It’s not quite accurate to say that Verner “Red” Dean has seen it all when it comes to Vanderbilt athletics. But it’s close.
At 90 years old, he is believed to be the oldest living fan of Vanderbilt sports, having devoted much of the last three quarters of a century to following the black and gold.
Dean has been a season ticket holder of Vanderbilt football, men’s basketball and baseball since the 1960s. Later, when women’s basketball became a varsity sport, he added season tickets for those contests as well.
But his passion and support for VU’s teams easily predates his days as a season ticket holder. Even with the countless number of games he has witnessed firsthand, he remembers the ol’ No. 1.
“It was in September 1932, we played our first game [against Mercer] and Vanderbilt won 20-7,” Verner said recently as he settled in for a baseball game. “I was a Boy Scout, and I was an usher at football games, and we got in free.
“Dan McGugin [the program’s all-time career leaders in wins with 197] was the coach. I was hooked.”
He was 13 years old.
These days Dean lives in Old Hickory and attends games with his son Doug, 55. He also has a daughter, Lisa, 53, a granddaughter, Nichole, and two great-grandchildren.
Look around one of the Commodores’ home venues and he’s bound to be there. For football he’s in Section E (near the 40-yard line). For basketball, it’s 2F (end zone). For baseball, look down the third-base line to Section I.
Wherever he shows up, his son is by his side, listening to the radio broadcasts and passing along statistical information to his father.
“I don’t know what I would do without Doug,” he said. “He looks after me, and we go to almost all the games together.”
Through the wars
Dean attended Dupont Elementary, then old Dupont High in Old Hickory, where he graduated in 1937.
He has been through the wars — literally.
He was in the Army for five years, in the Medical Corps 106th Division, serving in World War II. He was a prisoner of war for six months in Strasburg, Germany.
“Those six months were awful,” he said. “I lost 70 pounds.”
Dean also said he was slightly wounded when a piece of shrapnel hit his leg, but he recovered. When he returned to the United States, he went to work at the Dupont plant in his hometown.
He got his nickname, Red, from the color of his hair, which faded long ago. Also gone is Elinor, his wife of 43 years, who passed away in 1990. She helped establish his ties to the university.
“I will be forever grateful to her for talking me into going to college under the G.I. Bill, and I’m glad I did,” Dean, who entered Vanderbilt in 1948 and majored in accounting, said.
Perhaps most impressive is how he keeps a keen sharpness and wit. Asked about some of his favorite players and teams, his recollections span the decades.
“Dan McGugin was a great coach with some really good teams,” he said. “Vanderbilt had a good running back [Burgess] Askew and also [Bobby] Oliver in the 1930s. Carl Hinkle [1937 consensus All-American lineman] was one of the greatest players the school ever had.
“After the war, we had a great team in 1948 with a player like Herb Rich. We had a great coach in Red Sanders, who unfortunately left for UCLA right after the season. During that time, we had Lee Nalley [1947-49], who was a great punt returner.”
Nalley held two national punt return records for more than 50 years. They were finally broken a decade ago.
“In basketball, it was fun watching players like Jack Heldman and winning the SEC tournament [in 1951], which I saw on TV,” he said. “One of my favorite women’s games was when we beat Tennessee pretty good [75-59] in 2009.”
Asked for his favorite athlete, Verner said, “It might be Watson Brown. He was a local boy [from Cookeville], and he later came back to be head coach.”
There haven’t been many, but he’s attended every one of the bowl games Vanderbilt’s football team has played: 1955 (Gator), 1974 (Peach), 1984 (Hall of Fame) and 2007 (Music City).
“This just shows how much he loves the school; he’s always pulling for Vanderbilt,” Doug Dean said of his father. “In the late 1950s, he’d drive back and forth from South Carolina, where he lived, to see games. When he goes on POW trips to see old friends, he will reminisce with them about Vanderbilt. Even today, he is able to drive himself.”
Many might find the stress of supporting Vanderbilt athletics for that long taxing. After all, the Commodores struggle annually to keep pace in the top football conference in the country. The men’s basketball team has won just one Southeastern Conference tournament championship, and the baseball team — an emerging national power under coach Tim Corbin — has never appeared in the College World Series.
But Dean shows no signs of wear.
“My doctor told me that 90 percent of his patients my age have some history of a heart attack or stroke or something,” he said. “He gave me a stress test. Then he laughed and said, ‘I’ve tried, but I can’t find anything wrong with you.’ ”