There won’t be a happier Vanderbilt alum in the stands for Saturday’s 53rd annual AutoZone Liberty Bowl in Memphis between the Commodores and Cincinnati than Paul “Trow” Gillespie.
Gillespie, 64, a Commodores defensive back in the mid 1960s, a 1969 Vandy grad and now president of a Memphis investment management firm he founded, is finally getting his Liberty Bowl mulligan after 30 years.
It was three decades ago in 1982 that Gillespie, a little more than 10 years removed from his playing days at Vanderbilt, was on the Liberty Bowl’s selection committee. His charge was scouting a Vandy team that was indeed bowl worthy at 8-3, the first time the Commodores had won eight games since 1948.
“My assignment most of that 1982 season was to follow Vanderbilt, which I had never done before as a Liberty Bowl represented,” Gillespie said. “Late in the season, we already had Illinois committed as one of the teams in our bowl, although it hadn’t been announced formally.
“The focus to obtain our other team was on Vanderbilt, which had SEC games left against Kentucky and Tennessee. The party line for me was I would go to the Kentucky game, have breakfast with (then-Vanderbilt athletic director) Roy Kramer and tell him if Vanderbilt could beat Kentucky that we’d just gamble on the outcome of the Tennessee game and we’d likely invite Vanderbilt to the Liberty Bowl.”
The Commodores did their part, beating Kentucky 23-10. And for good measure, Vandy beat Tennessee, 28-21.
So when the Liberty Bowl committee met to invite an opponent for Illinois, there was little doubt the Commodores were in.
“We’re at (bowl founder and then-executive director) Bud Dudley’s house and everybody was high-fiving me because they knew how much it meant to me to have Vanderbilt in the bowl,” Gillespie said. “Tim Treadwell III, our selection committee chairman, told me to call Roy Kramer and make the formal invite.
“So I was literally starting to dial Roy Kramer’s number when another phone rang. A secretary said, `Tim, it’s Coach (Bear) Bryant from Alabama on the line.’ So Tim goes in Bud’s office, takes the call and then all of a sudden he’s yelling and screaming.
“He comes out and says, `That’s Coach Bryant. He’s real unhappy with the way the kids played against Auburn yesterday. He said he loves Memphis and wants to come here to play Illinois.”
For Bryant, sending his 7-4 team that had just lost to Auburn, 23-22, to the Liberty Bowl seemed logical. It was Dudley who gave Bryant his first bowl bid as Alabama's coach, inviting his team to the first Liberty Bowl in 1959.
"Bud and Coach Bryant were very close, and the Liberty Bowl was always big in Coach Bryant's heart," said Alabama athletic director Mal Moore, a longtime assistant under Bryant. “Coach Bryant talked about Bud a lot and he loved Memphis. I think both those factors led to his sentimental decision to play in Memphis."
That was all fine and dandy except with Gillespie. When Treadwell announced Bryant wanted to come to Memphis, the Liberty Bowl selection committee exploded in celebration.
Except for one guy.
“Everybody in the room starts jumping up and down,” Gillespie said. “I said, `Wait a second! What happened to Vanderbilt?’ Everybody looked at me and said, `What do you mean?’ I said, `We’ve got to vote, don’t we?’ They said, `We just did.’
“So I had to call Roy Kramer and say, `Coach Bryant called us, he wants to play Illinois here and we issued him a formal invitation.’ Vanderbilt went to the Hall of Fame Bowl in Birmingham (where it lost to Air Force).
“Then two days after we invited Alabama, Bryant announced he’s retiring and immediately ticket sales took off. We had a mass of requests for media credentials. It became one of the most memorable bowls in our history.”
It was certain unforgettable for any Alabama player or coach, like Crimson Tide assistant Sylvester Croom, on the sidelines for Bryant’s farewell that ’Bama rallied to win, 21-15, on a frosty December night.
“We worked out at Memphis State the day before the game,” said Croom, who later became the first African-American head football coach in SEC history at Mississippi State from 2004-08. “There was a little room there where we had a team meeting. Coach Bryant came in and tried to make a joke.
"Usually when he made a joke, we laughed. But nobody laughed. It was hard to even look at him, because we knew how hard it was on him to stand up there and talk. I remember distinctly dropping my head. I didn't want to look at him. We didn't want to break down in front of him, because we knew it was the end.”
Moore, who played for the Crimson Tide in the first Liberty Bowl in 1959, was an assistant coach under Bryant in subsequent 'Bama Liberty Bowl appearances in 1969, ’76 and that ’82 game, said the days leading to Bryant’s last game were heartbreaking.
"I'd spent 24 years with Coach Bryant as a player and a coach," Moore said. "His last game was the toughest thing I've been through. When I saw him walk off the practice field that last time in Memphis, I knew a great thing was ending."
On the morning of the game, several sportswriters who covered Alabama on a regular basis met Bryant in his hotel suite. He told them the story of his recent visit to his doctor who advised him he should take a day off every week and do absolutely nothing.
“That would drive me crazy,” Bryant told the writers. “I don't like any kind of work around the house. I can't even put a lightbulb in."
Croom, a former center under Bryant who won the Jacobs Award in 1974 as the SEC’s most outstanding blocker, said he’s rarely been in a pressure-packed game as he was that night in Bryant’s finale.
“We had to win that game,” Croom said. “To be honest with you, Illinois was probably better than us. We had some guys that game that really played over their heads.
"The players, the coaches, we all felt 'there ain't no way we're going to lose Coach Bryant's last game. We're going to live with this the rest of our lives.'
"I remember Illinois was driving and it didn't look like we could stop them. I remember when they crossed the 50-yard line thinking, 'If they score, it's over.' And we picked off the pass to end the game.
"There was no jubilation. It was relief that we won. We go in the dressing room, and there was no celebration. No nothing. Everyone was crying. It was like a morgue. That had to be the saddest dressing room in the history of football after a victory, because it was over."
Just a couple of weeks after his last game, Bryant died. He’s still considered the greatest coach in SEC history and one of college football’s best ever with six national championships and 14 SEC titles (13 at Alabama, 1 at Kentucky) to his credit.
Vanderbilt, meanwhile, from that point after its 1982 success had 25 straight losing seasons until four years ago when it finished 7-6 after winning the Music City Bowl. This year’s Commodores have a chance to repeat that record with a win over Cincinnati on Saturday when Gillespie and 12 to 15 of his former Vandy teammates will be in the stands.
“The other day, I went by my old high school, MUS (Memphis University School), where Vanderbilt has been conducting their Liberty Bowl practices,” Gillespie said. “Just seeing the Vanderbilt 18-wheeler (carrying all the equipment) with `Go Gold’ on the side parked next the stadium and seeing all the black and gold on the field, was almost surreal.
“I couldn’t believe it was happening.”
But it is. Finally.