“Springing a Leak”

Some time during the 1989 season, the 11-1 season that won the Vols an equal share of a three-way tie for the SEC title, the Vol pass defense sprung a leak. Badly.

The Vols gave up 47 points to Alabama and 39 to LSU, both on the road. It says something that the Vols managed a split, losing to Alabama and defeating LSU. For the two weeks of play, the Vols had given up 63 completions in 95 attempts for 817 yards and seven touchdowns.

Gary Hollingsworth led the way as Alabama had 97 offensive plays and 379 yards passing, 11th best mark against the Vols since the dawn of time, or at least, the dawn of recorded game stats. The Vols lost 47-30.

The next week, LSU’s Tommy Hodson threw for 438 yards and four touchdowns the next week, third highest mark on Vol charts, behind Whit Taylor (464 in 1981) of Bedford County, Tenn., and Kentucky’s Tim Couch (476 in 1997). The Vols, incidentally, won each game of the three.

Chuck Webb ran for 132 yards and Carl Pickens had a 93-yard kickoff return for a touchdown as the Vols managed to stay just a step ahead of the Bengals. It took a while, however, given that LSU jumped out to an early 14-0 lead.

Pickens’ TD run came just before halftime in the day game at Tiger Stadium, a game moved for television, a phrase almost as corrosive to football as, “The play is under further review.” It brought back memories of Willie’s Gault’s kickoff return on the same field in 1982.

LSU had a couple of ill-timed drops on the previous series, yielding only a field goal, and, in this game, field goals were not the answer.

Andy Kelly led the charge against LSU, making his first start after an impressive day at Alabama. The final was 45-39, but the game was in the balance into the final minutes.

A wonderfully talented athlete who made the game look easy, Pickens helped shore up the Vols secondary in the ensuing weeks to help the Vols to the title. Each contender lost on another’s home field (Auburn at Tennessee, Tennessee at Alabama, albeit at Birmingham, and Alabama at Auburn) and won everywhere else.

Alabama looked to have the edge, but lost in the season finale at Auburn, a loss that didn’t sit well with the Alabama faithful, so distressing to the folks in Tuscaloosa that the Tide had another coach in 1990, Bryant disciple Gene Stallings, SEC title or not in 1989.

Tennessee finished 11-1 and knocked off Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl by 31-27, and won the SEC crown again in 1990, despite what some revisionist historians in Gainesville, Fla., might have you believe.

Saturday, Oct. 25, 2014

“Late Afternoon, the Day Before the Game”

There’s nothing like the pre-game walk-though at an opposing stadium the Friday afternoon before the game the next day. Everything is quiet, as the storm builds toward kickoff. Wonder if Alabama feels the same way coming to Knoxville? Will they even do a walk-though? We’ll let Jay Barker, author of the first “Alabama Football Vault,” answer that question.

If you happen to be a Vol fan at Legion Field, there’s always a visit to the west side, north end, to the spot Albert Dorsey picked off a Ken Stabler pass and sealed the deal in the 1967 game. You could also go to the east side, south end, 34-yard line, and see Alan Cockrell checking off and sending Johnnie Jones around left end 66 yards for a score, out of the shadows, into the bright sunshine of the northeast corner where all the Tennessee folks were sitting.

If you were at Miami, you could find the spot around the 33-yard line where Karl Kremser lined up for the game-winner against Oklahoma in the 1968 Orange Bowl. One caveat. If you missed the Orange Bowl, you’re out of luck. The Orange Bowl is gone, not there anymore.

If you were at LSU, you could go to the southeast end, the one with the Tiger outside the visitors’ dressing room, and see where Steve DeLong and pals made the stop in the 1964 game, where LSU ran two pass plays in four seconds to beat Ole Miss in 1972, where Billy Cannon took in a Jake Gibbs punt at the Tiger 11 and embarked on the 89-yard return that beat Ole Miss in 1959. Cannon went up the east sideline, right in front of Ole Miss coach John Howard Vaught, in one of the most memorable runs in LSU history.

If the game were at Notre Dame, you could hear John Majors talk about games when he was at Pitt in the 1970s. He once said the grass at Notre Dame was “higher than an Iowa corn field,” and he was right. It was also amazing to be in the tunnel in which Miami and Notre Dame once slugged it out in the famous “Catholics versus convicts” game.

If the game was at Florida Field, you could stand on either 1-yard line and visualize a 99-yard touchdown drive, one quickly from south to north in 1977, the other more workmanlike north to south in 1971.

You could also go to the northeast corner, where officials adjudged a punt going out of bounds right at the flag inside the Tennessee 1 and Bill Battle getting the shortest 15-yard penalty (or even the shortest half-the-distance penalty) in the history of football, the officials picking the ball up and setting it down to assess the foul. It was that close.

There are lost of interesting things that happen the day before the game. There are not quite a million, as in the old “Naked City” television series.

There are, however, a bunch of them.

Friday, Oct. 24, 2014

“In Memoriam: Bill Majors, Bob Jones, and Charlie Rash”

Never has there been a sadder game day in Tennessee football history than today, 49 years ago, Oct. 23, 1965. The Vols were playing Houston, but, all across the expanse of Big Orange Country, everybody seemed to be thinking about the families of Bill Majors, Charlie Rash, and Bob Jones.

The Vols had fought defending national champion Alabama to a 7-7 tie on Legion Field a week earlier.

Two days later, the three coaches were involved in a car-train accident at a West Knoxville grade crossing, Cessna Drive at Westland Drive, just west of Morrell Road. It was a gray October day, and the weather matched the mood around campus and around the state, wherever Vol fans were.

Majors and Jones were killed instantly, with Rash dying the next Thursday. Between them, the coaches left behind three young widows and 10 young sons.

“Strong men wept unashamedly when the news came,” Haywood Harris wrote in the game program for the game, “unbelieving at first, then unwilling to accept the realization that the unthinkable had actually happened, finally reconciling themselves to the stark truth of the tragedy and searching for ways to help those whose grief was infinitely greater.”

It was time for a young head coach to rise to the occasion. The euphoria of the game and the season was set aside, and the task of keeping the program afloat fell on the broad shoulders of Douglas Adair Dickey, then about four months past his 33rd birthday.

“Thus did Tennessee’s coaches and other athletic officials react this week to the grim accident that took place at a remote railroad crossing on the city’s outskirts, adjacent to a pleasant suburban neighborhood in which normal, happy family activities seemed a thousand light years away from the awful events of that gray morning,” Harris continued.

“He was marvelous,” Col. Tom Elam said of Dickey. “He didn’t panic. He didn’t moan or shout. He was a gentleman about it. He did what he could. Dickey produced a textbook display of how a man should react to a terrible situation like that.”

Tennessee won the game by a 17-8 score, after a debate over the game being played at all.

The Vols only lost once the rest of the season, and, after the Bluebonnet Bowl win over Tulsa in a driving rainstorm, Tennessee linemen revealed that Rash had left them a note after the team had arrived home from Birmingham, site of the 7-7 deadlock between the two ancient rivals.

“Play like that and you’ll go undefeated,” Rash had written.

It was a pivotal moment in a season that set the Tennessee football program back on the road to glory. There was a game today 49 years ago, but that day, and throughout the rest of the season, Vol players, coaches, and fans learned important lessons about themselves and the things that were important in each of their lives.

Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014

“Bear Bryant’s First Win in Knoxville”

The 1962 Alabama game marked the first home contest of the year for the Vols, after road games at Auburn (a 22-21 loss at Legion Field), Mississippi State (a 7-6 loss at Crump Stadium in Memphis), and Georgia Tech (a 17-0 loss at Grant Field).

(The Vols had also opened the 1958 home slate in mid-October against Alabama, but with better luck, winning 14-7.)

Tennessee’s game, 52 years ago today, against the 1961 national champion Crimson Tide, won by Alabama 27-7, had another historic angle. It was televised on CBS, the first telecast emanating from Shields-Watkins Field, now part of “Neyland Stadium,” so named that day.

It was Bear Bryant’s first coaching win in Knoxville after drawing back a nub in his time at Kentucky and in his first two games there as head man at Alabama. Joe Namath, in the days before being known as “Broadway Joe,” completed 9 of 13 passes for 148 yards, including a 35-yard TD strike to Benny Nelson.

It was 12-7 after three quarters, but the Tide put the game away in the fourth canto.

It got to be habit-forming for Bryant to win in Knoxville, as the Tide won in 1964, 1966, 1972, 1974, 1976, 1978, and 1980, against losses in 1960, 1968, 1970, and 1982.

Television thus made its first appearance at Shields-Watkins Field/Neyland Stadium, for better or worse. The cameras would not come back until Nov. 19, 1966, on ABC, in a regionally televised game against Kentucky, but in the years to follow, the tube returned more and more times so that televised games are now the rule these days rather than the exception.

It wasn’t always that way.

Monday, Oct. 20, 2014

“Battling the Bear on Even Terms”

Tennessee defensive back Jimmy Weatherford, a Vol All-America selection in 1968, will never be confused with Alabama’s Terence Cody, but they share one thing in common.

Each blocked a field goal that saved a win for their team.

Cody, you will remember, had the block in the waning seconds of the 2009 game.

Weatherford did likewise 46 years ago today at Neyland Stadium, coming from the left side to block a Mike Dean attempt that would have given Alabama a 12-10 win.

In those days, no one thought to make a poster or a painting of the play. It’s right there on the game film (they used film in those long-ago days), since transferred to videotape.

The game was a tough one for Tide partisans to swallow. That has been true on both sides in the Tennessee-Alabama series all the way back to Gene McEver, part of “Hack, Mack, and Dodd.”

Alf Van Hoose of the Birmingham News had this priceless analysis: “The stage was set to make it one of college football’s all-time classics. The scene was fitting. Perfect. Storied old Neyland Stadium on a golden October Saturday. All it took was a 36-yard field goal by little Mike Dean. But in these cruel times, there is sometimes a jagged ending. Old prince and pauper tales may have been replaced. Life is hard.”

They don’t write stories that way any more.

So, in Doug Dickey’s fifth year at Tennessee, Alabama had won twice, by one (1966, 11-10) and 11 points (1964, 19-8), Tennessee had won twice by one (1968, 10-9) and 11 points (1967, 24-13), and there had been one tie (1965, 7-7).

Dickey was battling the Bear on even terms.

The Vols laid the wood to Alabama a year later at Legion Field by 41-14.

As Vol fans looked toward the 1970s, life was good.

As history records, however, there was danger lurking in the shadows.

After a 24-0 Tennessee win in 1970, the series took an ominous turn.

Between 1971 and 1981, it was all Alabama.

Those of us who were there remember it well.

Sunday, Oct. 19, 2011

“The Game Isn’t Rocket Science”

With all the talk about three-stars versus four-stars, recruiting rankings, and all that, here’s a simple formula for winning.

The coach who said it knew what he was talking about.

“Your great players have to play great, and your average players have to play real good. That’s the secret to being a great coach.”

That’s the secret everybody’s looking for.

It’s that simple.

The coach who said it?

It was a man named Bryant, Paul William (Bear), of Moro Bottom, Ark.

The game isn’t rocket science.

You could look up his record.

By the way, that’s the same guy who wouldn’t wear his checkered hat in the Louisiana Superdome, because his momma said, “Never wear a hat in the house.”

Saturday, Oct. 18, 2014

“Can Anybody Score?”

Lindsey Nelson did the television broadcast of the 1953 Tennessee-Alabama game with Mel Allen, better known as the “Voice of the Yankees.” Nelson was a Tennessee grad, Allen a graduate of Alabama. So there they were at Legion Field calling the Oct. 17 game 61 years ago.

The final was Tennessee 0, Alabama 0.

Jimmy Wade, the Tennessee tailback from Lynchburg, Va., had a solid game, but neither team could score… with a pencil.

That’s amazing, considering the Tide quarterback that day was Bart Starr, who put up precious few goose eggs during his career with Green Bay.

Tennessee’s Roger Rotroff almost got Starr for a safety near game’s end, but officials marked the ball inches outside the end zone and the deadlock was settled.

One wonders if they had had overtime in those days if anyone could have scored.

One also wonders how the two announcers filled the broadcast time with so little action on the field and how many viewers were left at the end.

Friday, Oct. 17, 2014

“A Bad Tie”

What Tennessee did to Georgia in 1968, rallying to tie the game at the end, Alabama did to Tennessee in 1993 at Legion Field.

Tennessee led 17-9 late in the game, when Jay Barker, the author of the first “Alabama Football Vault,” led the Tide on a do-or-die last-minute drive. He scored on a 1-yard run and turned things over to mercurial David Palmer to garner the final two points to steal the deadlock.

Some Alabama fan half his size, good judgment tempered by the demon rum (or other similar liquid), taunted Tennessee’s Kevin Mays outside the Vol dressing room, with the confidence that there was a sturdy chain link fence between the two. Kevin was not impressed, but resisted the opportunity to confront his potential combatant. That was good news for both.

After the season, the NCAA forfeited this game to the Vols, owing to sanctions against Alabama.

That whole time seems so long ago.

Thursday, Oct. 16, 2014

“Who Wants the Ball?”

After the 1965 Tennessee-Alabama game, a 7-7 tie, someone from the Alabama side came to the Vol dressing room under the north stands at Legion Field and asked for the game ball, saying Bear Bryant sent him.

Bryant said later he didn’t ask for it. When you consider the way things developed that afternoon, he probably didn’t want it.

According to Tom Siler’s book (“Tennessee’s Dazzling Decade, 1960-70”), Bryant was adamant in his assertion.

Siler noted that Tennessee had the ball and wouldn’t relinquish it.

This was one of those “good ties,” with Tennessee, having lost four straight to the Tide (1961-64), glad to get away from Birmingham without losing. They had lost in 1961 and 1963, decisively in both games, and this was a step forward, the reasoning went.

In fact, the late Hal Wantland, the team’s captain and the “face” of the 1965 team, was quoted as saying, “Alabama tied us.”

Everybody and his brother knew Tennessee was “back” after that game.

And they were, beginning one of the great eras of Tennessee football.

Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2014

“Bubba to the Rescue”

On the way to the SEC and part of the national championship in 1967, Tennessee lost its second quarterback in as many weeks in a 24-13 win this day over Georgia Tech at Neyland Stadium.

Dewey Warren had been lost two weeks earlier against Auburn. Charley Fulton was likewise injured against the Yellow Jackets, leaving things under center in the hands of junior Bubba Wyche, who had seen limited duty in 1966 and the early part of 1967. Limited, as in almost non-existent.

“I remember Coach Dickey coming up to me and asking if I were ready,” Wyche recalled. “I told him there weren’t a whole lot of options. I had never taken a snap from Bob Johnson, so Coach Dickey asked the official if I could take a snap or two. He agreed, reluctantly.

“It was one of those cases where preparation met opportunity. We were in the red zone. The first three plays were busts and we kicked a field goal. After we got to the sidelines, Bob and I took some snaps, and I settled down. I’m from Atlanta and was looking across the line at players I had known from high school.”

The next week, Wyche got the start against Alabama at Legion Field, not the best of places for an experienced signal-caller to debut.

“I had a week of preparation, with the game plan and the strategies,” he said. “I don’t think there’s ever been a more exciting time. I remember walking to the middle of the field after the game when Coach Dickey and Coach Bryant were shaking hands. I told Coach Bryant that this was the greatest moment of my career. He congratulated me and said I had a very good game.”

Bubba Wyche was the “man of the moment” 47 years ago today, in a memorable season that is near the top of the great seasons of Tennessee past. He was ready when his number was called and made the most of the opportunity.

Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2014