WEDNESDAY, NOV. 7, 2007 — That’s what Sports Illustrated said about the 1959 LSU-Tennessee game, played 48 years ago on Shields-Watkins Field.
It was Homecoming in the days before directional schools rolled in to please the returning grads. LSU came in undefeated and No. 1 in the country. It was the day of Billy Cannon, the 1959 Heisman winner, Paul Dietzel, Johnny Robinson and the “Go Team,” the “White Team,” and the “Chinese Bandits.” LSU was the favorite, but Vol fans instinctively knew that Tennessee would win. It was almost an article of faith.
The game is fondly remembered, perhaps for one play, but the entirety of the game was in the best Tennessee tradition. The Vols had but two opportunities and cashed both of them in. The Vols also got some help from the ghosts of big plays past and big games past, apparitions that seem to inhabit Neyland Stadium to this day.
It was cold that day, so cold that LSU had to send out for extra gear. LSU had played Ole Miss the week before at Baton Rouge with temperatures in the 70s, but found temperatures in the 20s when they got to Knoxville.
The Vols were 4-1-1 heading into the game, and Vol fans thought the “glory days” of Tennessee football were back. On this day, they were.
Tennessee hung on grimly, trailing 7-0 at the half, and surviving two major forays into their territory that resulted in missed field goals. LSU was letting an underdog team hang around and would pay for it in a big way. How much, or if at all, nobody knew. The capacity crowd was apprehensive.
The key moments came in the third quarter, when the Vols exploded for 14 points at the north end in a matter of minutes, getting a couple of big breaks and converting them into scores, just the way Bob Neyland had preached over the years. Vol head coach Bowden Wyatt was a Neyland disciple, and, in the best Tennessee tradition, preached the virtue and value of converting turnovers into points.
LSU was moving goalward before Jim Cartwright intercepted a Warren Rabb pass and took the pigskin 59 yards down the west sideline for a score, thus getting the crowd back in the game.
On the next series, Ken Sadler forced a fumble and Neyle Sollee scored on a 14-yard run. Just like that, it was 14-7, Tennessee. Shields-Watkins Field was its usual rowdy self.
LSU didn’t go away quietly. The Tigers recovered a fumbled punt, actually a kick that struck Bill Majors in the shoulder, and the Tigers found the pigskin at the Vol 2. It took three plays, but the Bengals got the ball in the end zone and it was 14-13. It was decision time for Dietzel. Or so he thought.
On one hand, there was no decision to be made. There was no overtime in those days. He would go with his best back on the team’s strongest play.
On the other hand, it was early in the fourth quarter. Tennessee had no offense to speak of that day.
LSU decided to go for two points. The Tigers came to the line, with, in some minds, the season on the line. At 15-14, the matter would be left in the hands of the Tiger defense. The same would true if they hadn’t made it. As things turned out the Tigers had ample opportunities afterwards, but couldn’t close the deal.
The Tigers ran the pitch right to Cannon, a play that had been diagrammed in a Knoxville newspaper earlier in the week. Initially, it looked as if Cannon would score easily, but nothing comes easy against the Vols, particularly on Shields-Watkins Field.
Any Vol fan, even the young ones, can recite what happened next. Wayne Grubb, Charley Severance and Majors, who died nearly six years later in a West Knoxville car-train accident, were there and made the stop. It all happened at the northeast corner, right in front of Section A.
“We had looked at the LSU-Ole Miss game film all week, some 15-25 hours, to memorize everything they did and to be prepared to play the best game we had played,” Grubb said. “We knew they were riding high. They ran the play and we were there.”
The hero that day may have been Vol assistant coach Ken Donahue, who would receive similar accolades for his role in a 35-7 win over Miami Jan. 1, 1986.
“It was probably one of the best all-around preparation jobs developed by an entire coaching staff,” former Vol broadcaster George Mooney said. “Ken Donahue had responsibility for the scout squad and, with his innate ability to understand offense and defense, he was able to prepare Tennessee’s defense to stop a much better football team.”
Cannon, the hero of the Tigers’ win over Ole Miss the week before Halloween night, was tight-lipped about the game’s pivotal play.
“If you fellows don’t mind, I’d rather not say anything. I just don’t feel up to it.”
Later, he said: “I will go to my grave believing I was over.”
The game was the last victory for the Vols in the decade of the 1950s. Hard times hit the next three weeks, as the Vols lost to Ole Miss 37-7 at Memphis, Kentucky 20-0 at Lexington, and Vanderbilt at home 14-0.
The two upsets (Auburn in September by 3-0 and LSU) had taken their toll on the Vols. Wyatt knew. “They had their finest hour last week and now I must send them out for their worst beating,” he said the night before the next week’s game against Ole Miss.
Despite the 1960 Alabama game or the 1961 Georgia Tech game, both significant victories, the magic dimmed for Wyatt in the succeeding years. The beloved single-wing was nearing the end of a long and glorious run. Wyatt stayed on through the 1962 season and into June before being released as head coach.
During his tenure, however, there were enough accomplishments to make Vol fans respect the accomplishments of a native Tennessean who did great things for the Vols as a player and head coach.
For his part, Severance had an interesting take on the game. If everybody who said they were at that game had actually been there, the attendance would be somewhere in the range of today’s stadium figures.
That’s the power of tradition.