On a chilly winter night on the banks of the Cumberland River in Nashville, a group of young men did something that would change the trajectory of the Vanderbilt Football program.
The Vanderbilt Commodores defeated the Boston College Eagles 16-14 on Dec. 31, 2008 in the Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl, the program’s first bowl win in 53 years in its first bowl appearance since 1982.
They only converted one third down in the entire game. The offense didn’t score a touchdown and only generated 200 yards of total offense. The MVP of the game was the team’s punter.
Yet, somehow, Vanderbilt found a way to win.
As the 10th anniversary of this historic victory approaches, the 2018 Commodores are set to play in the program’s sixth bowl game in the last decade dating back to that 2008 Music City Bowl game.
10 years later, those that played for, coached and covered that team reflected on the season, the victory and what it meant for Vanderbilt.
This is a look back on that historic night through their eyes.
A Season to Remember, A Finish to Forget
Vanderbilt finished the 2007 season at 5-7, losing its last four games of the season to narrowly miss bowl eligibility. The veteran players that returned from that team were determined to not let that happen again, and the incoming freshmen and redshirt freshmen were driven to build a legacy of their own.
Larry Smith, redshirt freshman quarterback: We had a lot of great senior leadership on that team. The previous season, we had won five games, should have won six but came up short against Tennessee in the last game of the regular season in 2007. That offseason going into the 2008 season was huge for us. We had several older guys, upperclassmen on the team, which really led us to be more driven, knowing that we were so close the year before. Guys were just determined to make history and get back to a bowl game, and have a chance to actually win a bowl game as well.
Bryant Hahnfeldt, senior kicker: There were some tough seasons leading up to that one for sure, and frustrating ones. It was just one of those things that kind of got started with our class, I think the 27 of us that came in together. By our senior year, we were determined to get to one. Not that we weren’t in other years, but it was just kind of one of those things like we want to have that experience in a bowl game. We just went into that season with the mentality that we’re not going to accept anything less.
Bobby Johnson, head coach: I think a lot of people on the team in ’08 remembered ’07, and they wanted to make sure they worked a little harder here and there. We had a good chance of breaking through. We had the chance to go to a bowl. We didn’t run around talking about it all the time, but it was one thing that players and the coaches wanted to get done. They were excited about it.
David Rutz, Vanderbilt Hustler sports editor 2007-08: The 2007 team was probably actually better than the ’08 team was. They were 5-3 and lost their last four games, and one of them was a game against Tennessee that they had in the bag, and they blew a 15-point lead in the fourth quarter. It would have been huge because they would have knocked Tennessee out of the SEC Championship. It would have made Vandy bowl eligible. They had a lot of good guys coming back, though, so there was some cautious optimism about the team going into 2008.
The Commodores delivered on that cautious optimism early in the season, starting 5-0. The fifth win came at home in a ranked matchup with Auburn on Oct. 4th. College GameDay came to campus for the first time ahead of the game. Vanderbilt would go on to win 14-13 on a second-half comeback led by quarterback Mackenzi Adams.
Mackenzi Adams, redshirt junior quarterback: People like to win, right? Fans, the players, everybody wants to be around winning programs. Every year, you get to start with a fresh slate. It was definitely about the best atmosphere, the highest it’s ever been in my time at Vanderbilt.
Brett Upson, junior punter: Most of us had never been a part of a winning team at that point. The amount of recognition and media coverage and everything amped up. The support from the student body was even more than the two previous years. That plays a big role as far as small private schools or small schools in general. I can remember some games looking up at the student section and there only being a couple of rows full. At that time, it was full.
Rutz: The whole campus was really excited. There was a huge crowd that came out to see the ESPN crew. The game, which I covered from the box, was the most electric atmosphere they’d ever had at the stadium to that point. People were just going nuts.
Hahnfeldt: I remember being on the sidelines during the Auburn game and a friend of mine, Matt Bubis, who played on the team as well, we had grown up together. We looked at each other like, ‘Have you ever seen the stadium like this?’ He goes, ‘No, I’ve never seen it that full.’ One, that full in general, but two, that full with Vandy fans.
After that game, the team struggled through a brutal SEC schedule. The Commodores lost their next four games before finally getting that elusive sixth win in a 31-24 victory on the road at Kentucky. After losing the last two games of the season to Tennessee and Wake Forest, Vanderbilt was placed in the Music City Bowl right down the road from campus at LP Field.
Adams: Obviously, we were disappointed with some games. It came down to, I think we lost to Georgia by a touchdown, they had Knowshon Moreno and Matthew Stafford on the team. We lost to some really good teams, so obviously we were frustrated, but playing really well. Again, we accomplished something that no one had done there in 25 or 30 years before that. I think there was an opportunity we definitely missed out on. We could have probably gotten more like seven, eight or nine wins during the season, but I think at that point it was such a huge hill that we were climbing for so long, and it felt like we were finally there.
D.J. Moore, junior cornerback: The attitude changed. It had to. You go 5-0, you beat Auburn and you’re 13th in the nation, and then you just start to go downhill. You always play hard, but mentally you’re like ‘Here we go again. How are we going to mess this one up?’ We had to get to six at least. It was the first time since 1982, so it was awhile, back when Run DMC and everybody was doing their thing. It had been awhile, so I think the mentality did change.
Reshard Langford, redshirt senior safety and team captain: When you think about starting off in that position, you kind of get a target on your back. I don’t think it was a position that Vandy had been in many seasons prior to that. When we were in that position and we were somewhat respectable in the SEC and in the country, feelings change a little bit. I think that kind of affected us during that time. We fought, we clawed back and it ended up working out well for us at the end of the season getting that sixth win and getting to the bowl game.
Vanderbilt was set to face Boston College, a team that was one win away from a BCS bowl, but lost in the ACC Championship game to Virginia Tech. This would be the Eagles’ 10th consecutive bowl appearance, and the Eagles were seeking their third-consecutive 10-win season in this game. The focal point of the team was the defense with future NFL stars such as B.J. Raji and Mark Herzlich on the team. Both teams were prepared for a low-scoring grudge match.
Sean Richardson, freshman safety: They had a good defense, and I remember B.J. Raji was on that team, and it just so happened me and Casey [Hayward] went to Green Bay, and he was on the team. We used to talk trash about how we beat them in a bowl game and everything. B.J. would always say ‘It was the Music City Bowl, we didn’t really care. Y’all thought it was the national championship game, and we just saw it as the Music City Bowl game.’
Joe Fisher, Vanderbilt Football radio play-by-play announcer: It was going to be, I don’t want to say an ugly game, but it was going to be a physical, low-scoring, probably going to come down to a play or two, which is exactly what happened. Special teams were going to factor in, which was exactly what happened, maybe not to the degree we thought it would. I don’t think that was any surprise at all.
Both regular quaterbacks Adams and Chris Nickson were injured in Vanderbilt’s regular season finale at Wake Forest. Adams had broken his collarbone, but Nickson had at least partially recovered from his injury. Because of the injuries, redshirt freshman Larry Smith was slated to make his first collegiate start in Vanderbilt’s first bowl game in nearly 30 years, with Nickson seeing occasional snaps by design.
Larry Smith: Chris wasn’t 100 percent going into the bowl game during the bowl practices, so I guess they felt like myself at 100 percent and Chris being at 80-85 percent would give us the best chance to potentially win the bowl game. I found out maybe a week and a half before the game that I would be starting. The team knew it, but Coach Johnson didn’t publicize who would be starting for us in that bowl game. The team knew, and I knew as well.
Johnson: I think that Larry’s a good player. He had a lot of talent and at the time, we had played our last game and got through the practices before the bowl. Larry was working out and doing well. He gave us a great weapon in his legs, and we were trying to get as much offense as we could into the game. Not that other people couldn’t do it, but he was showing us in practice that he was ready to go.
The Commodores took the field on a frigid New Year’s Eve in Nashville. However, the cold did not deter the Commodore faithful from coming out to support the team in its first bowl game since 1982.
Fisher: There were more than 50,000 people in the stands downtown at the stadium, and Boston College had a handful of fans that were there. Everything else was black and gold. It was people that came from all over, alumni that came from all over. My wife called me before the game, and I was in the booth and she said, ‘You wouldn’t believe what it’s like out here. It’s amazing, the tailgating that’s going on and all the people that are here.’ I really believe to this day that it’s probably the best home field advantage that we’ve ever had.
Vanderbilt kicked off and held the Boston College offense, led by quarterback Dominique Davis, at bay. On the team’s first offensive drive, Larry Smith helped lead the Commodores across midfield and allowed Hahnfeldt to hit a 42-yard field goal to take an early lead. That first kick was huge for Hahnfeldt, who was confident, but had missed a few kicks in key situations in the past, including missing what would have been the winning field goal against Tennessee in 2007.
Hahnfeldt:. The cool thing about it is I remember going out there and lining up, and you could still see the NFL hashmarks a little bit on the field, and those are right down the uprights. I was on the right hash of the NFL ones. It was just one of those things where you just have to kick it straight, essentially, because the college marks are a little further out. I got a good foot on it and it just felt so good. It was one of those that came off my foot well, getting on the board early, gives us all confidence going forward. That was a big one; that was a good way to get started.
Upson: Everybody believed in Bryant. Every good kicker has some misses, but it’s the good kicker that bounces back from those misses. I’ve seen him do it time and time again during the season. He may have missed an extra point or a field goal that we needed, and it could have been the turning point in the game or motivation in the game or whatever. But there were also times where I would shank a punt and he’s right there to pick me up. We relied on each other, but I believed in Bryant, everybody believed in Bryant. Everybody knew he was good.
On the next drive, Larry Smith hit wide receiver Sean Walker on a 51-yard deep route to put Vanderbilt within 13 yards of the end zone, but they would have to settle for a chip shot field goal to make it 6-0 Commodores. Despite not finding the end zone, those first two drives were crucial in building Smith’s confidence and the whole team’s confidence.
George Smith, senior wide receiver and team captain: You could see the confidence light up in him after the first few completions. I think any teammate could tell you that you can tell when the confidence is up in the quarterback by the way he’s calling the plays. I think throughout the game he just sounded more and more like a leader.
Larry Smith: We knew going into the game we were going to be aggressive, we weren’t going to hold anything back. That start was just the coaching staff having confidence in us as an offense. We knew our defense had played well all season long, so we wanted to be aggressive going into the game.
Adams: We knew the defense was good, so it was one of those games where you go down and if you can put together a couple of drives and get touchdowns or even field goals on, you feel really good about just getting points on the board in some of those games. It was one of those cold games where field goals go a long way. Larry came out and was throwing the ball well, and that made everybody feel better as well because he never really had much experience.
The first quarter would end with Vanderbilt in the lead 6-0. Early in the second quarter, Moore batted one of Davis’ passes into the air, giving Ryan Hamilton the chance to make an interception. However, Moore injured his ankle on the play and couldn’t finish the game.
Moore: I just wanted to make the play. I knew before the game that it was my last game. I just wanted to be out there. We were capable of having people come in, because if I had stayed in, I would have done okay, but it was probably better for him to go in at that time. I was just hoping we’d win and support the team, but I was bummed a little bit because I knew in my mind, but I hadn’t told anybody yet, that I wasn’t coming back.
Myron Lewis, junior cornerback: D.J., he was one of our supreme players on the team. We could put him on offense or defense and knowing that he was already coming in with an injury, and he re-injured it during that game. Lucky enough, we had a great replacement, we all know him: Casey Hayward.
Hayward ended up filling in for Moore at cornerback. It was the culmination of a lot of hard work that season, as Hayward was one of just a handful of true freshmen who did not redshirt that season.
Rutz: He was a pretty big stud even in that first season. [Football sports information director] Larry Leathers was always telling me, ‘Casey is a guy to look out for. Casey is going to be in the NFL.’ You could tell he had the stuff early on.
Casey Hayward, freshman cornerback: I wasn’t nervous. I was prepared. I worked my butt off for that moment. That whole week going into it, I was working and rotating with the ones, just in case, because a lot of our other guys were hurt going into it. D.J. ended up playing, but he also got hurt going into the game. I was prepared for that moment because I worked for it.
Richardson: He was making a lot of plays and we were saying, ‘Hey, we’re freshman, but we’re here to compete, we’re here to win and play and contribute right away.’ I want to say it was like week three or four, me and Casey weren’t playing as much, and we were just doing special teams and sitting on the sideline going back and forth saying, ‘We need to go upstairs and talk to the coaches and say just redshirt us if we’re not going to play.’ That was just our mentality. We weren’t okay with just playing special teams. We were working to get live snaps on defense and show we had talent.
Hayward: Me and him [Richardson] were the only ones that played, so we were definitely trying grind it out. I think midseason, one of our guys went down at cornerback, so I got more time earlier than he did to play. I knew it was about patience, and to even be able to be considered for playing time as a freshman was something special.
Lewis: He came in real strong with a lot of confidence. Knowing him throughout the season, he played well in practice, and he studied real hard, and he was just a hell of an athlete. We knew that we could depend on him and just with Vanderbilt, we had a lot of guys coming in and we play early, especially in the secondary. If you’re a ball player, Coach is going to put you out there.
The team went into halftime down 7-6 after giving up a four-yard touchdown pass from Davis to running back Montel Harris in the final minutes of the first half. However, the mood in the locker room was still upbeat and positive.
Hahnfeldt: We’re in it. We’ve got a game. We’re playing a good team. Boston College was in the ACC Championship game that year. We knew we were going to be in a fight in the second half. Being down one going into the half, like no big deal. Alright, here we go. Win the second half, and we win the game. That’s what it was all about. This is our last half to play this year, let’s get it done.
George Smith: I think Reshard and I both just told them that for some of you, you just have 30 more minutes. So let’s grind it out, let’s make history and let’s do it in front of our hometown. That was our big speech right there.
Fisher: I think it was a game that they saw, and again I think everybody in the stands kind of felt the way we felt, which was that there was going to be a play, there’s going to be some play, some pivotal play, some big play that one of these teams is going to make, and whoever makes it is probably going to win this game. As it turned out, with one strange special teams play, that’s exactly what happened.
In the opening minutes of the third quarter, the Commodore offense failed to convert a third-and-21 from the Boston College 43-yard line. Smith’s pass for tight end Justin Green was nearly intercepted over the middle. Upson lined up for a low, bouncing punt that would end up changing everything for the Commodores.
Upson: I remember we called a rugby kick to the right down the right hashline. When you kick a rugby kick, it’s critical that you place the ball where it needs to be placed, because if you come across and it’s not, then they’re going to run it back for a touchdown or have a good return. I just remember kicking that ball and it bouncing, and I can remember seeing it hit that guy’s leg.
Lewis: The crazy thing was that all you can hear was people on the sideline yelling, ‘Get on the ball! Get on the ball!’
Fisher: When you see it, it’s one of those that you think you see it, but you’re not sure. I’m up in the booth, so I’m away from the field, but you see the bounce and you see the awkwardness of it, and you think, ‘I think that hit the guy. I think that touched him.’
Richardson: I got off late, and I remember Joel Caldwell was down there, and I can’t remember who else, but I know the ball was just laying there. Someone hit the ball, and I knew then that it was live. Everybody was still blocking, but I saw that ball, and I was like, ‘This is an opportunity for me to make a play for my team.’ Everything was in slow motion. Everything slowed, and I knew this was an opportunity to just jump on the ball and score a touchdown. That’s what I did. I just ran and jumped on it, and I was just excited after the referees talked it over, and they gave us the touchdown.
Upson: It was kind of surreal. I guess you feel like a quarterback in that situation. It was kind of unexplainable, just how quick it happened and how it happened. I just remember seeing it hit off his leg and our guy falling on it. I knew right then that it was a touchdown.
George Smith: I think half of the team ran out on the field. Because you practice this all the time, repetitions and repetitions. Those are the moments that you really practice for. When the opportunity presents itself, you can capitalize, and we did.
Johnson: It was a hustle thing for us. We had a bunch of guys down there when it hit that guy. I think they [Boston College] didn’t have a chance of getting that ball, because we were all over it. Just part of your team, your special teams. It was a good punt, I don’t think you can say, ‘Hey, I’m going to hit somebody’s leg,’ of course, but it was downfield, and we had great coverage, and we were ready to take care of business there.
George Smith: I personally didn’t actually like those style of punts, and it finally worked in the best way you can possibly have it happen in the bowl game.
The referees huddled and determined that the ball hit off of Boston College defensive back Paul Anderson’s leg and was recovered by Richardson in the end zone for a Vanderbilt touchdown. After years of being on the wrong end of unfortunate bounces and tough plays, Vanderbilt finally caught a break. It gave the Commodores a 13-7 lead with plenty of football left to be played.
Hahnfeldt: The lucky part about it is you can’t advance a muffed punt, but that ball ended up in the end zone, so we fell on it in the end zone. You’re watching it, and it could happen any time. It was a hell of a play by our punt team all the way around, from the snap and the kick to those cover guys.
Rutz: The bowl game, I was actually in Hawaii. I was watching, of course. It was a long planned family trip, and I was like, ‘I have to watch this game, it’s our first bowl game in almost 30 years.’ I got up at like 7:00 AM and watched it. I remember flipping out and being like, ‘Maybe we’ll actually pull this off. Oh my god, we’re actually getting some breaks for once.’
The Drive, The Pick, The Win
After the Vanderbilt touchdown, the two teams traded drives with neither team able to generate any offense. Boston College finally found a breakthrough with just under seven minutes to go in the fourth quarter when Davis launched a pass down the sideline over the top of Lewis to Colin Larmond Jr. for a 55-yard touchdown. Boston College led 14-13.
Lewis: Their receiver was running a lot of out routes, and I was kind of being lazy with my eyes. I was having a pretty good game and not giving up any catches. The receiver ran an out-and-up on me, and my eyes went to the out, and then the receiver went up and ended up scoring. As a DB, you’ve got to have short-term memory, and I was just thinking, ‘Man, we still have a lot of time on the clock, and this is what I do. I’m a junior, I’ve been playing well the whole season.’
Langford: He was devastated. I have never seen him be so upset with himself. He was like, ‘Man, I’m sorry, I let you guys down’ and this and that.
Vanderbilt would get the ball back, and the offense was ready to try and lead the team back into the game.
Larry Smith: We rallied everyone together right before that drive and said, ‘This game is going to be on us.’ It’s on our shoulders, but we knew we had to get in there and get into field goal range to give ourselves a chance to win. It started with the offensive line and the running backs running the ball mixed in with some passes.
George Smith: I think I remember the look, and there’s a picture of Larry and I looking each other in the face and nothing but confidence coming out of that huddle. Bradley Vierling, Larry Smith, myself, Sean Walker, there were guys in there that we knew we had been through way too much, and this last drive showed a lot of character.
Smith led the Commodores to around midfield with less than six minutes remaining in the game, but he took a couple of hits as he went down on a designed run at the Eagles 48-yard line.
He wasn’t hurt, but much to the shock of the announcers on ESPN and pretty much everyone in the crowd, Smith stepped out to the sideline. Nickson had taken some snaps at quarterback in specific situations throughout the game, but he wasn’t the one that came into the game.
That would be Mackenzi Adams, who was still recovering from his broken collarbone, for his first snap of the game.
“Why? Why?” said ESPN color commentator Bob Davie.
Larry Smith: Mackenzi went in for one snap because my contact came out, so I couldn’t see. I had to come off to the sidelines and get another contact. That’s why Mackenzi was in only for that one play. I don’t think too may people knew the reason why he went in the game, but that was the reason.
Adams: I suited up because I could suit up, and I was technically the third-string quarterback, I guess, but had zero intention of playing. I don’t even know if I really warmed up a lot to be honest. I had been standing there for a couple of hours helping to call plays and helping coach up Larry. They were like, ‘Mack, you’ve got to go in.’ I remember turning around. I don’t know where my helmet is. I have a beanie on. I haven’t thrown the ball in three to four hours. I just grabbed a helmet and ran in.
Adams stood in the shotgun on third-and-two from the Boston College 48-yard line. He tried to hit George Smith with a pass over the middle, but right after he threw it, he was driven into the turf by Herzlich blitzing from the edge. The referee threw a flag in the backfield.
Roughing the passer. 15-yard penalty. Automatic first down.
Adams: I remember being pretty upset. I went in for one play, got killed. I can barely throw the ball with my shoulder, but I ended up getting 15 yards out of it, so again, I guess you’ve got to take what you can get, and it ended up being a nice gain for us.
Fisher: It’s kind of ironic when you look back on it and think about it. He literally came in for one play. He’s not listed in the stats. He’s not in them. He didn’t throw a ball, he didn’t run, but he was roughed, and that was a huge play in the game. Whenever I think of Mackenzi, that’s a guy that was just always ready. He was an ideal person for that position.
Larry Smith: It’s funny how it works out sometimes.
Nickson entered on the next play and was driven backwards on a designed run. On second down, Larry Smith returned and hit George Smith on a crossing route over the middle for a 16-yard gain. On third-and-one, running back Jamie Graham was dropped for a loss.
Hahnfeldt stepped onto the field on fourth down and delivered a 45-yard kick that curled and ended up right down the middle of the uprights. Vanderbilt led 16-14 with three and a half minutes remaining.
Hahnfeldt: It was euphoria, and I could almost take a deep breath. One kick that haunted me for awhile was the Tennessee game the year before in my junior year. It hit the post with like 30 seconds left. To go out there and hit that 45-yarder, it was just a weight off my shoulders in a sense. Not from any outside pressure, but from a personal standpoint. That’s the way to go out. As far as the highs of that situation, I can’t describe the feeling that comes from making one of those kicks. It’s unbelievable. It’s another level of excitement.
Fisher: I remember several people talking about how cold it was. It was frigid; it really was. For him to deliver the way he did, I think it was very important. He had been reliable all year. I think literally he was one of those guys that you felt very comfortable in that situation. 40 yards and in, it was going to be automatic. He was very solid.
Vanderbilt’s defense held firm on the next drive, giving the offense the ball back with 2:24 left. While the Commodores had to punt it away after going three-and-out, they forced Boston College to use all of its timeouts. The Eagles got the ball back with 2:01 remaining and no timeouts.
After one completion, Boston College had first down and 10 from their own 36-yard line with 1:43 left. Davis took the snap in the shotgun and looked towards the right sideline for Larmond Jr. again.
Lewis: They’re driving down trying to go ahead, and they tried to throw the deep ball to my side. I saw the ball, jumped up and grabbed it, toe-tapped on the sideline, and I knew the game was over after that.
George Smith: When the ball was in the air, I almost probably saw it coming, because I kind of saw him break on it. But, I knew then, man, he is making that play. I think a lot of us did know that. You didn’t see too many corners stand out there at 6’3’’ looking like Myron. When that ball went his way, you know, I think we all knew at that moment, at least I felt it. I guess in those moments, you can feel the energy. I felt it coming. Game over.
Langford: I keep mentioning the spirit of the team, and being a brotherhood so to say. It was great for him to end the game in that way. He didn’t just do it for him to redeem himself, he did it for us. He did it for everybody, man. It was a great way to finish the game and makes the story that much better.
Hayward: In our position, we’re going to get beat and things like that, but it’s all about how you can let that go and be able to make plays towards the end, and he made one of the biggest plays for us.
Lewis: It was a sigh of relief because for me personally, I felt like I gave the game up at one point. I was like ‘Okay, yeah, we’ve got time. It’s not over yet.’ It was just a sigh of relief that I was able to make that play for our team and for us to win. Just seeing the excitement of the sideline, everyone going crazy knowing that we won the game and won a bowl game for the first time in over 50 years, it was exciting.
Johnson: I’ve heard so many other times, Joe Fisher when he called it. He was doing the game, I was listening to it when I got home and they way he said it: “MYRON LEWIS!” They were so jazzed up. We celebrated for about 10 seconds and then had to figure out when we could get a knee and what we can do to make sure we’re going to win this game.
Vanderbilt had the ball with 1:36 left and could kneel out the clock. Larry Smith took the final knee with 22 seconds left and threw his hands in the air in celebration. The game was over.
Final score: Boston College 14, Vanderbilt 16.
Larry Smith: Forever. Forever. Making that history when people doubted Vanderbilt, putting Vanderbilt at the bottom of the SEC when I was getting recruited and signed to Vandy. People always said that you’re never going to win at Vandy. Myself and our freshman class, we were determined to make some history at Vandy. Taking that knee at the end of the game, sealing that victory for us in our hometown was huge. I still get chills to this day just thinking about it and bringing the victory to the Commodore Nation. It was huge, and that’s something I will never forget.
Langford: There’s some things I don’t remember and some things I do. I just remember taking my helmet off and shoulder pads and just running as cold as it was, just out there sweating with no shirt on and no shoulder pads. It was probably one of the best feelings that I can ever remember.
Fisher: The reaction of the fans was pretty special. The fact that nobody left. Everybody wanted to stay until the end. Everybody wanted to be there for the postgame celebration. Everybody wanted to be there for the trophy presentation, and they did. They stayed.
Johnson: The best thing about it was that we could call our guys winners now. It had been a long time since you could do that at Vanderbilt. They had won a bowl. We didn’t want to go out there and say we just went to a bowl and that we tried hard, but we lost. We won the bowl, and we were champions.
As the celebration started, a decision had to be made about who the MVP was going to be. Vanderbilt had no offensive touchdowns and had generated just 200 yards of offense. The defense was solid and forced turnovers, but no one in particular stood out.
That led to one of the most unconventional MVP choices in college football history.
Fisher: In our broadcast, I remember we’re getting down towards the end of the game, and you start speculating and you start thinking about if this holds, if this score holds, I wonder who the MVP is going to be? You start thinking well, you know, Brett’s got a reasonably good shot.
Upson: I was celebrating with the team, and I just jumped up and down. Next thing I know, somebody from the coaching staff and a bowl representative were grabbing me and saying you have to go to the stage. I said “For what?”
They said “You’re the MVP.”
I thought they were joking with me at first. It was even more surreal at that point. I didn’t know what to say or how to act at that point because one, I was the punter, I never would have thought that I would have been MVP of a bowl game that Vanderbilt had won, and that was the first one they had won since the 50s.
For the first time since 1955, Vanderbilt had won a bowl game. For a program that had not even played in a bowl game since 1982, the impact of that victory would end up carrying the program to a renewed sense of relevancy.
Johnson retired in 2010 as the team struggled in the two seasons following the Music City Bowl victory. 10 years later, however, Vanderbilt has been to five more bowl games, three under James Franklin and now two under Derek Mason. The attention that the program received after the success of the 2008 season helped to make all of that happen.
Moore: It was kind of hard to grasp that because we had a lot of doubters. No one believed in Vanderbilt in all of the years that I had been there. We all had a nice fanbase up until we started going on a little losing streak. In 2008, we kind of shut the doubters up, and we were able to move forward and succeed. That’s something that we kind of started a legacy of going to bowl games and winning six-plus games at Vanderbilt.
Larry Smith: I remember we had our official visits in my senior year in high school and our signing class, we were the smallest signing class that Vandy had. We had 14 guys that signed on national signing day. We were a close-knit group, and we were determined to say we’re going to help change Vanderbilt’s legacy. We want to be the first class to go to multiple bowl games. We were the first senior class to ever go to two bowl games. I think it kind of laid the foundation for other teams. I know the class after us, they ended up going to three straight years of bowl games.
Johnson: I think we proved that we could play against some good SEC teams and some good ACC teams. There’s no reason to believe that we cannot compete with those teams. Are we going to win 10 a year? It would be tough. But, we felt like on any one day, we could win games.
Hayward: I definitely think that was the start. We keep getting better players every year now, we get better coaching each and every year, so that’s what it’s about. If you win, you’ll have people wanting to come and play for your program. You’ll have people wanting to come coach for your program. That’s what it’s about. We’ve been getting better each and every year.
Richardson: After that, we were going to bowl game after bowl game. It was great to break that barrier, and once that happened, it was pretty much downhill from there. Everybody was just getting on board and believing that we can go out, and we could beat them, and we can play bowl game after bowl game. It changed the program around, and everybody and recruits were noticing us and wanted to be a part of what we had going on.
A handful of members of that 2008 team went on to have NFL careers. Others stayed involved in football in other ways, or found new career paths outside of sports. But, they’ve stayed bonded together by the memories of what they did in 2008 and how they helped launched Vanderbilt Football into what it is today.
George Smith: To see that stadium filled up with nothing but black and gold to finish off as Music City Bowl champions and beat a great Boston College team, it was just an awesome experience that I’ll never forget. I have the poster. I believe it’s a canvas in the bookstore, and it’s of me and Bobby Johnson holding the trophy. I have that on my wall in my house. I remember it to this day. I’ll never forget it.
Fisher: When you’ve been that long without success, there are people that are surprised by it. There are people that think it’s a flash in the pan. Certainly that was the case then, although there were a lot of people that thought this was a one-hit wonder. I think it built into not only our fanbase, but into the folks here, the idea that we can actually compete in this conference. We can win games. We can play postseason games on a regular basis if we stick to what we’re doing. I think yes, James Franklin had great success, yes, Derek Mason is having great success, and we’re happy about all of those things, but I always go back whenever I talk to people, I go back to Bobby Johnson and say that’s the guy to me that really got this all started.
Moore: I think it’s just one of the coolest things I’ve been a part of because I think college is the best part of your life, like getting into college and having that phase where you’re a kid, but you’ve got to grow up and in the classroom you’ve got to grow up, relationships, everything in your life you’ve got to grow up. 1982, that’s a long time. To be the team that broke that streak, and now you see the bowl games. I know Franklin came in and did a good job, but we were the team that really pushed it over the hump where it can happen in recruiting.
Upson: I’ll be honest with you, I never would have thought we could do that after my first two seasons at Vanderbilt. I was on the field a lot, and that’s not something that a team wants. I enjoyed every second of it. I really would not trade it for anything. I don’t think I would choose another school. It was a lifetime opportunity, and I learned many life lessons, and it built me better as a person to be a part of a team like that.
Featured photo via John Russell/Vanderbilt University