Like most big-time athletic directors, Gene DeFilippo was understandably disappointed when Boston College (9-4) lost out on its chance for a BCS berth to Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship Dec. 6.
Odds are, however, that no other bowl-bound AD received quite as intriguing a consolation prize as DeFilippo: a homecoming date on New Year’s Eve with the program that helped him launch his career.
“I was really excited for a number of reasons,” says DeFilippo, the receivers coach on Vanderbilt’s Hall of Fame Bowl team over a quarter century ago. “Two schools with similar academic missions are going to have an opportunity to play each other.
“I thought, ‘You know what? You’re gonna be a part of history in that you were on staff for Vanderbilt’s last bowl game in ’82 and now you’re gonna be on the other side in their next bowl game in 2008.’”
While Vanderbilt (6-6) has the dubious distinction of being the rare bowl team with virtually no travel arrangements, this is DeFilippo’s second rodeo with the Music City Bowl. B.C. beat Georgia 20-16 in the 2001 edition.
“I know that our players will have a real good time in Nashville,” DeFilippo says. “Our players had a lot of fun (last time around).
“(Our respective teams) probably have the same kind of players… players that are hard workers. Players that are very, very talented, but they’re gonna be smart and they’re gonna be tough.”
Though DeFilippo admits he hasn’t followed this year’s football team too closely, he is a bit miffed that 26 years have elapsed between bowl berths on West End.
“I am surprised,” DeFilippo says, “but I got a feeling that Bobby (Johnson) has that program going in the right way and I got a feeling that bowls are going to become a lot more of a regular thing at Vanderbilt.”
There may not be an actual athletic director in the country more connected to Vanderbilt than DeFilippo (since Vanderbilt lacks an official with the ‘athletic director’ title). After getting his Master’s from Tennessee in 1974 and serving five seasons as Youngstown State’s offensive coordinator, DeFilippo joined former Commodore skipper George MacIntyre’s staff in 1980 as running backs coach and switched to receivers prior to the historic 8-4 season.
“(DeFilippo) had a real passion for excellence,” says Phil Roach, a local pastor and one of DeFilippo’s wideouts at Vandy. “He was a character. A lot of fun, full of a lot of energy.
“Just loud and… in the mix of things, wanting everybody to do well and was a competitor.”
Vanderbilt’s 36-28 loss to Air Force on New Year’s Eve 1982 would ultimately prove to be DeFilippo’s last game as a coach. DeFilippo said that the squad expected to be matched up against Stanford and future Hall-of-Famer John Elway before Cal converted “The Play” in their Pac-10 rivalry game to throw a wrench into the postseason picture.
“That Vanderbilt team really, really was a tight, close team,” DeFilippo says. “They made plays when they had to... Those players were exciting to watch, they were fun to coach. It was one of my more enjoyable years in coaching.”
From there, he served then-AD (and future SEC commissioner) Roy Kramer as director of administrative services from 1983-84. DeFilippo credits much of his development as an administrator to Kramer and C.M. Newton, whose time patrolling Memorial as men’s basketball coach overlapped with DeFilippo’s apprenticeship at McGugin.
“Mostly I did things that Mr. Kramer didn’t want to do,” DeFilippo chuckles. “Nobody worked harder than Mr. Kramer. I learned a toughness from him that if you were going to do this job and do it correctly that you had to do what you thought was right all the time, even if it wasn’t something that was gonna be popular.”
After a three-year inaugural stint as athletic director at South Carolina-Spartanburg (now USC-Upstate), DeFilippo returned to the SEC in 1987 as an associate AD at Kentucky after Newton was lured to Lexington to run Big Blue athletics.
“I learned from C.M. that there’s no secrets in college athletics and you have an open-door policy in what you do,” DeFilippo says. “I learned from Mr. Newton that if you involve a lot of people in the decision-making and you ask for their opinions, they’ll be a lot more committed to (you).”
Following six-and-a-half years at UK, DeFilippo moved to the director’s chair for good. First at Villanova (1993-97), during which the Commodores lost to the Wildcats in the 1994 NIT final, and for the past decade-plus at B.C.
As his 12th year at the helm of Boston College dawns, DeFilippo may be rooting for his Eagles to win the Music City Bowl but the reality is his heart never strayed that far from Nashville in the first place.
“I’ve always really related to Vanderbilt and I liked what Vanderbilt stood for,” DeFilippo says. “I really like the type of student-athlete they attract and I think that we’re very similar here at Boston College and that’s why (my family and I) love it here so much.”