A sign that better days were ahead

By Tom Mattingly

When Josh Heupel compiled an 11-2 record in his second season at Tennessee and again energized the fan base, it brought back memories of another head coach who did likewise in his second season more than 50 years ago.

The year was 1965. At age 33, Doug Dickey compiled an 8-1-2 record following a fallow period between 1958 and 1964 (34-32-4), a time frame with no bowl games and precious few high moments. Gen. Neyland had died in 1962, and the single-wing had been consigned to history.

Rarely have three consecutive December Saturdays been as significant as Dec. 4, Dec. 11, and Dec. 18 were that year. What happened over those three Saturdays encouraged Tennessee fans looking for signs that better days were ahead.

On Dec. 4, the Vols played a classic game with UCLA at the new stadium in Memphis, a definite step-up from the antiquated Crump Stadium.

Tennessee Athletic Director Bob Woodruff termed the venue a “neutral site.” UCLA head coach Tommy Prothro, a Memphis native, was more skeptical. “Playing Tennessee in Memphis is like playing Notre Dame in Rome,” he said.

With a crowd of 44,495 in attendance, the final tally was 37-34, Tennessee, a score that had to have caught the attention of Vol fans who learned their football, highlighted by defense and the kicking game, at Neyland’s knee. This was the beginning of a new day and a new era in Tennessee gridiron history.

A quick glance at the history books reveals that the Vols had given up more than 30 points or more only 14 times in the games between the start of the 1915 season and the 1965 Vanderbilt game and had lost every one. Seven of Neyland’s Tennessee teams gave up 34 points or fewer in an entire season.

The game had everything you could want, excitement, big plays, drama, and the requisite amount of controversy, all leading to a memorable finish.

Vol quarterback Dewey Warren, playing with two pulled groin muscles, but never with a lack of confidence, scored on a 1-yard run that seemed to take forever. Somehow Dewey found the end zone, enough so that the official on the spot threw both hands skyward.

It was a game for the ages, a “made for TV game,” in the days before there were such things. Woodruff and UCLA athletic director J.D. Morgan had scheduled what would become an intersectional classic.

Had the game been played today, Warren’s visage and the game tape would have been all over Sports Center. The game and its aftermath would be an “ESPN Classic” the next night. It’s still one of the most requested Vol game tapes ever.

The next Saturday was signing day, with the Vols ending up with a class that would help lead the Vols to gridiron glory.

The Vol performance that season had to have had a positive impact on prep prospects in Tampa, Cincinnati, Kingsport, Jackson, Johnson City, Nashville, and Oliver Springs. That’s where many of the top prospects for the 1966 freshman class were located, and the Vols got them all: Steve Kiner, Jack Reynolds, Vic Dingus, Don McLeary, John Rippetoe, Mike Jones, and Gary Kreis. Kiner (1968-69) and Reynolds (1969) were All American selections.

There were others, such as Nashville’s Manley Mixon, Wayne Smith, and Bobby Patterson, Chattanooga’s Steve Carroll, Steve Wold of Port Orange, Fla., and Villa Rica, Georgia’s Herman (“Thunderfoot”) Weaver, so named during his Detroit Lions pro career by ABC’s Don Meredith. “Dandy Don” thought Weaver’s punts were so high they could bring rain (and thunder).

The third weekend sent the Vols to Houston for the Bluebonnet Bowl, and Vol fans were enthused by a 27-6 win over Tulsa, in a game played in a driving rainstorm. Warren ran for two scores and tossed a 4-yard TD pass to inspirational team captain Hal Wantland. Fullback Stan Mitchell scored on an 11-yard run.

“I remember it was wet as in real rain and mud and soup—a perfect fit for Dewey Warren’s famous nickname, ‘Swamp Rat,’” said Marvin West reporting for the Knoxville New-Sentinel. “Tulsa kept shooting itself in the foot. Tennessee had trouble with stopping the short passing game to Howard Twilley, but Tulsa would lose a fumble or interception, and the Vols would capitalize. It seems Tulsa won the stats comparison. Dewey Warren threw very little for almost nothing.”

For Vol fans, Dec. 18, 1965, was a beautiful day, regardless of the weather. Vol fans had the feeling Tennessee was “back.”

These were December Saturdays that forever changed the face of Tennessee football, on the field and on the recruiting trail. Not before or since have such December Saturdays been so important to the Vol program.