It was Sept. 14, 1968, 46 years ago yesterday, when Tennessee and Georgia squared off for the first time since 1937, when Tennessee took a 32-0 win on Shields-Watkins Field.
It was a 4 p.m. kickoff, the time being changed because of ABC’s coverage of the Olympics. A record Neyland Stadium crowd of 60,603, buoyed by the opening of the east upper deck, showed up for the late afternoon contest.
As the season began, Tennessee was defending SEC champion. Georgia had shared the crown with Alabama in 1966.
The game featured two of the best and brightest young head coaches in the game, both of whom had been on the job since 1964.
Doug Dickey was a Florida grad coaching the Vols, while Vince Dooley was an Auburn grad coaching the Bulldogs. Tennessee was 29-11-3 over that time, while Georgia was 30-12-1.
The first game was played on something called Tartan Turf, a revolutionary ersatz field made by 3M and the subject of intense pre-game controversy. In a frantic finish, Tennessee scored eight points after the final horn had sounded to steal a 17-17 tie from a Georgia team that ended up winning the SEC title.
“We were just happy to get the tie,” said an exuberant Tennessee head coach Doug Dickey. “I’ve never been prouder of any of our teams than this bunch – the way they responded in the dying moments.”`
With eyes of the nation fixed on shadow-covered Neyland Stadium and Bud Wilkinson and Chris Schenkel running out of adjectives trying to explain what was happening, Bubba Wyche led the Vols back in the final moments, tossing a controversial TD pass to Gary Kreis and a two-point conversion to tight end Ken DeLong, against a Georgia defense that had played resolutely all day. Steve Greer and Bill Stanfill had sacks that had led to the final, almost desperate, toss from the 20.
“I can still see the ball being caught, and then dropped,” Dooley said of the Wyche-Kreis connection. “That turned out to be a controversy later, but there was nothing we could do about it. A touchdown was ruled, but there was no question on the film afterward that it was not a touchdown.”
Kreis had a different take on the whole matter.
“You bet I caught the ball,” he said. “The official had his hands up. The picture in Sports Illustrated looks like I dropped it. I didn’t have a good grip on it, but had it on my hip. It never touched the ground.”
“I got hit as I threw the ball,” Wyche said, “so I didn’t see the catch. I recall hearing the clock go off while I was in the pocket.
“I had to move Jake Scott to get Kreis open. Later on, he said, ‘You completely fooled me. I went with the tight end, and you went to the receiver on the weak side.’”
Lester McClain, the first African-American player at Tennessee, made his varsity debut and had a big catch on the Vols’ last-minute drive for the tying score. It was fourth-and-3 at the Vol 38, when McClain’s catch covered 14 yards and a first down at the Georgia 48.
“Go, Bubba, Go,” said someone, maybe Beano Cook, on an ABC headset in the press box.
The game was duly chronicled in Sports Illustrated in a story written by Dan Jenkins called “A Rouser on a Rug.” Jenkins suggested that that the UT-3M connection was so tight that Tennessee might consider changing its colors from orange and white to plaid.
The game might have made the SI cover, except for events in baseball some 400 miles to the north. It was a day for the McClains or McLains, depending on your perspective.
Denny McLain won his 30th game for the Detroit Tigers about the time the Vols and Bulldogs kicked off. The Vols did get a color spread as one of the magazine’s featured stories.
There are all kinds of ties in football. Tennessee has had 53 of them in its history since 1891. Dooley put the whole matter into proper perspective.
“There are great ties, kissing-your-sister-ties and terrible ties. This was a terrible tie for Georgia because of the lead we lost, and it was great tie for Tennessee because of the way they came back at the end.”
That was a great many years ago, but the memories are still fresh.
It only seems like yesterday.
Monday, Sept. 15, 2014