A new season starts again. The hot Midwestern sun beats through the windshield as I grind through the tasseled corn fields of southern Illinois. Gradually, the midwest plains give way to the rolling green hills of western Kentucky. As I press southeast along Interstate 24 and across the Tennessee border, the broad valleys of the Cumberland River open up before me. My white Jetta streaks through the deep rock cuts of the highway, great gouges carved into the Tennessee limestone exposing the chalky cliffs. The odometer reads 169,423 miles as the tiny diesel motor gurgles steadily along the highway. Year five is underway…
I’m on my way to Vanderbilt University, one of three schools remaining for me to visit in the SEC conference (Tennessee and Georgia will be completed later this year). More importantly, it’s a chance to catch up with my good friends Dave and Merritt. Both classmates from the MBA program at Notre Dame, we’d hoisted more than a few beers together at a few of my rowdy Irish tailgates. Ardent followers of the blog for years, they’d agreed to give me the VIP express tour of Nashville, one of the truly great American cities. And with an 18 month old baby at home, they’d assured me that an early wake up call wouldn’t be a problem….
Exiting off the log jammed expressway into downtown Nashvegas, I jolt down a few side streets towards the university and quickly sniff out some free parking options. After witnessing a few other vehicles making their move, I bounce the Jetta over a concrete curb in Centennial Park and tuck neatly into an open space on the sprawling lawns. The well manicured grounds are already home to a few bright red Ole Miss tents, and sizzling grills waft an enticing tailgate aroma through the park. With a bevy of massive overhanging Oak and Maple trees, Centennial Park must feel like home to the Ole Miss faithful, a bunch used to tailgating in the hallowed grounds of “The Grove” in Oxford.
I quickly change shirts, donning my best black, dry fit polo on a tip from Merritt that it’s a “black out” night, and head straight for Rotiers Restaurant. After nearly five hours on the road, I’m famished, and one of their legendary burgers has been on my short list for quite some time. With the plush green leather booths overflowing with pregame crowds, I pull up a seat at the sturdy oak bar and take a token glance at the menu. Dark pine paneling covers the walls, and a few dusty old Budweiser signs from the 70’s hang above the bar. Pictures of dogs are tacked up behind the bar, family dogs I’m told – everyone that works here is a Rotier – so their kids and dogs grace the walls like any workplace. Even my waitress is a Rotier, and she grins approvingly when I order one of their off-menu chocolate shakes. Between the porridge thick chocolate shake and a hefty burger slid between two hearty slices of french bread, a season full of gluttony is off to a running start.
Just as I’m finishing up, a familiar face taps me on the shoulder. My friend and co-host for the weekend – Dave – taps me on the shoulder. He’d sauntered in for a few pre game cold ones to escape the heat, and clutches a local Yazoo Brewing Company ale. A Vanderbilt undergrad and Nashville native, he knows the area extensively, and runs me through a few of the campus highlights to check out during my pre game wanderings. After a few minutes of catching up, I jot down their section and row in the stadium and head out for my campus walk. Dave wisely lingers in the confines of the Rotiers air conditioning, nursing a few more Yazoos.
With the mercury pushing 95 degrees, it’s a sweltering, muggy day. The Vandy campus, however, with over 170 species of trees shading the meandering walkways, offers some respite from the sun. Considered a national Arboretum, magnificent Sugar Maples and Southern Magnolias dot the campus, every tree individually tagged and numbered with a small placard. The school itself, built from a grant by rail magnate Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt, holds a rather unique place among its SEC brethren. A private university with an undergraduate enrollment of just under 7,000 students, it’s dwarfed by the rest of the massive public institutions in the conference. And while the Commodores may be the pencil necked, perennial doormat of SEC football, they far outpace the rest of the conference in academic reputation (85% graduation rate), and annually rank in the top 20 universities nationally.
As the sun starts dipping below the horizon, it signals my walk towards the stadium. Strolling through fraternity row on my way to Dudley Field, the streets are a delightful mess. Sidewalks are lined with stumbling frat boys, and gaggles of talented coeds sport skimpy black Vanderbilt dresses. The crowded lawns are cordoned off with chain link fence and littered with empty blue and red solo cups, while pop tunes blast out of massive black tower speakers.
I circle the stadium, and, after snubbing a handful of scalpers, scoop up a ticket for 25 bucks ($55 face). Despite an official “sellout”, there are still plenty of tickets on the street. Climbing up the aluminum bleachers, I find a few empty seats in Section B, and pass a few minutes awaiting Dave and Merritt’s arrival. As the pre game ceremonies kick off, the entire incoming freshman class runs out of the tunnel like an awkward teenage stampede. Sixteen hundred students sprint across the field during the five minute procession while the PA announcer rattles off statistics about the plebs. It’s a clever way to indoctrinate the newcomers into the spirit of Commodore Football, and remarkably similar to the “Baylor Line”.
Though a normally aloof crowd from what I’m told, the Vanderbilt faithful turn out in droves for the season opener against a cross divisional rival, filling Dudley Field to the gills. At only ~40,000 capacity, Vanderbilt Stadium is easily the smallest venue in the SEC, dwarfed by some of the juggernaut arenas like Neyland and Bryant Denny. But with as much fervor as the sellout crowd can muster, they scream into the swampy night air as the first kickoff of the season is belted down the field.
It feels good to be under the lights again, helmets popping, the crowd roaring on a key third down. Feeble attempts at inciting “Anchor Down” cheers bellow through the jumbotron loudspeakers, but the audience is savvy enough to make their own noise when the situation warrants. The teams trade control in the first half, Ole Miss comes out strong in the first quarter, but Vanderbilt dominates the second. With optimism permeating through the humid night, Vandy takes a 21-10 lead into the tunnel at halftime.
In the second half, momentum shifts. Ole Miss comes out with a quick score and the crowd grows anxious as their tenuous lead quickly evaporates. After a few more exchanges, the Rebels take a 32-28 lead midway through the 4th quarter. As the clock winds down to 4:24 remaining, the contest reaches its zenith. The Commodores march down the field on a couple of monster passing plays, punching in a touchdown with only 1:30 left on the clock. The crowd erupts, cups go flying into the air, sodas and ice cascade over the student section in celebration. 35-32 Vanderbilt.
But the joy is short lived. When Ole Miss takes possession, the Vanderbilt defense collapses on the second play, giving up a 75 yard touchdown pass. Dudley field goes silent. The Rebels have gone back ahead 39-35 with only 1:07 remaining. After a long kickoff return and ensuing penalty, a glimmer of hope remains for the ‘Dores when they assume the ball at midfield and a minute still remaining. But in the end, hope fades once again when, a few plays later, QB Austyn Carta Samuels flutters the ball into the hands of an Ole Miss defender. A game ending interception. Ole Miss squeaks away with the win.
Vanderbilt fans file quietly out of the tunnel. There is little yelling, gnashing of teeth, and complaining about officiating that usually accompanies such last second defeats. These kinds of losses are usually the most devastating, but the fans here handle it with remarkable composure. To a man, one of the classier fan bases I have been witness to.
In the end, I’m not going to tell you that Vanderbilt is one of the premiere destinations in the SEC, because it’s not. And Commodore fans would probably tell you the same. Its one of the smaller, quieter stadiums in SEC, and given their rigorous academic standards, the team struggles to maintain competitiveness in the most cut throat conference in NCAA football. But the visit to Nashville alone makes the trip worthwhile, especially when you get spend it reconnecting with old friends.
Special thanks to my friends Dave and Merritt for hosting me for the weekend, indoctrinating me into Vanderbilt Football, and showing me the best of what Nashville has to offer. Hope to catch you guys again soon!
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