By: Aaron Tallent
Derek Dooley said a lot of dumb things during his three years in Knoxville. In between comparing his players to Nazi soldiers defending Normandy Beach and telling athletic director Dave Hart to find someone else to coach the 2012 Kentucky game, Dooley famously stated after beating Vanderbilt in 2011, “The one thing that Tennessee always does is kick the shit out of Vandy.”
Never mind the fact that the Vols had barely escaped with a controversial 27-21 overtime victory. Never mind the fact that the Commodores went to a bowl game that year and Tennessee spent the holidays at home. And never mind the fact that Vandy repaid Dooley for his remarks by throttling Tennessee 41-18 the next year, effectively costing him his job. The comment reflected a lack of respect or understanding of how this rivalry started and where it is headed.
Tennessee and Vanderbilt first met in 1892 and the Commodores dominated the series, winning 19 of the first 24 games. The other five contests were three ties and two Tennessee wins by a total of six points.
In 1926, the legendary Robert Neyland began his first tenure as Tennessee head coach, leading the Vols to an 8-1 record in his debut season. The only loss was a 20-3 thumping from Vanderbilt. The next season, Tennessee went 8-0-1, with the one blemish being a 7-7 tie with Vandy. Neyland’s teams then began to take control of the series, winning the next four games.
The best story about this rivalry emanates from the 1932 match-up. There was an ancient city councilman in an unnamed town in Middle Tennessee. He had been to every Tennessee home game since its early days and insisted that Beattie Feathers was the best running back to ever play the game. His claim was legitimate. After graduating from Tennessee, Feathers played for the Chicago Bears. In 1934, he became the first player to ever rush for 1,000 yards in a season, averaging 8.44 yards-per-carry, a record that still stands today.
However, the councilman would always revert to the 1932 game with Vandy, in which Feathers rushed for a touchdown that was called back because he allegedly stepped out of bounds. The game ended a 0-0 tie. As the man discussed the bad call, he would become as agitated as Vol fans do today when discussing the 1997 Heisman race.
One year, the council was listening to a presentation from a consultant. When it was revealed that the consultant was a Vanderbilt graduate, the councilman spoke up.
“Were you at the 1932 game between Tennessee and Vanderbilt?” asked the councilman.
“Yeah,” said the consultant, after thinking about it for a minute. “I was there.”
“Do you remember the touchdown that Beattie Feathers scored that was called back because he stepped out of bounds?” asked the councilman.
“Yes, I remember,” said the consultant.
“He wasn’t out of bounds, was he?” said the councilman.
“No, he was out of bounds,” insisted the consultant.
From there, the conversation became more heated. Finally, the councilman yelled, “I was sitting in the 18th row on the 45-yard line. Where were you sitting?”
“I didn’t have a seat,” said the consultant.
“Didn’t have a seat?” said the councilman. “How can you say he was out of bounds if you didn’t have a seat?”
“Because I was the guy whose tackle he was dodging when he stepped out of bounds,” said the consultant.
The old man slumped in his chair and meekly said, “Oh.”
It’s a shame this series doesn’t have more stories like that, but the landscape changed in the years that followed. Vanderbilt had solid coaches, but none of the level of Neyland. In the 1950s, rosters began to grow and schools like Vandy with higher academic standards were not able to commit the resources or bring in the number of high-caliber players that Tennessee could. Since 1960, Vanderbilt has only beaten Tennessee five times.
One of those losses is, of course, last year’s beat-down by the Commodores. As they continued to score and celebrate, the irrational fan in me wanted to scream, “Vandy has no class!” but it’s something their fans have had to endure for decades. That win was not only the product of Tennessee’s decline, but coach James Franklin’s building of a program by convincing top-notch student athletes that they can play against the highest level of competition and still get a $150,000 education for free.
Now Vanderbilt heads to Knoxville this weekend bowl-eligible. Meanwhile, Tennessee is 4-6 and will have to win a dogfight with the Commodores to have a shot at going to a bowl. While it is frustrating for Vol fans, this series is simply turning into the rivalry that it used to be.