Faithful react to bowl eligibility

Nov. 19, 2008

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Dare to believe.
Never give up.
Never give in.
Yes we will.
Vanderbilt has six wins.
After 26 years, Vanderbilt is bowl-eligible.
You can do it.
Keep believing, keep pretending.
Never, never, never, never give in.
Can you believe it?
Is it really true?
Yes, it is true.

Vanderbilt now has six wins for the first time in 26 years. And only the fifth time in the last 56 years. 1956, 1974, 1975, 1982.......2008. And, according to college football experts, Vanderbilt is almost assured of going to a bowl game.

Commodore Nation and the Commodore faithful from all 123 years of Vanderbilt football are celebrating. We talk with past Commodores to get their reactions to this year's gridiron glory.

There is an interesting connection between this year's team and the 1982 Bowl team. George MacIntyre coached Bobby Johnson at Clemson and has been a mentor of Johnson's.

"Bobby is special," said MacIntyre the day after Vanderbilt got that sixth win. "He's doing an excellent job." The 1982 National Coach of the Year did not think it would be 26 years before another Commodore team made it to a bowl game.

The fact that only three Vanderbilt teams have been to bowl games shows what a difficult accomplishment it is- even more so now that SEC teams play eight games. SEC teams played six games until 1987 and seven games until 1991.

That 1982 bowl team was an over-achieving group that improved each season during MacIntyre's first three years as head coach. They went 8-3 on their way to the Hall of Fame Bowl in Birmingham. They actually narrowly missed winning the SEC Championship.

The 12 seniors absolutely led the team. Whit Taylor was the team leader and an All-SEC QB. He then played pro football and returned to be the head coach at his alma mater, Shelbyville Central High School. He is now the Assistant Principal there.

"I'm extremely excited for this year's team," Taylor said. "It was tough to see the other teams get so close and not be able to go to a bowl."

"There will always be a sense of pride in what we accomplished and in being one of the bowl teams at Vanderbilt," he said.

Taylor said the '82 Dores were a complete team effort and humbly deflected praise.

"There was an unbelievable togetherness among the 12 seniors. We were like a family," he said. "It's kind of hard to explain, but we were a determined group." He called MacIntyre a "father figure to all of us".

Some 1980s players have compared this year's team to the 1982 team. They cite the total team effort and inspired defensive play, including forced turnovers, as just a few similarities. They compare the 1982 victory at home over Florida to this year's close win at home over Auburn. In both games, the team came out of the locker room and back out onto the field to celebrate with the fans.

He mentioned some of the seniors, like Norman Jordan, Allama Matthews, Jeff Madden, Joe Staley, Pat Saindon, Keith Edwards and Jim Arnold. Many of them were over-achievers. Taylor and Jordan were and are best friends. Madden is now the strength coach at Texas with Mack Brown. Matthews is a SEC official.

But there is other similar magic in the 123 years of Vanderbilt football. So much rich history and tradition. Through it all, the Vanderbilt faithful have believed.

John Rich has believed- since the 1940s. He said the one thing he has wanted through the many near-misses was for Vanderbilt to have a winning season. Yes, it is true.

"It's quite a thrill," he said the day after Vanderbilt became bowl eligible. "We've been mighty close for a long time...It feels great to be successful after a lot of people said we could not do it."

His connection to the program is as deep as anyone's. He played football for Vanderbilt (1943-45). His son Tate also played from 1972-75 and was part of the Vanderbilt Peach Bowl team. Now, his grandson Rich Tompkins plays for the Commodores. Rich called his grandfather on the phone the night of the win.

"He called just as they left the locker room," said Rich. "They were really happy."

Art Demmas is a former NFL referee and is Southern Region Chairman of the National Football Foundation. He was on the 1955 Gator Bowl team, the only Vanderbilt team to win a bowl game. He is very happy about Vanderbilt's success this season.

"I'm thrilled," he said. "It's really nice to see the success the teams have had recently."

Demmas appreciates that Vanderbilt recognizes the Gator Bowl team for its accomplishment. That Gator Bowl team has always been and is still very involved at Vanderbilt, giving back to Vanderbilt in many ways. They still keep in touch and get together, especially at Homecoming, even though they do not all live in Nashville.

Tavarus Hogans was a top receiver from 1996-99. He lives in his home state of Florida and remains friends with many of his former teammates. He follows the current team closely.

The Vanderbilt teams were solid when they played. The 1999 team won five games. Three of their SEC losses that year were by an average of six points.

"I have a lot of joy in my heart for the team," he said. "I'm really proud of what they've done. Coach Johnson has built a camaraderie among all letterman. It's an honor to be a part of something successful."

Steven Bright played from 2003-2006 and was part of Johnson's first five seasons. He played with about half of the current team. He and his former teammates helped build the Commodore program.

"It's awesome to see them get six wins," he said. "It's good to feel like you're part of something like this. The coaching staff has done a great job."

He said the team's mentality has changed.

"The team wants to win and knows they can win," he added.

Bright and several teammates were at Homecoming this year. Bright's best friends from his playing days are Jay Cutler, Jordan Pettit, Ben Kogler and Kevin Joyce, among others.

The late-night nationally-televised game seem to last a long time, like most TV games. As usual, it was a close, hard-fought battle, not decided until the final seconds. Nothing comes easy in the SEC. Vanderbilt 31, Kentucky 24. Yes, it is true.

The offense lined up in victory formation. Players poured the water cooler on Bobby Johnson.

Commodore faithful everywhere celebrated. The Vanderbilt players celebrated. Yes, it is true.



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