Around 5:30 p.m. last Thursday, several teams of boys and girls practicing soccer on the fields behind Eakin School abruptly stopped and looked upward, goggle-eyed, like the crowd of doomed urban extras in Independence Day. Almost directly above their heads loomed an immense, hulking invader none of them had ever seen before.
Many of the adults standing around the soccer fields and encamped at tailgate parties along Natchez Trace also stood transfixed by the sight of the Goodyear Blimp. Few of them had ever seen the famous airship, not in person anyhow. And certainly not in Nashville. And absolutely not making circular orbits above Vanderbilt’s Dudley Field. The Goodyear Blimp, after all, is associated with nationally important football games. The blimp doesn’t show up at Vandyland very often. We get more sightings of Dennis Rodman in a white wedding dress.
Then again, it’s not every dayactually, the only time in this centurythat the vaunted, tradition-encrusted, golden-helmeted Notre Dame descends into Nashville for a football contest. The presence of the Fighting Irish, of course, virtually assures that a game will take on national prominence.
It certainly wasn’t Vanderbilt’s scruffy underdogs for whom the blimp had been inflated. And it wasn’t for the Commodores that ESPN’s crew and cameras had traipsed all the way down from Connecticut. Like the little resort communities on the Carolina coast, the Commodores last week happened to be in the path of something powerful and newsworthy. Unlike those luckless beachfront properties, however, Vanderbilt football was somehow transformed, at least temporarily, without being utterly blown away.
The arrival of Notre Dame ushered in perhaps the most wonderfully strange football weekend in recent memory at Vanderbilt, where the team not only welcomes guests but often graciously provides a doormat. What’s more, it wasn’t even a weekend. It was a Thursdaywhich only intensified the weirdness.
All around the Vanderbilt campus on game day, there was an ambience likegeez, I know it sounds ridiculously improbablea real college football game day. By lunchtime, scalpers were brandishing tickets for sale outside the stadium. Early in the afternoon (a weekday afternoon, no less), with the kickoff still hours away, tailgaters had begun unfolding their lawn chairs and spreading out their picnic blankets in the grassy parking area. Patrols from Vandy’s band played at points across the campus to rouse the Commodore rooters.
The New York Times and the Boston Globe sent reporters to the game. Almost as remarkable, Vanderbilt’s fans showed up on time too. The school’s dandified alums, who sashay into their seats as fashionably late as if they were attending just another swell Saturday do at the country club, were on hand at kickoff. So, amazingly, were Vandy students, who more characteristically stumble in around the second quarter. Yet there they were, and some of the more intense among them had even filled the special new end-zone bleachers that had been reserved for the first 100 young yellers. Together, they helped comprise the largest football crowd in Vanderbilt’s history.
Vandy, of course, has hosted sellout crowds and highly ranked opponents before. There’s a big-time football atmosphere whenever Alabama comes to townbut that’s primarily because Alabama fans bring it with them.
This time, it was different: The Commodores undertook to conjure up some of the magic themselves. To be sure, the spell would have failed had Vandy played Northern Illinois instead of Notre Dame, the team that is to college football what the Mona Lisa is to art. On the other hand, Vanderbilt might not have made such an effort had the opponent not been such a legend.
From the moment when Notre Dame was added to the schedule almost until the kickoff last Thursday, a dour herd of Eeyores snorted that an encounter with the Irish was the last thing Vandy football needed. “Why saddle a struggling program with another loss, when so many willing human sacrifices like Boise State are available?” they whined.
The Eeyores were stunned. Notre Dame’s arrival appeared to have a revitalizing effect on Vanderbilt, in more ways than one. Like Scarlett O’Hara, another owner of a forlorn and decrepit plantation, Vandy commandeered the old drapes to stitch together a new dress, got all gussied up for the big meeting with ND, and managed to look like it really belonged at the ball.
On the field, in fact, the Commodores almost stole the ball from the dumbstruck Irish, discovering perhaps that it was easier to play like a big-time team when surrounded at home by a big-time atmosphere. When the two teams completed a scoreless first quarter, a few eyebrows rose slightly. When the score remained 0-0 until just a few seconds before halftime, the crowdat least a third of whom appeared to be wearing Notre Dame caps or T-shirtssuddenly seemed to realize that Vanderbilt could hold its own against the fabled Irish.
And when Vandy seized a 7-6 lead in the fourth quarter, on an improbable bomb to a freshman who had never before caught a college-game pass, the unthinkable became a stunning possibility. Then, as if their big football horses had suddenly been turned back into white mice, the Commodores reverted to their more familiar role as valiant losers.
In a larger sense, though, the roles were still blurry. Notre Dame won in Nashville, but as 27-point favorites, they lost big in Vegas. Afterward, the peripatetic Irish coach, Lou Holtz, whose ears might well have been smoking, professed happiness in discovering that his team had the character to rally. Vandy coach Rod Dowhower, instead of drawing attention to his squad’s grit and pluck, fumed about the lost opportunity. Meanwhile, former Vandy Athletic Director Roy Kramer, who was skewered by armchair wizards when he signed the deal to bring Notre Dame to town, strolled contentedly through the pressbox last week in his current role as SEC Commissioner.
In almost every way besides the score, however, Vanderbilt was a huge winner. With the visibility created by a prime-time national television audience, and by an encounter with the ultimate prime-time opponent, the Commodores received invaluable exposure. Their recruiting efforts gained overnight credibility. And they created something of a sensation. For several days, the game was the city’s hottest topic of conversation.
None of which necessarily augurs better days for Vandy’s team. The Commodores, remember, also led Alabama in the fourth quarter last yearand proceeded to a nine-loss season. Thanks to the Irish, however, Vanderbilt at least discovered that it could generate some genuine excitement for college footballa skill that will become increasingly critical when the Oilers increase the competition for ticket dollars. Against all odds, and in contradiction to the received wisdom of poo-poohers, the Commodores not only survived Notre Dame but enjoyed their most successful football weekend in years. And like the bungee jumper who is a little surprised to find himself in one piece after his first leap, Vandy may even want to try this again sometime.