“Thoughts about Spring Games”

Someone once asked about the importance of spring football games.

Someone else, with a great deal of experience with these type things, had a quick answer.

“Spring games are like a bad movie. Good enough to get your attention. Bad enough to disappoint you.”

That’s one way of saying they are full of sound and fury, but not signifying much.

That’s two clichés for the price of one.

The best line about spring games comes afterwards when the coach says, “We didn’t get anybody hurt.”

That’s one man’s definition of a good spring game.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The End of the Line for Grass at Notre Dame”

 

So, Notre Dame is going to artificial turf.

John Majors had a great story about that verdant grass before the 1976 Notre Dame-Pittsburgh game.

“The grass was shoetop high, not the ideal turf for a back [Tony Dorsett] who runs the 40 in 4.3 seconds,” Majors said.

The came the topper.

“This reminds me of a Kansas wheat field,” he added.

Notre Dame said nothing was amiss, and the game went on as scheduled.

Majors got in the last word.

Pittsburgh won, 31-10.

From actual experience, the grass ay the famed stadium was nothing to write home about, but neither was the visiting dressing room on the east side of the north tunnel. It looked like it hadn’t seen a wet rag since the days of Knute Rockne, and the omnipresent TV monitor was always disconcerting.

It was, however, neat to stand in the tunnel and imagine what things were like in the “Catholics vs. Convicts” battles between “The Fighting Irish” and Miami took place.

Good memories all.

Wonder if someone could buy a sprig of grass from the famed greensward?

Sunday, April 12, 2014

 

 

 

“One Magic Game, One Magic Moment”

Seldom has one game attracted the attention of the “Tennessee Nation” as did the 1986 Sugar Bowl win over Miami. The 35-7 win, seemingly against all odds, is one of the first games mentioned when Vol fans begin choosing their favorite games… and favorite teams. Vol fans ruled the Louisiana Superdome that night, as the magic that envelops Gen. Neyland’s Stadium overtook the “Crescent City.”

Tennessee head coach John Majors saw it all from a front row seat and declared it something special.

“There’s probably no way to explain what it was like,” Majors said. “One of the most moving things of my life was the bus ride from the airport back to Gibbs Hall and seeing people waving their Tennessee banners, stopping their cars, and flashing their lights. I was touched to the point I couldn’t fight back the tears. I doubt I’ve gotten any more pleasure out of a victory, because it meant so much to so many who been have loyal to Tennessee over the years.”

Ken Donahue’s defense shut off every avenue of attack, and the Vol offense made every play needed in a dominating performance. Majors called Donahue’s work with the Vol defense “the most amazing feat I have seen in all my years of football.”

Donahue, a 1950s era tackle from Corryton, is remembered fondly across Big Orange Country for his defensive scheme that night. Tennessee defenders came at Hurricane quarterback Vinny Testaverde from nearly every angle and caused six turnovers, seven quarterback sacks, and five tackles for lost yardage. In fact, one media representative voted him the game’s Most Valuable Player, with The Tennessean’s David Climer writing that Ken won the game with a clipboard and a pencil, “writing a masterpiece in X’s and O’s.”

Donahue had returned to Knoxville in 1985 after a heralded career with Bear Bryant at Alabama.

Ken’s Vol defensive unit, one that improved game-by-game and highlighted a 38-20 win over No. 1 Auburn, was a major factor in an amazing season. His floppy, Sherlock Holmes-type hat was a fixture on the Vols practice field.

Ken was awarded a game ball after the Vols won 16-14 over Alabama that October. Receiving the ball from defensive end Dale Jones in the excitement of the Vol locker room, Donahue said, “This one will go right at the top.”

It all started coming together after the Vols had suffered an apparently crushing blow against Alabama, when starting signal-caller Tony Robinson, who had graced the cover of Sports Illustrated after the win over Auburn, went down with a knee injury. The loss thrust Daryl Dickey, son of former Vol head coach and first-year AD Doug Dickey, into the spotlight, and Vol fans, mindful Daryl had played ever so sparingly to that point, were concerned about the stretch run of the season.

They shouldn’t have been. Daryl showed uncommon smarts in leading the Vols. After a 6-6 tie with Georgia Tech, the Vols proved to be right up there with the great Tennessee teams of years past by season’s end.

Vol defenders were relentless down the stretch, shutting out Rutgers (40-0), effectively shutting out Memphis State (it was 17-7, but the Tiger score came off a blocked punt), defeating Mississippi (34-14), and finishing the season with shutouts of Kentucky (42-0) and Vanderbilt (30-0).

Then there was Jeff Powell, who had risen from obscurity to making a significant contribution as injuries depleted the running back corps. In the third quarter of the Sugar Bowl, when he broke the line for a 60-yard run that made the score 28-7, happiness reigned supreme all across Big Orange Country. It was a certainty that no one, save Willie Gault, maybe, could catch him. The Superdome exploded in a torrent of noise, as fans in orange couldn’t believe what they were seeing. It was amazing.

“Powell just came roaring down the greensward,” John Ward said.

Sometimes teams find the magic and ride it all the way to a more-than-successful season, one that no one could have expected. Once the 1985 Vols found that magic, they created a special niche for themselves in the hearts of Vol fans. All the little pieces fell together in exactly the right way to create a legendary aggregation.

“It meant so much to the players and coaches and the great Tennessee people who were there physically and on television,” Majors said of the Sugar Bowl. “I’ve heard people say that, other than the birth of their first child, their marriage or the first Christmas they remember, it was the most exciting moment of their lives.”

The 1985 Tennessee Volunteers demonstrated the power and triumph of a team, individually and collectively… and the triumph of a man, a man named Ken Donahue.

No Vol fan will ever forget this bunch.

Or forget Ken Donahue.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

 

 

 

“Early Spring Drills”

 

When was spring practice not really spring practice?

Russ Bebb tells the answer in “The Big Orange: A Story of Tennessee Football.”

Gen. Neyland had been back from the Canal Zone in 1936 and 1937 and looked anxiously toward the 1938 season, Russ tells us. The Vols had lost three games in 1937, decisions to Alabama, Auburn, and Vanderbilt, and that wasn’t making anybody happy.

At all.

Especially the head coach.

The 1937 season had ended Dec. 4 with a victory over Ole Miss. The Vols were back on the field Jan. 9, with drills ending some time in April. Neyland drove his team hard, sensing he had something special

“The squad had speed, size, and depth,” Bebb wrote, “and that intangible something today’s coaches called ‘togetherness.’”

There was another group of sensational sophomores (Bob Suffridge, Ed Molinski, and numerous others) and a strong presence in the junior and senior classes.

Bowden Wyatt was team captain.

There were 11-0, 10-1, 10-1 seasons in the offing, and a 34-game regular season winning streak that would end in the second game of 1941, with a loss to Duke. The Vols would reel off three straight wins over Alabama, giving up but 12 points in the three games, all of the tallies in 1940, a 27-12 Vol win in Birmingham.

Things were different in those days, given the lengthy drills over the first four months of 1938. The results were, however, a delight to Vol fans everywhere.

That’s the way things seemed nearly 75 years ago.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

 

 

“Bobby Denton”

Think about it.

If you close your eyes and listen carefully, his distinctive baritone voice is probably still echoing through the nooks and crannies of Neyland Stadium, where he added so many great moments to the history of Tennessee football.

The memories of his voice wafting through Gen. Bob’s stadium come quickly.

“Please pay these prices… and please pay no more.”

“It’s third… and the river.”

“It’s football time in Tennessee.”

“Tennessee wins the toss and defers… Georgia to receive… Tennessee to kick off and defend the south goal.”

From the very early days of his tenure in the 1960s.

“Dr. Smith, please call your exchange.”

And many, many more.

PERSONAL NOTE: It was an honor for the soon-to-be “Vol Historian” to be Bobby’s “ghostwriter” (1987-2005) for his utterances across the Neyland Stadiun public address system.

Requiescat in pace.

Bobby Denton

 Wednesday, March 9, 2014

“Pretend Grass”

When football spring practice was going on about this time in 1968, there were undercurrents that would affect the program for at least 25 years.

During that time, the Vols were trying to replace Bob Johnson, Dewey Warren, Walter Chadwick, and a host of others who helped lead the way to the SEC and a share of the national title the year before.

At Neyland Stadium, work was ongoing on the East side upper deck.

As Tom Siler reported, AD Bob Woodruff got a call from 3M that there was a new synthetic field under development that might alleviate all those concerns about field maintenance and all those other “pesky problems” associated with grass.

After Doug Dickey and Woodruff made a trip to St. Paul, Minn., and made some hasty consultations with the power brokers, the upshot was that Tennessee joined Wisconsin in having an ersatz field in 1968 at a cost of $230,000.

The field was known in Vol athletic circles as “Doug’s Rug.” It wasn’t long before nearly everybody in the SEC, save LSU, Auburn, Georgia, and Mississippi State had some form of the fake stuff.

“Tennessee fans accepted the news stoically,” Siler wrote.

The sod that had been so carefully maintained by Deanie Hoskins and others was being ripped up for a plastic rug, one that would have black streaks in it about a year later.

Season-opening opponent Georgia, Siler wrote, was told of the new field surface by telegram on June 17. There was much ado about the deal from the Georgia perspective over the summer, but the game went on Sept. 14, and it was a classic.

Some form of artificial turf stayed on Shields-Watkins Field through the 1993 season. The artificial stuff was then pulled up, and grass once again adorned the legendary field from the 1994 season on.

That’s what was in the news more than 45 years ago this spring.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

It’s Not Heavy”

Reporters, perceptive souls all, once asked John McKay why he gave the ball to O.J. Simpson the ball more than 30 times a game.

His response: “It’s not heavy.”

The ball may not be heavy, but the spheroid can come loose when you least expect it, and can take some funny bounces. It seems an article of faith that players should able to hold onto the ball, but we have seen over the years that fumbles can change the course of a game very quickly.

Take Arian Foster at the Outback Bowl in 2007 or Cory Anderson at Alabama in 2005. Both those bobbles turned the game around. One team is close to scoring, but the other team grabs back the momentum. It happens in an instant.

Vol fans also remember the “Stoerner Stumble” at Neyland Stadium in 1998, when Arkansas looked to be in control of the game and their destiny. Quarterback Clint Stoerner tripped over one of his linemen coming out from under center and tried to break his fall with the ball. That was a bad move. Billy Ratliff grabbed the ensuing fumble, the Vols go in for the score, win the game, and keep hope alive for a national title.

Georgia might not have won the national title in 1980, save for an ill-timed Glenn Ford fumble near the Bulldog goal in the final minutes. Had the Vols gone in for a score or even kicked a field goal, the whole season might have turned out differently for both teams. The momentum engendered by the 16-15 victory in the season opener carried the Bulldogs a long way. Having Herschel Walker didn’t hurt either.

Then there was the John Majors fumble in the 1957 Sugar Bowl against Baylor, leading to a 13-7 loss for Bowden Wyatt’s team. His mother said after the game that “everybody burns the biscuits once in a while.” She said many years later she wished she hadn’t said it.

Majors told Ben Byrd an interesting story about the aftermath of that game.

“At Kingsport, a gentleman came up to me with a little girl about one year old,” Majors said. “He said he wanted to talk with some friends. I asked him if I could hold his little girl while he was gone.”

Majors said he got a letter from that gentleman the next week. His friends wanted to know who was holding his child.

“Johnny Majors,” the man told them.

“Johnny Majors?” his friend replied. “Aren’t you afraid he’ll drop her?”

In the 1971 Liberty Bowl, Tennessee looked dead in the water. Arkansas had the ball late in the game leading 13-7, when there was a loose ball in front of the Vol bench. Orange shirts dove after the ball, while everybody on the Tennessee bench was giving the signal for “our ball.”

There’s no telling what happened under the pile that night in Memphis, but Carl Witherspoon came up with the pigskin somehow, or at least the officials said he did, and Tennessee went in for the winning score. Arkansas thought they got hosed twice that game, the other call coming for holding on a field goal attempt. They remember that game to this day.

(NOTE: Speaking of which, former UT assistant coach Bob Davis tells the story of a freshman game at Notre Dame back in the late 1960s or early 1970s, when freshman games were in vogue. He remembers a pileup after a fumble, when one official ran in and said “our ball.” He then gave the signal that it was Notre Dame’s possession.)

Fumbles have the ability to give and to take away. They’re good or bad, depending on your perspective and team loyalties.

Monday, April, 7, 2014

“Don’t Look”

 

Dave Hart recently remembered what it was like playing at Stokely Center in the late 1960s or early 1970s.

It was a crazy atmosphere for the visitors going, what with the band marching around the floor and Roger Peltz juggling basketballs while riding his unicycle.

Plus you had to play Tennessee.

Hart recalled one of the assistant coaches telling his charges, “Don’t look.”

What happens when some one tells you “Don’t look”?

More than likely, they looked.

Were those good days or what?

Sunday, April 6, 2014

“A Long-ago Final Four”

If you are old enough, you can remember the days the Final Four games were played Thursday night, with the finals played on Saturday afternoon.

There was also a time only one of the two games was televised. The Final Four hadn’t reached the epic proportions it has today. There were no pre-game shows or anything else related to the game.

Many of us old guys can remember when John Wooden announced his retirement in 1975 after the Bruins had made it to the finals, an announcement that stirred our friends in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Some haven’t gotten over that, even though they’ve had plenty of practice with other issues.

Amazing, isn’t it? Could it have been so long ago?

Saturday, April 5, 2014

“Easy Answers to Supposedly Hard Questions”

Sometimes the hardest questions in football job interviews are the easiest ones to answer.

If you’re trying to be head coach at Auburn, David Housel reports, you need all the self-confidence you can muster.

Asked how long it would take to beat Alabama, Pat Dye had a remarkably simple answer: “60 minutes.”

It was actually one year and 60 minutes, but you get the idea.

Col. Tom Elam once asked Doug Dickey about what it would take to change to the T-formation from the single-wing at Tennessee.

“Get a quarterback,” Dickey said. Then, move the quarterback you had, Hal Wantland, to wingback and watch the running game take shape.

Then try Charley Fulton, Dewey Warren, Bubba Wyche,and Bobby Scott under center.

Elam also asked about the touchy subject of in-state recruiting. Dickey’s response was simple. “If you can’t recruit your home state, you’d be in trouble.”

He did, and he never was.

If history is any guide, there were no complicated answers for these two coaches.

Friday, April 4, 2014