot of people, but we had great schemes. We had guys that bought in and knew exactly what Coach Brown wanted us to do.”
With the new wide open multiple offenses Vanderbilt improved its record to 4-7 (1-5 SEC) in Taylor’s junior year. Victories came over Maryland, Mississippi, Memphis State and Chattanooga. Taylor was named Second Team all-SEC, while passing for 2,318 yards (209-for-357). In the Tennessee game, a 38-34 loss in Knoxville, Taylor set a Vanderbilt single-game passing record of 464 yards that still stands today.
“That’s one of the more special games I was involved with,” Taylor said about the Vols game. “You hear times about baseball players being in the zone or in basketball the bucket looks huge. That was one of those days that everybody seemed open and all the throws looked easy. It was a special day. We really had a good chance to win. We threw the last ball into the end zone and it got batted into the air. That was the quietest I’d heard Neyland Stadium.”
The 1982 season would be special and historic to the Commodores and senior Taylor. Vanderbilt opened the season beating Memphis State followed by losses to North Carolina (No. 11) and Alabama (No. 4). Two more wins came against Tulane and No. 14 ranked Florida (31-29).
“I thought that game [Florida] was the most formidable game we played that year,” Taylor said. “Everybody talks about the Tennessee game. That is the big rivalry and the end of the year game. A couple of weeks before the Florida game, we watched them destroy Southern Cal (17-9) on national television. Watson made some adjustments. We put Norman Jordan on the end of the line just to have another odd look.
“There were some things in that game where it was who had the ball last. We had some fortunate bounces go our way. We had an offensive lineman [Rob Monaco] that recovered the ball in the end zone for a touchdown. We were very confident going into the year, but that Florida game said we could play with anybody.”
After a loss to No. 4 ranked Georgia, Vanderbilt reeled off wins over Mississippi, Kentucky, Virginia Tech, Chattanooga and Tennessee. The UT game was in Nashville and Taylor scored the winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter for the Commodores 28-21 victory. That is the last win over the Vols on Dudley Field.
“The one thing I remember about the Tennessee game was the weather,” Taylor said. “I was almost mortified to play in the rain because I don’t have big hands. Playing in the rain was always a fear of mine. I woke up Saturday morning and it’s raining. We got on the bus and it’s raining. We get to the stadium and it’s raining. It rained nearly the whole game.
“Our ball boys did a super job keeping the balls dry. I just didn’t know how it was going to go. It was another back and forth. We had a long play late in the game. The play was a play-action pass to Phil Roach on a post to get us to the eight-yard line. From the eight we ran the same play two times in a row. We faked it up the middle, and I kept it down to the two. Then we ran the same play and everybody on UT came inside on the dive and Chuck [Scott] came around on the pitch, but there was nobody out there. There wasn’t anyway I was going to pitch it. So I ran it in untouched for the touchdown.
“The fans ran on the field after the game to tear down a goal post. But security officials blocked off that goal post. Then they headed towards the other goal post where there was nobody protecting it. They tore it down. We were going into the locker room and Coach MacIntyre told everybody to get back out there and enjoy this. He said go out and enjoy this with the fans.”
That was the last time a goal post was torn down on Dudley Field after a game. The Commodores finished their schedule with an 8-3 record. Vanderbilt had received and accepted an invitation to the Hall of Fame Bowl in Birmingham the week before the Tennessee game. Stanford was going to be the Commodores opponent if they beat Cal in their season finale.
But this was the infamous “Band Game” where Stanford lost on a Cal touchdown scored on the final play (a kick-off return) as the Stanford band came onto the field during the play. There was an anticipation of a Whit Taylor vs. John Elway (Stanford quarterback) passing duel. With the Stanford loss, Air Force was Vanderbilt’s Hall of Fame opponent.
Vanderbilt was playing in just their third bowl in their history. The Commodores took a loss to the Falcons, 36-28. Several Hall of Fame Bowl, Vanderbilt team and individual records were broken that day. Taylor was 38-for-51 with 452 passing yards and four touchdowns while being named the game’s MVP. He also recorded three interceptions on the day. Norman Jordan collected 20 passes which is a Vanderbilt record.
“We would take two minutes to score and they’d take 12 minutes to score,” said Taylor. “As many stats as we ran up passing that day I can still remember two balls that I wish had rubber bands on because as soon as I threw it I thought, ‘oh no.’ I knew it was a bad throw. I threw two interceptions that really cost us. One was way down in the red zone. It put a black cloud over a good game offensively. If I hadn’t thrown either one of those interceptions we probably would have not been in that situation late in the game and would have won. My best friend was Norman Jordan and we roomed together on the road. He had 20 catches that day.”
On the year, Taylor was 228-for-406 and 2,481 yards with 22 touchdowns. He was First Team, all-SEC and ranks third in career total yardage at Vanderbilt (6,727) behind Jay Cutler and Greg Zolman. Taylor also ranks fifth in single-season passing yards (2,481); third in career passing yards (6,307) and his 1981 passing yards against Tennessee in 1981 (462) and the Hall of Fame’s 452 yards are the top two game records. In his career, Taylor was 555-for-1, 016 with 41 touchdowns and 41 interceptions.
Taylor graduated early, but wasn’t sure about a career in professional football. His size was a hindrance. But he did play in new professional football leagues.
“I had no NFL teams interested in drafting me,” said Taylor. “There were some that dropped by and said I would probably get invited to some NFL camps. The week of the Hall of Fame Bowl some folks from the USFL [United States Football League] were there because their season was getting ready to start.
“A guy from the Michigan Panthers said they were going to draft me in the fifth round. I knew I had that. When it did happen and I got drafted I knew I could get paid for that. I didn’t want to wait around and make it to an NFL camp. We played on December 31st [Hall of Fame game] and by January 8th I was in Michigan’s training camp.”
Taylor played as a back up to Bobby Hebert for Michigan in the USFL (1983-84) and San Antonio (1985) as a backup to Rick Neuheisel. After that 1985 USFL season (played in the summer), Taylor was back at Vanderbilt as Coach MacIntyre’s quarterbacks coach. The team was 3-7-1 (1-4-1 SEC). He was now considering a career in coaching.
“Near the end of July I was still playing in San Antonio,” said Taylor. “There were a lot of rumors that the USFL was going to fold. And Coach MacIntyre called and asked if I’d be interested in coaching the quarterbacks. So I went back and did that for the fall, then he resigned after the season while we were out recruiting. I got married during my senior year in college so I’d been married three years. Here I am out of a job again.
“I didn’t know if this was what I needed to be doing moving all the time. We moved about 12 times in 10 years when you count going to Michigan and back then San Antonio and back. I worked at A.J. Smith Lumber Company for about a year and a half before they called me to the Arena Football League.”
Taylor is the answer to two trivia questions. Who was the first quarterback to throw for 10 touchdowns in a game as a professional? And who was the winning quarterback in the first Arena Bowl?
“In the Arena League I threw 10 touchdowns in the first game I played, “Taylor said. “I had been out of football for two years. The USFL was over in 1985 and then in the summer of 1987 a guy who had been our defensive coordinator in San Antonio called me to say he needed a quarterback. He said, ‘this is Tim Marcum, I’m coaching the Denver Dynamite in the Arena Football League. I need a quarterback.’ When he said that I knew I was going. He asked me if I’d stayed in good shape and I told I had [Taylor laughing].
“It was surreal. I went out and threw 10 touchdowns in that first game and I’m thinking this stuff is pretty easy in this arena football. Then the very next week I got knocked out cold. I thought maybe it’s not as easy as I thought. I played that just that one year. I never thought the Arena Football League would make it after the first year. There were some shoddy field conditions and the money wasn’t great. You got $600 if you won and $500 if you didn’t. I knew I wasn’t going to make a living doing this. Little did I know it lasted a lot longer than I thought.”
Coach MacIntyre told Taylor that Coach Buddy Nix at UT-Chattanooga was looking for a quarterbacks coach. MacIntyre recommended Taylor who coached at Chattanooga for two years (1988-89). Then that staff disbanded and Taylor was once again out of a job.
Taylor went into high school coaching for two years at Northwest Georgia High School in Trenton, Ga. He was back in Middle Tennessee in 1992 coaching at Laverne High School. Taylor was offensive coordinator at Laverne under Tom Crawford, his head coach at Shelbyville Central.
In 1997, Taylor was back at Shelbyville Central as head football coach, but left coaching in 2006 for an assignment in the administration. Taylor is currently the athletics director and assistant principal at Shelbyville Central.
Taylor left Vanderbilt with a slew of records and in 2003 represented the Commodores as its SEC Legend. He was asked to look back on his years at Vanderbilt and recall his fondest memories.
“Wow, is a good word to describe my time at Vanderbilt,” said Taylor. “In 1982, we went 8-3 in the regular season and had Alabama on the ropes in Tuscaloosa. They best us 24-21. Georgia beat us by 14 points and went on to win the national championship. It was just a special time. Do I have complete answers for all of it? No, I don’t. It was just a group of guys that bought into what our coaches said. When everybody talks about that 1982 team they talk about the offense. It was good, but we were really good on defense that year.
“At one time we had the school record for interceptions. I think Leonard Coleman had eight interceptions. He had a great year. We were high in the nation in turnover ratio. We did all of the things you had to do to win. We had an all-American punter in Jim Arnold, who could change ends and kept us with good field position with one kick. We jut did a lot of things differently than what other teams did. We had some very smart guys that knew how to run routes and get open. We very seldom threw the ball down the field with Allama [Matthews], Norman [Jordan], Keith Edwards, Phil Roach and Arnaz Perry. We were able to capitalize.”
The 2012 Vanderbilt media guide states that the Commodores have an all-time record against Tennessee of 28-73-5. The Vols media guide states that Tennessee has an all-time record against Vanderbilt of 73-27-5. That one game discrepancy is from the 1918 season. World War I was ongoing and the University of Tennessee decided not to field an “official” team due to players and coaches serving in the military.
The Vols media guide notes that during the war years of 1917 and 1918 two unofficial teams were formed from recruits and students. One of these teams representing the university was the Student Army Training Corps, which played a game in Nashville and lost to Vanderbilt, 74-0. The Nashville newspapers referred to this team as “Tennessee” and not Student Army Training Corps. The Knoxville newspapers referred to the team as “Student Army Training Corps.” Vanderbilt claims that game as a win for them, but Tennessee does not recognize that game as official. Who is right? I report, you decide.
If you have any comments or suggestions contact Bill Traughber via email WLTraughber@aol.com. Traughber’s new book “Vanderbilt Basketball, Tales of Commodore Hardwood History” is now available online and in Nashville area bookstores. Barry Booker wrote the forward to the book.