Three SEC Championship Seasons to Remember

By Tom Mattingly

The 2024 season marks the 85th anniversary of the 10-1 1939 team, the 55th anniversary of the 9-2 1969 team, and the 35th anniversary of the 11-1 1989 team, champions all.

Each of these “Boys of Fall” teams contributed immeasurably to the Tennessee tradition.

The 1939 team, captained by Sam Bartholomew, is the last to hold a whole regular season slate of opponents scoreless. The 10-0 record earned the Vols a date in the Rose Bowl against Southern Cal, losing 14-0.

Vol fans wondered what Gen. Robert R. Neyland could do for an encore.

Neyland-coached teams kept winning and playing defense as if there were no tomorrow. He was adept at telling anyone who would listen how the 1939 team couldn’t possibly be as good as the 1938 bunch.

The season’s highlight was a 21-0 victory over Alabama on Shields-Watkins Field on Oct. 21. The Vols went to No. 1 the week after the Alabama game and stayed there through the Vanderbilt game, dropping inexplicably to No. 4 after a 13-0 win over the Commodores.

On the downside, tailback George Cafego suffered a knee injury against The Citadel in a Nov. 11 game that limited his effectiveness and caused him to miss nearly all of the Rose Bowl game against Southern Cal.

The 1969 team, captained by Knoxville’s Bill Young, had impressive victories over Auburn, Alabama, and Georgia, the latter two on the road, on its way to the SEC title. It ended up in the Gator Bowl against Florida, losing 14-13.

Sophomore fullback Curt Watson was the unquestioned star offensively, teaming with junior tailback Don McLeary to give the Vols a solid one-two punch in the ground game. At Georgia on a wet field, Watson ran for a school-record 197 yards and McLeary added 101.

The offensive line, led by two-time All-American selection and 2006 College Football Hall of Famer Chip Kell, was a dominating bunch. Bobby Scott capably stepped in at quarterback, ending up with a 21-3 record as a starter.

Steve Kiner and Jack Reynolds (the latter known as “Hacksaw”) each earned All-American honors, while sophomore linebacker Jackie Walker showed the innate ability that would lead him to be an All- American selection for the next two seasons.

Walker had a first-quarter interception run for a score against the Tide that increased the Vol lead to 21-0. He still holds the NCAA career record for interception returns for touchdowns with five.

Kiner, who was national lineman of the week for his performance against Alabama (11 tackles, five tackles for loss, a pass interception, three assists, and four hurries), was named to the College Hall in 1999.

Bobby Majors, the last of the Majors brothers from Franklin and Moore Counties, had a 71-yard punt return against Alabama on his way to All-America honors the next two years.

The stretch run of the 1969 season always gives longtime Vol fans a case of the “what-ifs,” given an inordinate number of critical injuries and the disappointment following Doug Dickey’s eventual move to Florida.

The 1989 team, captained by offensive guard Eric Still, came off a 5-6 record a season earlier to share the SEC title with Alabama and Auburn. The team had a rain-swept victory over Auburn and equally impressive victories over Georgia and at LSU on its way to the top of the SEC. The No. 8 Vols defeated No. 10 Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl by 31-27.

Not much was expected of this team, but the Vols won at UCLA in the season’s second game. Many Vol fans had chalked this one up as a loss before the season opener, but when the dust had settled, it was Tennessee 24, UCLA 6.

John Majors made two significant moves that looked like money in the bank at season’s end.

He moved sophomore quarterback Andy Kelly under center midway in the Alabama game and looking to shore up a secondary exposed in the Alabama and LSU games, inserted freshman wide receiver Carl Pickens at safety, and the results were immediate.

The offensive line, led by 1991 No. 1 NFL draft choices Charles McRae and Antone Davis looked like an old friend, opening holes for Vol runners and enabling Kelly to throw to a cadre of wideouts that had speed and precise route-running ability.

Tailback Chuck Webb, a redshirt freshman, had a school-record 294 yards rushing against Ole Miss and added 250 more against Arkansas. He led the 1989 team with 1236 yards rushing and made more than his share of nifty moves in the secondary. He injured his knee in the 1990 Pacific game, however, and never played again.

From Cafego to Kiner, Neyland to Still, Dickey to Majors, and through many, many more, these players and teams made Vol fans proud and added greatly to the Tennessee tradition.