The Old Men and the SEC 

Hemingway, Faulkner, and football

Hemingway, Faulkner, and football

Last weekend, I got to thinking about Bernie Sheahan, the Scene’s erstwhile “Hot Homes” maven. Inevitably, following Bernie’s own famously nonlinear way of thinking, the very thought of her brought me round to considering the current conditions of Tennessee and Vanderbilt football.

:I haven’t seen Bernie since she traipsed off, about a year-and-a-half ago, to study literature, write literature, and live as bohemian a life as Oxford, Miss., allows. Then, last Saturday morning, I turned my radio on halfway through Whad’ya Know? on WPLN, and like a bullet out of the blue, there was a contestant named Bernie from Oxford. When she told Michael Feldman, the host, that she was 10 chapters behind on a book due the next week, I knew that this was our own Bernie and not some other. Then she proceeded to smoke the trivia quiz and win the show’s grandest prize, the giant kielbasa.

I tend to associate the town of Oxford with Hemingway—not with the great literary name that usually goes with the place. That’s because, as every certifiable SEC fan knows, Ole Miss’ football team plays in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. When I think of Hemingway, I flash back to the first of his books that I read, The Old Man and the Sea. And that, naturally enough, reminded me of Vanderbilt.

Just as Hemingway’s old man kept venturing out in his little boat with its patched and forlorn sail that “looked like the flag of permanent defeat,” Vandy’s guys kept plugging away every Saturday this fall, manfully maintaining their pride in the face of an utterly lost cause. Four different times this year, they hooked a giant fish, only to have nothing but a skeleton to show by the time they arrived back in port.

Hemingway would have liked this Vandy team. Of course, for whatever comparative value it’s worth, Hemingway blew his brains out in the end.

But we digress. Thinking about Bernie in Oxford also set me to thinking about the Vols. Oxford oozes Faulkner from every pore. Faulkner cribbed the title of perhaps his most famous book from a snippet of Macbeth: “sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Which is about as good a way as any to sum up the Vols’ fortunes this season.

A goodly number of the media wizards, you’ll recall, stirred up a big, bubbling cauldron of hype and anointed Tennessee No.1 before the season began, as if the games themselves were merely a formality. Despite the ennobling presence of Peyton Manning, the Vols somehow failed to come within spitting distance of their national championship aspirations. They even lost to Memphis. Now having failed to qualify for the giant kielbasa, football-wise, the Volunteers are clinging fervently to hopes for a consolation berth in the Citrus, a bowl they once pooh-poohed as almost too demeaning for words.

When Hemingway and Faulkner, er Vanderbilt and Tennessee, finally met last Saturday night, the cold, soaking November rain provided a perfect complement to the proceedings. The weather added to the mood of gloom that, for different reasons, surrounded the two teams. In years past, close games between UT and Vandy have left crowds buzzing. But this one, a 14-7 Tennessee win, seemed more enervating than elevating. Maybe it was because the rain-slick field inhibited play. Or maybe it was because, whenever the Commodores had the ball, the only suspense was how far the upcoming punt would travel.

In the end, neither faction enjoyed a lot of satisfaction. The final seven-point margin wasn’t enough to please many Vol fans, who had already watched the Big Orange sleepwalk through several games this year. The conservative tack pursued by UT coach Phillip Fulmer didn’t entirely satisfy Manning, who seemed several times to ask permission to open up the throttle.

Even Vanderbilt fans, who tend to relish moral victories despite admonitions from coaches—if you add four near-wins to two bona fide ones, the ’Dores recorded a winning season—appear finally to have lost their appetites for valiant but losing efforts.

Vandy began the season with a rousing 14-7 loss to Notre Dame and ended on the same end of the same score with the same lone offensive highlight: one touchdown bomb amid a host of duds. So you might say the Commodores came full circle. Between start and finish they went virtually nowhere.

Throughout the year, Vandy’s offense gave new meaning to the old wisdom that football is a game of inches. They were shut out entirely in four games and scored only one offensive touchdown in five others. First downs were so precious that they were greeted with rousing cheers by Vandy fans.

And yet this was an outfit that scared the pook out of the four Top 10 teams it encountered. If you’re still wondering how that happened, you’re not alone.

It was just one of many questions that had Vanderbilt observers scratching their heads this year.

How, to use coach Rod Dowhower’s word, could a team become so “lopsided”—with a strong, well disciplined defense on one side and a wheezy, wobbling offense on the other?

How could a coaching staff with such a track record for offensive imagination and player development beget such a toothless child?

And how does an offensive unit fail to show any discernible sign of improvement by the 11th game? Had Michael Feldman posed those riddles on the air last week, our bud Bernie would have been utterly flummoxed.

Now that the shouting is over, Vanderbilt’s program faces a whole new set of questions. Will wily Woody Widenhofer, the defensive architect, turn pro? Will Jamie Duncan, the defensive stalwart, turn pro? Will Woody replace Dowhower, as some Vandylanders hope? How ugly will things get next season, with the star punter and half the defense departed?

Right now, the best guesses are yes, yes, no and—potentially—very.

When the Commodores have appeared on TV this year, Widenhofer has attracted the cameras much more often than his boss has. Which doesn’t say a lot for Dowhower’s prospects but speaks volumes about Woody’s.

After all, it took considerable coaxing and finagling to keep Widenhofer around after last season. This year, with his reputation for genius growing steadily, even more coaching offers will float his way. There are in America exactly zero assistant coaches who do not aspire to be head coaches someday. And just ask yourself: Would you linger around for another season of this, when you could triple your salary and run the whole program? Didn’t think so.

In Big Orange Country, there’s only one meaningful question, and Vol fans have been gnawing their fingernails down to nubs over it: Will Peyton turn pro?

On one hand, returning for his senior year presents Manning with another opportunity to pursue the national championship and the Heisman Trophy, to settle scores with Florida, and to graduate from college. On the other hand, there’s that mountain of cash—much of which may wash away if Peyton blows out a knee or rips a rotator cuff.

Right now, our Ouija board suggests that Manning will come back. But if he doesn’t, and UT slides below the tree line on college football’s slippery slope, the carping heard after the Memphis loss will leave the extended Vol family looking uncannily like Faulkner’s dysfunctional Snopeses.

Vanderbilt, meanwhile, could retain its Hemingway-esque quality: a moveable feast for opponents, devoured each Saturday in stadiums around the SEC.


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