Whit Taylor is used to phone calls during Tennessee week. He’s the former Vanderbilt quarterback who helped beat the Volunteers on a cold, drizzly day in 1982, prompting fans to carry the goal posts up and down West End.
They would not celebrate another win over Tennessee for 23 years, and Taylor became the voice of that 1982 team. Maybe this will be the year, he would say.
This week, he’s taking phone calls before a Tennessee game for a different reason. A better reason. For the first time since Taylor was slinging the ball all over the field back in 1982, the Vanderbilt Commodores are going to a bowl game.
Put away your Vandy jokes. You can no longer say those guys don’t belong in the SEC. Tennessee is not going to a bowl game. Auburn is unlikely to qualify.
Vanderbilt, following last Saturday’s win over Kentucky, is bowl-eligible. Show your gold. And to put in perspective how long the Commodores fans waited for this moment, one of Taylor’s children will graduate from college next month.
“I’m telling you, after 26 years of doing these interviews, I’m more than ready to pass the torch,” Taylor cracked. “Seriously, I’m excited for them. I couldn’t believe watching on TV that they were 0-19 when they had a chance to win a sixth game since we did it. That blew me away. I had no idea, and I follow Vanderbilt. I’m so happy for them, and I’m sure I’m speaking for the rest of that ’82 team.”
Chris Nickson will get those phone calls one day as the quarterback who ended the streak. So will talented defensive back D.J. Moore, who — get this, Phillip Fulmer — also caught two touchdown passes from Nickson in the 31-24 win over Kentucky. They are now Vanderbilt legends, just like Taylor. They are already heroes.
A group of fans greeted the Commodores when they returned from Lexington just before 3 a.m. Sunday. A representative for Total Sports Travel, an agency that sets up trips for almost all of the SEC schools, told Vanderbilt’s director of external relations, Rod Williamson, that more Commodores fans signed up for bowl travel information than any other conference school. Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson is still trying to comprehend the reaction.
“They’ve wanted something so long and haven’t gotten it,” he said. “I have not been in that situation like them. Those people have been doing it for a long time.”
It has been a while for the true Vanderbilt fans. But anyone who appreciates the true student-athlete, who relishes the underdog story, who can’t help but smile when they see a player so happy he struggles for words, is a Vanderbilt fan this week. I think a lot of people are Vanderbilt fans right now.
“I can’t describe it right now. It’s an unbelievable feeling,” Nickson said after the game. “I think the best way to describe it for me right now would be, ‘Wow.’ That’s probably the best I can do.”
And here’s the best part: Vanderbilt is supposedly rebuilding this year. The Commodores lost a first-round NFL draft pick (offensive tackle Chris Williams), a third-round pick (receiver Earl Bennett, who left school early) and a fifth-round pick (linebacker Jonathan Goff). It was the first time in seven years the Commodores lost three players to the draft. They were replacing both lines. It was not supposed to be a good year.
And then they started 5-0. Taylor got those phone calls again. But Taylor is a Vanderbilt man, so he remained cautious with his answers. He did not want to assume much at all. He’s seen too much.
He’s always followed the Vanderbilt program. He was the quarterbacks coach at UT-Chattanooga under Buddy Nix in 1988-89. He met his wife in Chattanooga. He coached at Northwest Georgia High School, which is now Dade County High. He moved back to Shelbyville. He got out of coaching a few years ago and became the assistant principal and athletic director for Shelbyville Central High School.
And still, no bowls for Vanderbilt since Taylor ran the spread offense before it had a name. From 1996 to 2004, the Commodores went 6-66 in the SEC.
Those days are over. Taylor doesn’t need to remind Vanderbilt fans of the good times. He can just be part of it.
“The phone calls this week,” he said, “are a little better.”
Johnson said the fans are imploring him to win these last two games. Why not talk about eight wins? The barrier is broken now. Vanderbilt is going to a bowl game. Charlie Brown finally kicked the football.