‘Because he wouldn’t have made it’

By Tom Mattingly

Looking at the November football schedule begs an important question for us old-time Vol fans.

Where the heck is the “Rambling Wreck,” AKA Georgia Tech? It’s been 36 years since the Vols and Tech last played in Knoxville (Tennessee 29, Tech 14 in 1987) and nearly 60 years since early November meant Tennessee and Georgia Tech clashing on the gridiron, with national rankings on the line, in even years at Atlanta, odd years in Knoxville.

You could go back to 1955 (a 7-7 tie), 1956 (Tennessee, 6-0), 1957 (Tennessee, 21-6), 1960 (Georgia Tech, 14-7), 1961 (Tennessee, 10-6), 1964 (Tennessee, 22-14), and 1965 (Tennessee, 21-7) for examples.

This was always a great series overall, but these November games had a special “feel” to them, not only weather-wise but with the Tennessee orange and white matched against Tech’s white and old gold.

Adding to the mystique was the battle between Bob Neyland protégés Bobby Dodd at Tech and Bowden Wyatt at Tennessee or later battles between Vol head coach Doug Dickey and Dodd, by then a grizzled veteran.

In his first season in Knoxville, Wyatt had posted a 4-2 record going into the 1955 game. Tech was No. 8 in the country, losing only to Auburn, and favored by 7. It ended up a deadlock, with Tennessee outplaying the favored Techsters. A Vol TD pass late in the game was called back by an ineligible receiver penalty, a decision the Vol crowd protested to no avail.

Wyatt was unbowed: “It was tied before we started. We wanted to win.”

The 1956 game was named the No. 2 game in collegiate history by UPI in 1961, surpassed only by the 1935 Ohio State-Notre Dame game. With Tech ranked No. 2 and Tennessee No. 3, the two teams battled fiercely all day.

The only tally that day came after two passes by All-American tailback John Majors to All-American end Buddy Cruze, followed by Tommy Bronson’s dive into the north end zone a play later.

There was a wonderful moment highlighting Wyatt’s competitive spirit after the game at Grant Field. When it was fourth-and-4 at the Vol 28 early in the game, Dodd elected to punt.

“Why didn’t Dodd go for it?” one media type asked.

“Because he wouldn’t have made it,” Wyatt responded.

In 1957, it was the Vols, ranked No. 9, against No. 18 Tech. Tennessee showed some T-formation that day, perhaps to Wyatt’s surprise. With a minute or so to go in the first half and the ball on the Vol 2, Bobby Gordon went under center and, three times, fell on the ball while being “protected” by Bill Anderson, Tommy Bronson and Stockton Atkins. Russ Bebb reported that the play had been rehearsed in Gordon’s dorm room.

Anderson was co-captain that season (with guard Bill Johnson) and remembered very little about the game. “I had been bothered by a pinched nerve in my neck for some time, and I was almost out cold. They told me I kept on playing and later scored on a 45-yard reverse. I remember taking a shower after the game when I finally regained my senses. I even had to ask the score.”

The two teams split decisions in 1960 and 1961, with the 1961 game being a major upset on Dodd’s 53rd birthday. Billy Williamson returned a kickoff 93 yards for a score in 1960 that was a key to Tech’s victory. Mallon Faircloth had a 22-yard TD pass to John Bill Hudson the next season, and Gary Cannon had a 31-yard field goal, highlighting another defensive struggle.

In 1964, Tennessee was a heavy underdog and trailed 14-3 in the final period before rallying for the victory. Quarterback David Leake led the comeback, tossing a TD pass to Al Tanara and leading a drive culminated by a Jack Patterson TD. Doug Archibald had an interception return for the final score. That gave the Vols a 4-2-1 record, before the team’s offensive inadequacies became glaring in the final three games, all losses.

In 1965, the Vols were in the aftermath of the deaths of three assistant coaches, yet playing inspired football. Sophomore quarterback Charlie Fulton led an offense that racked up 251 yards rushing, and 101 passing. Harold Stancell had an interception for a score, Fulton hit Hal Wantland for another, and Stan Mitchell got a third. That victory helped convince Vol fans that Dickey was building a team to be reckoned with, one that finished in the Top 10 after a Bluebonnet Bowl victory against Tulsa.

Thus, these November games against Georgia Tech were something special, with enough “angles” for the most hardened fan. It was a great rivalry.