June 10, 2006

Taylor remembers the last Vandy bowl team

Did you ever wonder what became of your favorite college football stars from yesteryear? Did you think about how often they're reminded of their crowning achievements?

Wonder no more.

Rivals.com is spending the summer tracking down some of the college players who delivered the most memorable moments of the last generation. This week we're concentrating on players who were part of college football's greatest Cinderella stories.

These surprising seasons all occurred decades ago, yet the events may as well have taken place yesterday. The moments are still that fresh in the minds of each player.

They are often asked about the seasons that made them famous. And they're only too happy to share their memories.

Whit Taylor, Vanderbilt quarterback
Name: Whit Taylor
Age: 46
Residence: Shelbyville, TN
Claim to fame: Quarterbacked the last Vanderbilt team to play in a bowl game. Earned All-Southeastern Conference honors in 1982 as the Commodores went 8-4 with victories over Florida and Tennessee. Was the Most Valuable Player of the Hall of Fame Bowl after going 38-of-51 for 452 yards with four touchdown passes and three interceptions in a 36-28 loss to Air Force.

How often he's reminded about his college career: "Pretty often. I grew up here and went to high school here (in Shelbyville) and have gotten a chance to come back now. I had taught and coached here until March, when I took an assistant principal's job. It was quite often that it came up. There are certain weeks during the football season, especially the Tennessee week, when it's talked about more than others."

Memories of the 1982 season: "We were coming off a 4-7 year. Watson Brown had come in the year before as our offensive coordinator. We were doing a lot of things nobody else was doing in the (Southeastern Conference) at that time. We were throwing it 45-50 times a game. That was kind of unheard of at that time in the SEC. We were doing some things differently. We had a lot of success in '81 offensively, so we were confident we'd be better than 4-7. But to realistically think we'd end up 8-4? Probably not.

"A lot of people talk about the bowl game. They talk about beating Tennessee. To me, the biggest win we had that year was when we played Florida at home and beat them 31-29 (a victory that improved Vanderbilt's record to 3-2). Florida had just destroyed Southern Cal the week before that on national television. We knew that was a big game. It was kind of one of those where whoever had the ball last was going to win. That gave us confidence to go out and have a really good year.

"We were playing in a league that was more of a tailback-oriented league. Tennessee was in the I formation. Georgia was tossing it to their tailback. Florida was doing the same thing. Here we'd come with four and five wideouts and no backs in the backfield at times. We were just doing some things nobody else was doing. It was a pretty tough adjustment (because we had) lots of motions, lots of sets and formations. We had a very good understanding of what we were trying to do. It wasn't a throw-it-down-the-field offense. It was more of a ball-control type. We weren't going to line up and rush for 150 or 200 yards, but we were making short throws that were just like runs to us."

"We played UT-Chattanooga, which is a game that we felt like we should win. We were sitting with six wins at that point (they had a 6-3 record). The guy from the Hall of Fame Bowl came to that game. If I remember correctly, we were down at halftime. We got a little heart-to-heart at halftime from our coaches and from some of the seniors. (Vanderbilt went on to win 27-16). We knew what was at stake. When you look back now being only the third team in school history to go to a bowl game and now the last team to go to a bowl game we knew how important it was. Thank goodness we didn't let it slip away.

"It just really capped off a special year, by beating (Tennessee). We finished undefeated at home. It's an in-state rivalry game. It was the last home game for the seniors. Being from Tennessee myself, it was a little extra pleasing, I guess. There wasn't a whole lot of pressure on us to win that game because we had already accepted a bowl (bid). But at the same time, I can say this looking back, that's probably the only year in my four years that I played that we felt like we were better talent-wise than they were. We had a lot of confidence that we could be successful. (Vanderbilt won 28-21).

"It's kind of funny when I tell people the story (of the Hall of Fame Bowl). Air Force was running the wishbone. We'd score in two minutes. They'd take 10 minutes. We put up some good numbers offensively, but if you look back on it, I made three really, really bad throws that hurt our chances to win. I threw three bad interceptions going in toward their end zone, where we should have had points. We had some pretty big offensive numbers. We had one guy (Norman Jordan) who had 20 receptions. Offensively, we put up some numbers, but I didn't take care of it when I needed to take care of it."

"It's just been an awful long time (since Vanderbilt went to a bowl). They've had some chances. In '84, I think they started 5-0. There have been opportunities to score some points and win some games. They had some opportunities (last) year to win some games I felt like they should have won. They've had opportunities. When you play at a school like Vanderbilt, you have to take advantage of opportunities. You've got to win the games you're supposed to win. And at Vanderbilt, you also have to win some games you're not supposed to."

"I'm sure every senior class says this, but it was a neat bunch of guys. A lot of us stayed in Nashville that summer (before the season). A lot of guys do that today. A lot of them stay (on campus), but at that time it wasn't done that much. We all stayed and worked out together and conditioned together. It was a pretty tight-knit group. We didn't do it all by ourselves. There were still a lot of factors that went into it. A lot of people talk about how we were offensively, but defensively we were pretty good. We were second in the nation in turnover ratio, set a school record for interceptions and had an All-America punter (Jim Arnold)."

Pro career: The United States Football League's Michigan Panthers selected Taylor in the fifth round of their 1983 draft. Taylor played two years with the Panthers before spending the 1985 season with the USFL's San Antonio Gunslingers. He played for the Denver Dynamite in the Arena Football League's inaugural season of 1987 before concluding his playing career.

"I never thought (Arena Football) would make it. That was the first year. There were four teams, bad playing surfaces, no money. I was married and had a child, and I couldn't financially see myself making a living doing that. If I'd only known (the league would survive), I probably would have played a little bit longer."

What he's doing now: "I'm the assistant principal at Harris Middle School in Shelbyville. The nine years before that, I was head football coach at Central High School in Shelbyville.

"I got a chance to coach a little bit in college. In '85, I coached with (Vanderbilt's George) MacIntyre as quarterbacks coach. In '88 and '89, I was quarterbacks coach at UT-Chattanooga. And then I got to the high school. I grew up here. I went to high school here. Once I got into coaching, I always felt if that (Shelbyville Central) job ever came open, I'd like to have a chance to be there.

"I always hoped I'd know when I didn't feel the passion was there like it should be to be in coaching and to do the things you need to do. Some opportunities came up here to get into administration, and I didn't have to move. I could stay in the system, keep my retirement. A lot of things made me want to go into administration."

For more on the Vanderbilt Commodores, check out VandySports.com.


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