By Steve Williams
Although it’s been nearly a half of a century since the two have collided, Oklahoma and Tennessee do share a brief but exciting history in football. The Sooners and Volunteers will pick up where they left off this Saturday night in Norman.
Tennessee’s first-ever major bowl game was against Oklahoma in the Jan. 2, 1939 Orange Bowl. Historians described that contest as a “hard fought” one, but that description seems a little mild, considering there were broken bones, fights and ejections mixed in with the football. It was brutal.
In the UT video feature, “One Hundred Years of Volunteers,” Babe Wood, a back on that Tennessee team, recalled five Oklahoma players and four UT players were ejected.
Tennessee won 17-0 to wrap up an 11-0 season. The 1938 squad, coached by Major R.R. Neyland in his second of three stints at UT, captured the SEC championship and was crowned national champion by Dunkel and Litkenhous ratings.
The Vols outscored their opponents 293-16 that season. Bob Suffridge, a quick All-American guard out of Knoxville Central High School, anchored their great defense. Halfback George Cafego and end Bowden Wyatt, who would later succeed Neyland as head coach in 1955, also were All-Americans on the ‘38 team.
Thirty years later, on Jan. 1, 1968, Tennessee and Oklahoma squared off again in the Orange Bowl in Miami. NBC televised the New Year’s night battle and I still remember watching it as a teenager.
The Vols, then coached by Doug Dickey, entered the game 9-1 and ranked No. 2 in the nation by The Associated Press, while the Sooners were ranked No. 3. The only blemish on Tennessee’s record was a season-opening 20-16 loss to UCLA in Los Angeles.
The Sooners jumped out to a 19-0 lead by halftime, but an interception return for a touchdown by Jimmy Glover sparked a rally and the Vols had a chance to win at the end.
With only a couple of minutes remaining in the game, Oklahoma gambled and tried to run out the clock, giving the ball to All-American Steve Owens on 4th-and-1 at its 43-yard line, but blitzing Vol linebackers Steve Kiner and Jack “Hacksaw” Reynolds stopped Owens short of the first down.
Karl Kremser, who I believe was Tennessee’s first-ever soccer-style placekicker, lined up a potential game-winning 43-yard field goal with seven seconds to go, but his kick spun wide right and Oklahoma escaped with a 26-24 win.
“That was one of those games were I felt like I’m not sure the best team won,” Dickey would say years later as UT’s athletic director in the feature on the Vols’ first 100 years of football. “We had a chance to win it. We were about five yards short of where we needed to be to kick that field goal.”
Despite the bowl loss, the Vols, who also were led by quarterback Dewey Warren, center Bob Johnson, wingback Richmond Flowers and defensive back Albert Dorsey, were SEC champions and also were crowned national champions by Litkenhous.
Oklahoma will be a heavy favorite when the nationally ranked Sooners and young Vols renew the rivalry this weekend. It’s wishful thinking, but maybe “the best team” won’t win this time, either.
TOUGH LOSS: Football can be very rewarding. It also can be cruel. Jacob Gilliam knows that as well as anyone.
After working his way up from walk-on to starting left tackle in Tennessee’s offensive line, Gilliam, a fifth-year senior out of Farragut High, got to enjoy the view from the top only briefly as he was sidelined with a knee injury in the Vols’ opener against Utah State.
The day after UT’s 38-7 victory, Coach Butch Jones announced Gilliam would be lost for the remainder of the season. That was crushing news.
Let’s hope Jacob can take solace in the old saying that the journey is just as important as the destination. His journey can and should still be an inspiration to others, including Team 118.