Crashing the Party

by Tyler Kepner '97

"This is unbelievable. I can't get over this game."

Since graduating from Vanderbilt in 1997, I’ve covered 21 World Series, a Summer Olympics, a Super Bowl, and Kobe Bryant’s last game in the NBA. But the most stunning outcome I’ve ever witnessed is still the Georgia Bulldogs’ homecoming game in 1994.

I was a sophomore at Vanderbilt and assistant sports editor of the Hustler. Our sports editor, Amy Coombs Calhoun, made the very reasonable decision to spend her birthday weekend on campus with friends rather than take a small plane to Athens, Georgia, to cover a ritualistic SEC blowout loss.

And that’s what was bound to happen. You’d have been silly to think otherwise.

This was mid-October, and while Vandy had won a couple of nonconference games, we’d lost our three SEC games by a combined score of 79-27. Two of our best players had just been suspended. Georgia had just annihilated Clemson and hadn’t lost at home to Vandy in 33 years. The script was written, it seemed: the Bulldogs would play Mike Tyson, and the Commodores would play Glass Joe.

So, naturally, the back page headline in the next edition of the Hustler read like this: “COMMODORES CRASH THE PARTY, 43-30”. Trust me, it wasn’t even that close.

Vandy had not scored that many points against Georgia since 1912. We sprinted so far in front that even a future NFL quarterback, Eric Zeier, couldn’t keep up. I can still hear the pressbox PA announcer calling out “Zeier … Zeier … Zeier …” in a Georgia thick drawl, over and over, as Zeier dropped back for 54 pass attempts. He completed just 26 — including three to the guys in gold helmets.

Vandy was a homecoming cupcake all right — a poisonous one. I led one of my four stories with quotes from shell-shocked Georgia fans, who expected a much different game between the hedges: “This is unbelievable. I can’t get over this game. (Zeier) just lost the Heisman Trophy today.”

The local media was just as incredulous. One Athens Daily News writer asked Vanderbilt tailback Jermaine Johnson, “Just how bad were the Georgia tacklers today?” Johnson, a Georgia native who’d just dashed for 177 yards in front of a dozen family members and friends, had a succinct and appropriate reply: “Hey,” he said, “give me a little credit.”

Vandy’s quarterback, Ronnie Gordon, had 126 yards on the ground, with three touchdowns. Our I-bone option offense never looked better, and by November break, we were 5-4 and hoping for our first bowl bid in a dozen years.

I stuck around and watched the Florida game with Amy from the stands, a respectable 24-7 loss that set up a post-Thanksgiving home clash with Peyton Manning and Tennessee. From my home in Pennsylvania, I watched on cable as that game turned into an all-time humiliation: 65-0 Volunteers.

Reading my recap of that game, I can see that I’d become a certified Vandy football cynic in less than a year and a half on campus: “Nobody could watch that game without thinking, ‘Damn, we stink again,’” I wrote, and I guess I was right. Coach Gerry DiNardo soon bolted for LSU, and in my last two years at Vanderbilt, Rod Dowhower’s troops went 4-18, with just one conference win.

I keep a bound volume of the 1994 Hustler on my desk in my home office, and the box score from that day shows that Terrell Davis scored a touchdown for Georgia. Less than four years later, Davis would score a touchdown that won the Super Bowl for the Denver Broncos in San Diego. I covered that game, too, and the outcome was unexpected; the Green Bay Packers were the heavy favorites. But it wasn’t the biggest upset I’ve ever covered. Not even close.

We weren’t very good in 1994, after all, and we were much worse in years to come. Yet as the years go by, I cherish that Georgia win, and remember it more than all the losses combined.

As told by Tyler Kepner (New York Times sports writer and bestselling author) to Andrew Maraniss

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