The Commodores and the city of Nashville continue to conjure great memories.
In 1925 when Robert Reese Neyland became the head coach at Tennessee, one of the first questions the administration asked him was: “What do you expect to do about the Vanderbilt problem?”
In the early days of Southern football, Vanderbilt was a football power under Dan McGugin who had played for the legendary Fielding Yost at Michigan. When McGugin’s career ended he had a record of 197-55-19 which was easily good enough to get him elected to the College Football Hall of Fame.
McGugin was much of the “Vanderbilt problem” for Tennessee. The Volunteers and the Commodores first played in Nashville in 1892 (the teams played two games that year, and Vanderbilt won both). The next time they played was 1900, and that game ended in a 0-0 tie. The teams did not play every year but Tennessee first defeated Vanderbilt in 1914. Vandy had won seven of the last eight games when Neyland became Tennessee’s coach. It took him four years to beat the Commodores.
Neyland would coach the Volunteers to a dominating position as the Southern Conference segued into the Southeastern Conference of 12 teams in 1933. Vanderbilt began to slip but would be competitive into the fifties and sixties under Red Sanders, Bill Edwards and Art Geupe.
Atlanta (Georgia Tech) and New Orleans (Tulane) and Birmingham were the biggest cities in the SEC. Nashville was not far behind, and with the Grand Ole Opry (which began in November 1925) established, the capital of the state of Tennessee was on the way to becoming Music City, USA. It would become one of the most popular destinations in the country and remains a favorite of SEC teams.
The first road trip I ever made involving UGA was to Grant Field to see the Bulldogs play Georgia Tech, but I didn’t’ count that as a road game which means that my first real out of town trip was to Nashville in the early sixties. I was overwhelmed with the country music, hospitality and night life. Nashville has always been an especial place.
Early on, Dan Magill introduced me to the sports columnist of the Nashville Banner, Fred Russell who was known throughout the country for his sprightly column, which he named, “Sidelines.” He was a well-connected and polished sportswriter who covered everything from the Masters to the World Series to the heavyweight fights to the Indy 500, but his first love was college football. His wife, Kay, was a regular tennis partner of Minnie Pearl, a star on the Opry for years. The Russell’s owned a charming home near the Vanderbilt campus and would invite prominent visitors in town to enjoy cocktails and lively conversation with them.
Fred knew everybody important to know in sports. He was a close friend of Grantland Rice, the legendary sportswriter who also was graduated from Vanderbilt. Most interestingly, Fred was the greatest of raconteurs and practical jokers—a charming, genial and poignantly clever man.
When he came to Athens, he would dine with Coach and Winnie Butts at lunch—turnip greens, cornbread and “pot likker.” He was fond of Poss’ barbecue, too. In his sundown years, Fred still held Charley Trippi in the greatest of awe. It was a highlight of my early years in Athens to hear him speak to the Touchdown Club of Athens.
Following the 1980 National Championship season, the late Lewis Grizzard, humor columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and I, put together an insider’s recall of the season with essays, vignettes and profiles of players and coaches along with behind-the-scenes details about the games which became a book, “Glory, Glory.”
It brought a reverberating response from the Dawg Nation. When I told Fred Russell of the enthusiastic reaction we had with autograph parties, he related a personal story to make sure things were kept in perspective. He once wrote a book Bury Me In An Old Press Box.The publisher sent him on a tour of SEC cities including Atlanta, Birmingham, Louisville, Jackson and New Orleans.
Several years later, he was in Atlanta for an important Braves series and was browsing around a bookstore on Peachtree Street and spied a copy of the book which was out of print. He picked up the copy, dusted it off, opened it up and saw his autograph from the long ago book signing.
With the book out of print and his personal inventory nearly depleted, Fred decided he would make a purchase. He asked the aging proprietor how much the book cost?
The old-timer reached for the book, opened it and saw where Fred had signed it at the aforementioned signing party. He then offered a classic quote, “It is supposed to sell for $5.00 but some s.o.b. wrote his name in it so you can have it for $2.00.”
Fred Russell was a classic, and I still treasure time spent with the SEC ole timers such as this enterprising sportswriter and author. For all the fans out there who were impressed with visitor hospitality on Georgia’s first trip to Columbia Missouri in 2012 and that of Notre Dame at South Bend last year—take it from me, the first place in the SEC that underscored gentlemanly behavior, courtesy, sportsmanship and hospitality, all now in short supply, was the Vanderbilt campus.