It was a winning era in Vanderbilt football — a rare and fleeting one — and no one was a bigger part of it than versatile star Tom Moore, who saved one of his best games in a Commodore uniform for last.
It was 50 years ago that Moore led Vanderbilt to a 14-0 win over Tennessee in Knoxville, in a game played in occasional spitting snow and chilly conditions. It capped a 5-3-2 season on a very high note — and the last time the Commodores completed three straight winning seasons.
“I don’t remember too much about the game, although I felt like we definitely had the better team that day. We had a pretty good edge in statistics,’’ said Moore. “I felt we should have beaten them my sophomore and junior years too. I thought we were better than they were.’’
On Nov. 28, 1959, Vanderbilt was breezing through a 5-1-1 finish after starting out 0-2-1 with a win over the Vols. Moore rushed for a game-high 107 yards and scored the second touchdown in the third quarter.
For Moore, it sealed his place in Vanderbilt lore as one of the great players in the school’s history. The man who was the subject of many stories in the Tennessean and old Nashville Banner his senior year — with headlines labeling him “Tom Terrific” or “Terrible Tom” — led the team in rushing his last two years, and his numbers from the Tennessee game gave him VU’s rushing record at the time.
Moore also sparkled on defense when he recovered a fumble at the Vanderbilt 23. QB Russ Morris, who kicked both extra points, engineered the offense and intercepted a pass, halting another Vol drive. Vanderbilt out-gained UT in yardage (196-140) and held the Vols to just nine first downs.
Vanderbilt got on the board when Thom Garden scored on a nine-yard run in the first quarter. Moore then gave the Commodores a two-TD lead just after the half.
Moore’s rushing total enabled him to set the school rushing record at 676, breaking Herb Rich’s 1949 mark of 668. He went on to make All-SEC.
It was Moore who helped right the Vandy ship in mid-October after its awful start when he led the Commodores to a 13-6 win over Florida in Nashville. From there, Vanderbilt rolled to wins over Virginia, Kentucky and Florence (Ala.) State with a tie with Tulane mixed in. And it marked the last time the school had three winning seasons in a row.
It would have appeared certain that Vanderbilt would have received a bowl bid in at least one of those years, but there weren’t that many back then.
“There was some mention of the possibility of our going to the Liberty Bowl, but nothing materialized,’’ Moore said. “Our record was good, just not quite good enough.’’
Vanderbilt was 15-10-7 in Moore’s three seasons — a rarity for a player to have a winning “career” at the university.
Besides the noteworthy win over UT, another was a stunning 7-0 upset win over LSU in Nashville in 1957. The Tigers had star backs Jimmy Taylor and future Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon on their team.
Summing up his three seasons (1957-59), Moore said, “I thought the only team that was clearly better than us was Ole Miss. They had great athletes at every position. Our team was competitive with everyone else.’’
Unfortunately for Vanderbilt, the Commodores have beaten Tennessee in Knoxville only twice since — most recently in 2005. But they get another chance on Saturday. It couldn’t hurt to use Moore as inspiration.
Moore played football, basketball and track at old Goodlettsville High, graduating in 1956, and he chose to attend Vanderbilt “because it was so close to home, although I had a few other offers,’’ he said.
For his efforts on the gridiron, Moore was selected in the first round of the NFL Draft — sixth overall by the Green Bay Packers. In his rookie year, he led the NFL in kickoff returns, returning two for touchdowns.
“I was able to break a couple of long ones and if you do that, it really brings up your average,’’ he said, laughing.
Moore played six years with the Packers and finished up an eight-year NFL career with the Los Angeles Rams and the Atlanta Falcons.
When his playing days were done, Moore — now 71, retired and living in Hendersonville — worked in a real estate company. “It was a small company, we only had 10 agents,’’ said Moore of the agency that closed in 1991.
Despite being active with his three children and seven grandchildren, Moore says he rarely attends football games any more.
But he can turn on the TV on Saturday, or at the very least, he can certainly reminisce about a golden win 50 years ago.