“Fourth Season, Back to the Top”

As September ended in 1967, Tennessee fans knew more about their team late this afternoon than they did this morning. The Vols had lost their season opener against UCLA two weeks earlier, so Vol fans didn’t know what the Vols had in store for them for the rest of the season.

The intervening two weeks saw demanding workouts to correct inadequacies that had been exposed against the Bruins.

The demands placed on the players showed up in the contest against Auburn. Tennessee played better on both sides of the ball, taking a 27-13 victory over the Tigers. Auburn made but one first down rushing.

The team went on to be one of the school’s finest, compiling a 9-1 regular season record and winning the SEC title. It was the school’s first crown since 1956 and would be followed by another in 1969.

When one player was injured, another one stepped in and the Vols didn’t miss a beat. Bob Johnson and a dominating offensive line led the way. The Vols played three quarterbacks and didn’t miss a beat. Linebackers Steve Kiner and Jack Reynolds, both sophomores, led the Vol defenders. It was a special time.

The Vols beat Alabama for the first time since 1960, and defeated Ole Miss for the first time since 1958. LSU fell the week after the Alabama game.

It was truly a T-E-A-M, in a time all the myriad pieces came together.

Back in December 1963, when he first got to Knoxville, Doug Dickey had said it would take four years to get the Vols back to the top.

This was the fourth year. The Vols were on top of the conference. It was, as always, a great time to be a Vol fan.

The path to the top started at 2 p.m. today. When the dust settled, it was Tennessee 27, Auburn 13.

The Vols were back. Right where they belonged.

Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014

“Credit Where Credit Is Due”

Saw this performance on YouTube from the Ohio State band’s halftime show on Sept. 6.

Haven’t seen one this good since the 2009 Ohio game, when the Ohio band literally brought the house down, and U.T. responded with a show featuring an aging Patti Page (“How much is that doggie in the window?”).

The Ohio State show was imaginative, with amazing choreography and synchronization, most definitely out of the box.

It was also longer than the standard halftime show at Neyland Stadium, with or without a visiting band present, including the Utah State game where the “Pride” played all of two numbers.

Wonder if we’ll ever see one this good on the verdant turf of Shields-Watkins Field any time soon.

The numerous versions of the “Circle Drill” obviously pale in comparison to this one.

Have to give credit where credit is due.

One question however about the fan experience at Ohio State: How do any of the fans in the end zones ever see any significant portions of the game?

Just a relevant question on a slow day.

Monday, Sept. 29, 2104

“And the Rains Came”

Coming into today’s game with Auburn this day in 1973, Tennessee fans were nervous.

And for good reason.

Tennessee had lost three in a row to Auburn, and the dreaded Tigers were in town for the season’s third game this afternoon, kickoff at 2 p.m.

The Vols were ranked No. 9, the Tigers No. 11.

It was a miserable day, but the Vols were primed and ready, jumping to a 13-0 halftime lead.

After halftime, the heavens opened, and the rains came. It was one of those soaking East Tennessee rains that seemed to last forever, coming quickly over Ayres Hall and moving north to south over the stadium area.

Tennessee coach Bill Battle, sensing that it would be easier to play defense than handle a wet football, kept kicking it back to Auburn, including a 71-yarder by Neil Clabo that found refuge on the Auburn 5.

It was a performance in the kicking game that would have made Gen. Neyland proud.

Linebacker Hank Walter, who had 12 tackles, eight assists, and a fumble recovery, put the final touches on the Vol effort with a 38-yard interception return. He was the national defenisve player of the week for his efforts.

The final was Tennessee 21, Auburn 0.

“Rain? What rain?” Battle said after the game. “I didn’t see anything but sunshine out there!”

Vol fans were happy with the result and never really complained about being soaked.

And then some.

Monday, Sept. 29, 2014

“A Last Great Victory”

Tennessee played Auburn for the first time at Cliff Hare Stadium in Auburn this day in 1974. Tiger loyalist David Housel (author of the “The Auburn Football Vault”) referred to the game, a 21-0 Auburn win, as one of Shug Jordan’s “last great victories.”

“The Tennessee game was especially meaningful,” Housel wrote. “The Vols did everything they could to keep from playing in Auburn. They agreed to play in Knoxville and Birmingham, but not at Auburn. Auburn fans couldn’t understand that logic.”

Considering that Auburn had won six of the nine games played in Birmingham between 1956 and 1972, it couldn’t have been any harder to play at Auburn than at Legion Field, but old habits died hard.

Somehow, playing a “home game” well away from campus didn’t sit well with the Auburn folks. It seems odd that Tennessee would give Auburn such an emotional and tactical advantage by refusing to play on their home field.

It was somehow written in the stars, ordained from on high, that the Vols and Tigers would play at Legion Field.

It was, however, in beginning in 1980 that the Vols played at Auburn every other year until the advent of divisional play. The Vols won 42-0 in 1980 in front of the largest crowd ever to squeeze and elbow their way into Lee County and won again in 1998, 17-9, in the national championship season of 1998.

There was a very frustrating tie in 1990, when the Vols led 26-9 in the fourth quarter and ended up 26-26.

Tennessee fans have made their way down I-75, I-85, and U.S. 29, found places to eat and stay, and enjoyed the sights and sounds of a football weekend down on the Plains.

One school fought the battle against playing at Auburn 15 years longer than Tennessee did. In 1989, Alabama finally played at Auburn and also began playing their home games in the “Iron Bowl” at Tuscaloosa. A great many people said “Never,” but reason prevailed, and the series is better for it.

For Tennessee, the 28th of September 1974 brought the Vols to Auburn for the first time.

Now going to Auburn is accepted as an integral part of the Tennessee football experience.

There’s nothing like a game on campus, wherever the venue.

Sunday, Sept. 28, 2009

“A Dark Day Indeed”

Sept. 27, 1958, opening day of the season, was a dark day indeed for the Vol football program.

Tennessee lost to Auburn 13-0 at Legion Field in Birmingham, but the bigger story was Tennessee not recording a first down all day.

That hasn’t happened since.

The game was 0-0 into the fourth quarter, the Vols still in it, amazingly, before Lamar Rawson and Tommy Lorino scored for the Tigers, Rawson on a 4-yard run and Lorino on a 24-yard scamper.

Tennessee totaled -30 yards on the day, -49 rushing and 19 passing.

Russ Bebb called it “a study in frustration, probably an all-time low for Tennessee and the single wing.”

UNSOLICITED COMMENT: If there’s a lower moment in the full history of Tennessee football from 1891 on, the floor is open for nominations.

The game was nationally televised, with Lindsey Nelson doing the play-by-play for NBC.

This is another great bar bet, a Tennessee game in which the Vols failed to make a first down.

Did this game kill the single-wing, even though it did last through the 1963 season? You could make an argument that it did.

You might also consider this factoid of history.

Later in the season, Tennessee defeated Alabama and Ole Miss, but lost to Chattanooga and an upstart school known as Florida State University. That will alos be an amazing series of contests.

For historic perspective, always remember the date, Saturday, Sept. 27, 1958, 56 years ago.

Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014

“The Vols and Auburn Sept. 26″

September 26 once meant Tennessee and Auburn, back in the days the Vols and Tigers played on a regular basis.

The “Last Saturday in September,” a name that never really “stuck,” was a key afternoon in the SEC race.

Consider how things developed over the years.

There were two 3-0 games Sept. 26, in 1959 and 1964, against Auburn, the former in Knoxville and the latter in Birmingham. For whatever reason, the Vols didn’t play at Cliff Hare Stadium in Auburn in those days.

In 1959, Auburn was ranked No. 3 and a year past a national championship. Tennessee started the 1959 season 5-1-1 under Bowden Wyatt, but finished 5-4-1 after losing the final three games of the season. Cotton Letner kicked the game-winner on a hot day in Knoxville for the Vols that season.

In 1964, Tennessee went to Birmingham, led by rookie head coach Doug Dickey, to play No. 8 Auburn. This was an early indicator that Dickey’s Vol defense could be something special… and that the Vol offense needed work. Don Lewis knocked home the game-winner for Auburn in 1964.

Vol defenders included two College Football Hall of Fame members, Steve DeLong and Frank Emanuel. A future center and HOF selection named Bob Johnson was on the freshman team. Steve Kiner was a prime prospect on the recruiting charts for the 1996 class and another future HOF member.

Charley Fulton and Walter Chadwick were also on the 1964 freshman team. In addition the Vols were working hard on Richmond Flowers, a player also targeted by Alabama. So, looking back, things were looking better and better for the Vols.

There were more Sept. 26 games of note for the Vols and Tigers. The Vols took a 10-7 win over the Tigers at Neyland Stadium in 1981, the game in which Alan Cockrell suffered a knee injury and was lost for the season. The Vols and Tigers tied in 1987, 20-20.

Sept. 26 definitely qualifies as a day for the orange… and the orange and blue.

Wonder if those days might ever return?

Friday, Sept. 26, 2014

“But”

The word “but” (always with one “t,” not two, please) can change the meaning of a number of wonderful sentiments.

Over the course of recorded history, the small word has had an inordinately powerful impact. What the introductory part of the sentence might mean, the conjunction “but” that follows always changes everything.

It was true in the dark days of 1947-48 (5-5 and 4-4-2 records under Gen. Neyland) and has been equally true through the years, as various controversies and/or less than expected results have reared their (ugly) head.

Whenever a coach or a team is going poorly, someone will say something like, “I’m a real Tennessee fan….”

What follows next, after an appropriate pause for effect, is the “but” part of the sentence, “but I don’t think things are going in the right direction.”

That often means someone, usually the head coach, may be in jeopardy of having to find a new line of work. The preamble establishes context and expertise, but (there’s that word again) the second main clause often contains the zinger.

It’s especially true and pronounced on the talk shows. What one main clause giveth, the remaining clause taketh away.

They are three little letters with a powerful impact on the important issues of the day.

When you listen to the talk shows, always look out for the “but.”

Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014

“Bowden’s First Game”

The Bowden Wyatt Era started 59 years ago today on Shields-Watkins Field, with Mississippi State handing the Vols a 13-7 loss. Wyatt, one of only three College Football Hall of Fame inductees as a player and coach, had returned home earlier in the year after successful stints at Wyoming and Arkansas, winning conference titles at both schools. It was an exciting time for Tennessee partisans looking for Wyatt to continue the winning tradition set by his mentor Bob Neyland.

The first half was played in a driving rainstorm. The Vols gave up two first quarter touchdowns to Darrell Royal’s State team and scored on a 22-yard pass from John Majors to Buddy Cruze just before halftime.

Wyatt led the Vols to the SEC crown after just two years in Knoxville, with a 10-0 regular season record that included wins over Auburn, in the first game between the two schools since 1939, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt. The undoubted highlight was 6-0 win over No. 2 Georgia Tech at Grant Field in Atlanta, when the Vols were ranked No. 3.

Wyatt lost the first two games of his Tennessee tenure, then went 6-1-1 the rest of the way, including a 20-6 victory over the No. 19 Commodores. Tennessee refused a Gator Bowl bid because the opponent would have been Auburn, the opening game on the 1956 schedule. Vanderbilt got the bid instead.

At the 1955 Florida game, Tennessee roommates Wyatt and Bob Woodruff were on opposing sides of the field. Woodruff was on the hot seat at Florida, with key Gator alumni offering to buy up his contract to the tune of $17,000, a princely sum in those days, maybe pocket change in today’s world of football. Woodruff would last to the end of the decade, serving in Gainesville from 1950-59.

Gainesville native Tommy Bronson was on the Tennessee side and was one of the game’s stars.

Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2014

“Quo Vadis”

So, former SEC Commissioner Roy Kramer has gotten religion and suddenly found out that the barrage of televised games might not be the best thing for college football.

SALIENT QUOTE: “I understand the (SEC) Network. I understand the positive parts that come out of it, the exposure. But at what point do you reach that limit? I worry about students. This generation of students is not as likely to go to the games on Saturday … That’s where your fans 10 years from now are going to come from. If they’re not in the habit of going to games, where are you going to build this fan base gradually through the years?”

He’s a little late to the party, but these are significant sentiments, expressed by someone who seemingly never met a televised game he didn’t like.

There’s an old adage about killing the golden goose, you know, the one who laid the golden eggs, but it’s been a concern for many of us old-timers who have expressed the same sentiments over the past few years.

Just wonder if we, or any numbers of similarly minded people, can do anything about this “problem,” since the television die has been cast and seems to be here to stay.

Quo vadis, translated (loosely) as which way are we going, commissioner? How are we going to get there?

Interesting questions for a Tuesday in late September.

Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014

“A Trip to West Point”

The Vols played at Michie Stadium on the campus of the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., this day 41 years ago.

The game went to the Vols 37-18, with Stanley Morgan, a heralded freshman from Easley, S. C., catching TD passes of 52 and 29 yards.

The Vols survived a passing barrage from Army quarterback Kingsley Fink, who completed 24 of 36 passes for 347 yards.

The Vols had last played at West Point in 1923, losing 41-0 in the season opener played Sept. 29.

Lamentably, the Vols have not been back since.

Monday, Sept. 22, 2014