May 1, 2013
In the spring of 1886 Dr. William M. Baskervill was instrumental in forming the Vanderbilt Athletic Association. The first athletic events that included track were held on May 7, 1886 at Nashville’s Sulphur Spring Park (later Sulphur Dell). After this day the annual “Field Day” was held and became very popular with the sporting fans of the city.
Dr. William L. Dudley became President of the Association a position he held at Vanderbilt for 25 years. Dudley was responsible for the construction of a field to support football, baseball and track. Under Dudley’s guidance, a running track was added to the Old Gym in 1895. In December 1894, Dudley organized the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association (S.I.A.A.) the forerunner of the Southeastern Conference based in Atlanta.
There had not been a consistent head track coach until the arrival of William J. (Bill) Anderson on campus. As track team captain during the 1903-04 season, Anderson secured the Vanderbilt record in the high jump. He actually took over the track coaching duties in 1906 when he was a senior. Anderson did not officially become the head coach until 1907 becoming the first paid track coach for $250 a month. He kept those responsibilities for 42 years.
While competing in the S.I.A.A. for Vanderbilt, Anderson swept both hurdles in all four S.I.A.A. meets and two firsts in the high jump. Sports writer George Leonard of the Nashville Banner wrote about Anderson in 1948 after his retirement:
“He was the first Southern athlete to make a credible leap in the high jump. In 1905, his senior academic year at Vanderbilt, he topped the bar at 5 feet, 9 1/2 inches, a record that stood for nine years. Probably most Vanderbilt sports followers have either forgotten or never knew that Commodore track teams were once among the best in the South.
“One of the least known but most outstanding track achievements in collegiate history was made during Anderson’s four-decade reign. Between 1910, when he fashioned his first relay team, and in 1932, Vanderbilt baton-passing quartets never lost in a dual meet anywhere.
“The year after Anderson became a professional coach, the swiftest sprinter ever to come under his tutelage, R. E. (Dick) Mason, startled the SIAA by running the 100-yard dash in 9.8 seconds on May 13, 1908. That still stands as a Vanderbilt record. Vanderbilt’s last great track athlete and its best in history was Poyner (Poco) Thweatt, who graduated in 1942. Thweatt holds three school track marks. It is possible he may retain two of them—the 220-yard low hurdles and high jump—for many decades.
“After that season of ’42, Anderson said: “I have gone over all the squads in the 36 seasons I have coached at Vanderbilt and made a number of comparisons, and Poyner Thweatt stands out as the most valuable track man I ever had.”
In the SEC track meet Thweatt won the low hurdle event in 23.5 seconds and was fourth in the high hurdles (15.1 seconds). Thweatt high jumped six feet five inches in 1940. The victory that gave Anderson the most personal satisfaction was the Southern Conference meet held in North Carolina in 1925.
Anderson’s mile relay team pulled an upset that day and won the event with a great anchor run from Vaughn Blake finishing a few inches ahead of Maryland. Anderson had been noted for his track relay teams. His relay teams had been unbeaten for 21 consecutive years in dual meets a streak broken by Florida in 1932.
Sports writer John Bibb of the Tennessean wrote about Anderson after the track coach’s death in 1963:
“For more than 40 years, William J. (Bill) Anderson was among the South’s better-known track coaches. But, to thousands of Middle Tennessee men the former Vanderbilt track coach, who died yesterday, is remembered for his work with the Boy Scouts and a battered umbrella.
“Known to Scouts and athletes alike as ‘Coach,’ Anderson retired from his Vanderbilt assignment in 1948 having directed the Commodores to numerous track titles. Under his supervision, Vandy won the first 11 Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association championships.
“He was an outstanding trackman at Vanderbilt and began his coaching career while a senior in school in 1906. An active official with the Boy Scouts, Anderson was in charge of the Scouts who served as ushers for football games at Dudley Field for many years. Thousands of men were introduced to Vanderbilt and intercollegiate football through ‘Coach’ and the Scout cards.
“Before every Vandy home game, Anderson would assemble the Scouts at the north end of the stadium and explain in detail their various assignments for the day. He always used his umbrella to point out the Scout’s positions in the stadium. ‘The umbrella also was a vital factor in his track coaching,’ the 1947 track captain Jimmy Webb recalled last night. ‘Coach would appoint some member of the team to carry his umbrella, and this appointment was considered quite an honor.’
“‘Frequently, Coach used his umbrella for psychological reasons. When he boarded the bus heading for a track meet, Coach would give the umbrella to some boy who needed a boost. It was most effective maneuver, too, for whoever was assigned ‘keeper of the umbrella’ usually gave a little extra effort in the meet.’”
Said Anderson after the announcement of his retirement: “I haven’t had a contract or agreement with Vanderbilt in about 25 years. Professor Charles S. Brown told me then that the job was mine as long as I wanted it. I don’t know that I’m leaving Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt is next to my family in my love. When I leave Vanderbilt in my feeling, it will be my last trip. I am retiring with a mingled feeling of relief and regret.”
Anderson was born in Robertson County, Tennessee on May 27, 1882 and died in Nashville on September 14, 1963 after a long illness. After his retirement in 1948, the Anderson Athletic Field on the Vanderbilt campus was named in his honor. Herc Alley, who was an assistant football coach at Vanderbilt replaced Anderson and coached the Commodores in track for the next 22 years.
Dean of Vanderbilt Alumni Madison Sarratt, former chairman of the athletic committee said after Anderson’s death: “Bill Anderson was a skillful and dedicated track coach, but he was above all, dedicated to the business of making men out of boys. Few men have contributed as much to the total education of Vanderbilt students.”
The Vanderbilt Athletic Association constructed a new field on the Vanderbilt campus with $2,500 of its funds. It had a graded surface area for track, baseball and football with sloped banks for spectators. It was named for William L. Dudley (Dudley Field). The field was used until 1922 with the present Dudley Field built.
In 1889, Vanderbilt sprinter Pope Taylor matched the college world record in 100-yard dash. The record stood at Vanderbilt until 1908.
Vanderbilt sprinter R.K. Mason ran in the 1908 Olympic preliminaries for the 100 and 400-yard dashes. He was offered a substitution spot on the team, but declined the invitation.
If you have any comments or suggestions you can contact Bill Traughber via email WLTraughber@aol.com. This will be the last Commodore History Corner for this school year.