Saturday, November 17, 2012

Vanderbilt 41 - 18 Tennessee (Final)

I arrived at the lovely campus of Vanderbilt University as a freshman in August 1984.  Now, almost 30 years later, I am a middle-aged lawyer with four children.  Over the last 28 years I have seen amazing things.  I have seen the Tampa Bay Buccaneers win the Super Bowl.  I've seen the Florida Marlins win the World Series -- twice.  I've seen George Mason and Virginia Commonwealth go to the Final Four.  I've seen Butler play for the NCAA championship in men's basketball two years in a row.  I've seen the Soviet Union collapse, and I've seen the rise of the Internet.  But in all that time, I had never seen Vanderbilt win a football game in Nashville against Tennessee.

Because here's what you need to understand:  Vandy/Tennessee is not a normal rivalry.  Vanderbilt pretty much never beats Tennessee in anything that matters.  It doesn't matter how good Vandy is (and they're usually not good) or how bad Tennessee is (and they're usually not bad):  Tennessee almost always wins.  You think I'm exaggerating?  Just listen to this guy.

On November 27, 1954, Vandy beat Tennessee 26-0.  Since that time -- a period of 58 years -- Vanderbilt had never beaten Tennessee in football by more than 14 points.  In fact, here is the complete list of Vandy's successful outings against Tennessee since that game:

11/29/1959:  Vanderbilt 14, Tennessee 0
11/28/1964:  Vanderbilt 7, Tennessee 0
11/30/1974:  Vanderbilt 21, Tennessee 21 (Tie)
11/29/1975:  Vanderbilt 17, Tennessee 14
11/27/1982:  Vanderbilt 28, Tennessee 21
11/19/2005:  Vanderbilt 28, Tennessee 24

That's it.  Five wins and one tie in 57 years.  And all of the wins were close.  Unless you could remember that 1959 game, you literally could not remember a single moment -- in over 50 years -- when Vanderbilt had a safe lead against Tennessee.

It's hard to explain how fans psychologically deal with such a horrible situation.  Many Vandy fans just don't ever watch the Tennessee game.  Those who do have to put up mental barriers to account for the inevitable disappointments that they face.  Last year, Vandy was almost certainly better than Tennessee, but the Vols won 27-21 in overtime.  I would have been emotionally crushed -- except I didn't watch the game.

So of course, I expected Tennessee to win this game as well.  It didn't matter that James Franklin has done an amazing job at Vandy, or that Derek Dooley is a terrible coach at Tennessee.  It didn't matter that Vandy was at home, that the Dores were 4-3 in the SEC, that Tennessee was 0-6, that Vandy was bowl-bound and UT was firing its coach at the end of year.  Vandy just doesn't beat Tennessee -- and even when they do, it's always painfully close.

But not this year.  Tonight Vanderbilt crushed Tennessee -- humiliating them as they have humiliated us on so many occasions.  Toward the end even I couldn't help tuning in -- even Vandy couldn't blow a 23-point lead with just a few minutes to go -- and it was totally worth it, because I got to see something that all of us Vandy grads have longed to see.

Toward the end of the game, the camera panned across Vanderbilt Stadium.  Now you have to understand that for years, Tennessee fans have bought season tickets at Vandy just so they could see UT smash the Dores.  You would go to Vandy's biggest game of the year, against its biggest rival, and your own home stadium would be filled with UT fans.  And, of course, by the second half most of the Vandy fans would be gone, and the UT fans would be screaming, and you could hear "Rocky Top" blaring out across the Vandy campus.  It was a painful experience for any Vandy fan.

But tonight it was all reversed.  There were still large sections of empty seats -- but they were the seats that had belonged to Tennessee fans.  The only people left in Vanderbilt Stadium were actually rooting for Vanderbilt.  Old people who had been going to the games for decades.  Middle-aged people who had never seen a victory like this.  Students who know nothing about what the rest of us have suffered, but who were having a lot of fun on TV.

It was all wonderful.  My kids -- and most people, for that matter -- don't understand why anyone roots for teams that usually lose.  And no, it hasn't been fun all these years, and I realize that Tennessee will fire Dooley, and get a new coach, and probably go back to beating us.  But you keep rooting because someday, your time may come.  And for Vandy grads, like Buster Olney (Vandy '82) and me, this was our night.

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