The Short and Fierce Tenure of Bill Parcells at Vanderbilt

 

Reno Benson was confused.

Benson, the equipment manager for the Vanderbilt Commodores, hadn’t an iota why new defensive coordinator Bill Parcells wanted five-gallon buckets placed strategically around the McGugin Center.

“Don’t worry about that,” Parcells piped. “They’ll be used.”

After retrieving the buckets, Benson poured sand into them and placed one at each corner of the gym.

Players began to file in for conditioning workouts, and they, too, were curious as to why the buckets were there. They would soon discover that it wasn’t for trash disposal, as within a short period of time, rainbows of vomit were deposited into them.

Joining the Commodores in 1973 under new head coach Steve Sloan, Bill Parcells brought a fury to Nashville unseen since the Music Row days of Hank Williams, Sr. One of Parcells’ duties was orchestrating the Commodores off-season conditioning program, and his menacing 33-year-old presence immediately struck fear into the hearts of players.

Far from a titillating experience, each week a unique blend of Parsellian belligerence was administered, including boxing and stick fighting–an activity he had once learned as an assistant at Florida State. Players encircled a ring to watch two competitors battle it out like gladiators. The objective of the proceedings was simple—get the other person’s stick–and often, misaligned noses and swollen eyes were left in the wake (many calculated it would be better to escape campus than endure this daily brutality).

Even though the Vanderbilt program–dusty from spending years in the SEC cellar– hadn’t won more than five games in a season since 1955, Parcells’ odd mania, paired with Sloan’s savvy, magically translated to success on the field. 

A seminal moment indicating that change was afoot arrived on October 20, 1973 when Vanderbilt was slated to face Vince Dooley’s Georgia Bulldogs in Nashville. Although Georgia led 14-3 at intermission, Parcell’s defense, led by linebacker Joe “Buffalo” Reynolds, stymied the Georgia offense in the second half, allowing only a pair of first downs, and the Commodores charged to victory, 18-14.

Vanderbilt went 5-6 that season, but Parcells and Sloan had given the Commodores something they’d lacked in decades: confidence. The players began to believe they could win, and in 1974, they proved it.

The ‘74 season began with Vanderbilt winning three out of their first four games, including a 24-10 shellacking of eighth-ranked Florida (the lone loss was a respectable 23-10 deficit to Alabama on Bryant’s home turf). Across the next seven games, Vandy defeated Army and Ole Miss, tied Bill Battle’s Tennessee Volunteers, and accepted a bid to the Peach Bowl in Atlanta against Texas Tech.

The bowl game, Vanderbilt’s first in nineteen years, produced another tie, 6-6, and the Commodores finished 7-3-2 on the season. Two of Vanderbilt’s players, Mark Ilgenfritz and Doug Nettles, both defensive ends, were drafted in the NFL. Receiver Barry Burton made All-America. By the end of 1974, the Commodores were no longer the punch line of SEC jokes.

After the Commodores returned home from the bowl game, scuttlebutt of Sloan’s exodus from Vanderbilt reached a fever pitch. Texas Tech had been poaching Sloan after Red Raiders coach Jim Carlen announced his departure to South Carolina, and Commodore fans began to express their distaste for Sloan’s potential parting. Fears seemed to have cooled on December 31 when Sloan announced his intent to remain in Nashville, but in a reversal of fortune, Sloan about-faced on New Year’s Day and bolted for Lubbock.

On his way out the door, Sloan recommended his able lieutenant to assume duties as head coach, and Vanderbilt soon offered Parcells the job. Although it was an attractive offer and one that would give him his first opportunity to become a head coach, Parcells surmised that he could not beat any of the other SEC teams on a consistent basis and elected to join Sloan at Texas Tech.

Although Parcells was hard-driving and severe, the players grew to appreciate him. “You always thought Parcells had your back,” said former strong safety Jay Chesley for Commodore History Corner. “If you were in a dark alley and in trouble he would help you.”

Reviewing Parcells’ rough-and-tumble Vanderbilt defenses, Sloan also had high praise: “They would just knock you out.”

Postscript

Parcells would use his time at Vanderbilt and Texas Tech as a springboard to a highly successful NFL coaching career. After coaching at Texas Tech for three seasons, Parcells became the head coach at the Air Force Academy in 1978. After only one season, he was hired by head coach Ray Perkins as the defensive coordinator for the New York Giants. Parcells later won two Super Bowls as head coach of the Giants and was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2013. For more information on the life of Bill Parcells, pick up a copy of Parcells: A Football Life by Bill Parcells and Nunyo Demasio.

Photo courtesy Vanderbilt Athletics. 

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