A number of significant, exciting, and occasionally disappointing moments
By Tom Mattingly
The 1972 football season had a number of significant, exciting, and occasionally disappointing moments nearly every week. The final record was 10-2, with a No. 8 national ranking.
Tennessee fans looked forward to a continuation of Vol success on the gridiron. Since 1965, the Vols had gone 8-1-2, 8-3, 9-2, 8-2-1, 9-2, 11-1, and 10-2. There had been bowl games every year, two SEC titles, and a number of All-SEC and All-American players.
The season had started with a 4 p.m. kickoff Sept. 9 against Georgia Tech at Grant Field in Atlanta. ABC had the telecast interspersed between the network’s coverage of the Munich Olympics. The season began with a rousing start with the Vols taking a 34-3 victory.
When the home opener arrived a week later, Neyland Stadium had been expanded at the southwest corner of the upper deck to 70,166 seats, the stadium’s ninth addition since the lower west stands (17 rows and 3,200 seats) were built for the 1921 season. There was some variant of artificial turf on the floor of Shields-Watkins Field.
Penn State showed up for a second consecutive home game after meeting the Vols in the 1971 regular season finale. Kickoff was set for 7:30 p.m. The Vols ended up winning both contests, 31-11 in 1971 and 28-21 this season.
Lights had also been added to the “Home of the Vols.” No one knew how the Tennessee fan base might react to football under the lights, but they shouldn’t have been worried. Vol fans were as intense, maybe more, than they would have been had the kickoff been at the traditional 2 p.m. Night football had found a niche in Knoxville.
One interesting tidbit about the Penn State game was that Joe Paterno walked to the Tennessee dressing room after the game. “I promised myself I’d be in the winning dressing room before I left here. So here I am,” he said. That gesture earned him the respect of Tennessee head coach Bill Battle.
The 1972 season was also the first time many of us young alums had possessed season tickets after several years of having student tickets or hitting the street in the open market. Many of us from those days still have them, with ours now in Section OO, Row 8, Seats 1-4.
The Vols defeated Wake Forest before heading to Birmingham for the annual battle with Auburn. One sidelight from that day was Auburn assistant coach George Rose attending the game in violation of the SEC scouting agreement, as reported by the Knoxville News-Sentinel. That led to the Vols wearing orange jerseys at Legion Field, in violation of the SEC’s “white jersey” agreement.
Orange jerseys or not, the Vols lost a tough defensive struggle, 10-6, second tight loss to the Tigers in as many years.
When the Vols squared off against Memphis State at Memphis Memorial Stadium a week later, the unquestioned highlight of a 38-7 win was a 96-yard interception run for a score by Art Reynolds, Hacksaw’s brother, that seemed to take forever.
Two weeks later, against Alabama, the Vols played brilliantly against the wishbone for 58 minutes. The Vols led 10-3, but lost 17-10 in one of the most disappointing losses in that or any other game.
After a win over Hawaii, the Vols then reeled off wins at Georgia (14-0), on Homecoming against Ole Miss (17-0), Kentucky (17-7), at Vanderbilt (30-10), and against LSU and quarterback Bert Jones in the Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl (24-17).
At Georgia, many Vol fans had ridden from Atlanta to Athens and back on a chartered Southern Railways train, being let off near the northeast corner of Sanford Stadium. The weather was much nicer than the 1969 visit (Tennessee 17, Georgia 3, in a driving rainstorm), and the ride back to Atlanta was something special.
Several of those who rode the train wondered what going to a game on a train might be like in future days or years. It hasn’t happened since, but the thought is still an engaging one.
Linebacker and captain Jamie Rotella, defensive back Conrad Graham, and placekicker Ricky Townsend were All-American selections, joining defensive tackle John Wagster and offensive guard Bill Emendorfer as All-SEC selections.
When the season was in the books, no one could know that it would be 15 years before the Vols would finish with another 10-win record. No one could know that U.T. would have eight coaches in the ensuing 50 years, five in 13 years from 2009 through this coming season.
The Tennessee tradition is, however, still alive and well, as Vol fans continue to stream through the Neyland Stadium gates. The events of the 1972 season add perspective to an ever-evolving love for the program.