Vanderbilt would play its first night football in Baton Rouge, La., against LSU on October 28, 1933. The Tigers have a long tradition of playing their gridiron games under the lights. Their first night game occurred just two years earlier in 1931 with an LSU victory over Spring Hill, 35-0. Since that time the Tigers have played the majority of their home games at night.
Blinky Horn of The Tennessean wrote of the soon-to-be-played historic game for Vanderbilt:
“It’s six weeks until Vanderbilt stages its first fracas in history under the arc lights. But already—Dan McGugin—has begun to make plans to familiarize his flock of fledglings with moleskin manouverous beneath the mazdas. The Commodore chief-captain is making arrangements to drill the Vandy squad in Sulphur Dell at night so they will not have the buck—argue when they battle Louisiana State in a nocturnal duel October 28 to Baton Rouge.
“There are mazdas at Vanderbilt. But they do not shed enough illumination for punting and passing exercises. The battery of lights which can be turned either into the stadium or on McGugin Field does not supply the artificial daylight which could be obtained in Sulphur Dell. So Dan McGugin is planning to rent Sulphur Dell from Fay Murray and Jimmy Hamilton long enough to permit the Commodores to become accustomed to handling nocturnal punts and passes.”
The Sulphur Dell Ballpark was located in the shadow of the State Capital Building in downtown Nashville and was home to the baseball Nashville Vols of the Southern Association. Murray was the Vols owner while Hamilton was the team’s manager.
The ballpark produced permanent fixed lights in 1931. The Commodores played their first home games at the park in 1890 and 1891 before an on campus field was constructed and used in 1892. Sulphur Dell was known as Athletic Park in this early era.
A note of interest is that on July 6, 1894 the Nashville Tiger’s played a night exhibition baseball game. The Tigers were members of the original Southern League at that time. It was reported that 54 large electric lights were temporarily scattered about Athletic Park and the baseball was covered with prosperous.
Coach McGugin was not unfamiliar to night football. In 1902, as a freshman football player for Drake University, McGugin played in a night football game. McGugin would transfer to Michigan the next year to play for the Wolverines. Horn asked McGugin about that game three decades earlier.
“The lights didn’t seem to bother us so much as I recall it, “Dan McGugin was saying yesterday. “Of course, we didn’t have the forward pass then for that was quite a ways back. Yes, I expect it was more than 30 years ago. Fully that long.
“How did the boys get along handling punts?”
“Well, our side did all right,” said the Vandy skipper. “I did the punting for Drake and I was so busy keeping my eye on the ball. I don’t seem to remember how the other fellows got along handling.”
Vanderbilt went into the game with a 2-1-2 record. The Commodores secured wins over Cumberland and North Carolina with a loss to Ohio State. They also tied Oklahoma and Mississippi State. LSU was 3-0-1 with a defense that recorded four shutouts.
The Tennessean gave this partial report on the game’s outcome:
“Under the arc lights, Vanderbilt came back into the spotlight tonight finishing a furious struggle with the Louisiana State Tigers, 7 and 7. Thereby the Commodores became the first foe of the Tigers to cross their unblemished goal line. Until Nollie Peeples caught a pass down the alley and stepped over the line, no enemy of the Tigers this year had been closer than the L.S.U. 16-yard marker.
“The deadlock was the second suffered by the Jones’ Juggernaut this year and the third snarl in which Vandy has been involved. Previously the Tigers were held to a scoreless tie by Centenary while Oklahoma and the Mississippi Maroons deadlocked the Commodores. An aerial bomb brought both touchdowns tonight in the first nocturnal battle which Vandy ever staged.”
Vanderbilt offered to its football season ticket holders a gathering at the university’s gym for a special detail accounting of the progress of the game. Fred Russell, of the Nashville Banner, wrote after the game:
“Consciously or unconsciously, Senator Huey Long was a contributing factor to Vanderbilt’s tie with L.S.U. Saturday night. Vanderbilt players testify that for no reason at all the Kingfish appeared at their blackboard drill Saturday afternoon and proceeded to fire them up wait talk of Louisiana State’s gridiron greatness. ‘We have five teams and all are of about the same strength,’ said the Senator to the boys. ‘Of course either could beat you tonight.’ And he continued with words about himself and L.S.U. that naturally inflamed the Commodores.”
Russell continued, “Some say Coach Dan McGugin foxed Huey. They figured McGugin invited him to say a word or so knowing he would pop off and make the boys mad. I doubt this. The Kingfish is not dumb. It is easier to believe that he cooperated with McGugin.”
Vanderbilt finished that season 4-3-3 in what was the inaugural year of the Southeastern Conference. The Commodores were 2-2-2 in league play. LSU concluded the season at 7-0-3. Their Conference record was 3-0-2.
Vanderbilt played its first night game in Dudley Field on September 25, 1954 when Baylor defeated the Commodores, 25-14. Reverend Billy Graham donated the stadium lights for his appearances in Nashville.
On September 28, 1892, Mansfield State Normal School (now Mansfield University) played Wyoming Seminary at Smythe Park in Mansfield, Pa., for the first night college football game. A special lighting system was installed, but reported to be unsatisfactory. At halftime the game was called off with the score, 0-0. The game was conceived as way to attract crowds at the Mansfield Fair that year. It was estimated that 18,000 to 20,000 people attended the contest. Thomas Edison invented electricity just 13 years earlier.
This was only the fifth game Mansfield had played in their short football history. Wyoming Seminary (Kingston, Pa.) was a powerful prep school that had been playing football for eight years. The game was scheduled for 7:30 p.m. and started at 6:45 p.m. Some reports indicate that some of the lights were hung in the middle of the field on a pole. Other accounts state that the lights were spread along the front of the grandstand.
The first professional football game played under “floodlights” was on November 6, 1929 between the Providence Steam Roller and the Chicago Cardinals of the National Football League. The game was played in Providence, R.I. in Kinsley Park Stadium. The Steam Roller lost, 16-0 before 6,000 fans. A newspaper report stated that the ball was painted white for the game and resembled a large egg.
Traughber’s Tidbit: The first radio broadcast of a Vanderbilt football game came from Atlanta on November 10, 1928. The Commodores lost to Georgia Tech, 19-7. Dave Morris did the play-by-play for Nashville-based WSM radio.
Tidbit Two: The Vanderbilt football team made its first airplane trip to Chicago to play Northwestern University on September 26, 1947. The Commodores won the game, 3-0.
Tidbit Three: Vanderbilt played its first indoor game on October 4, 1975 in the New Orleans Superdome. The Commodores won that contest over Tulane, 6-0 on Mark Adams two field goals.
If you have any comments or suggestions you can contact Bill Traughber via e-mail WLTraughber@aol.com.