‘I feel confident we are now building a good program’

By Tom Mattingly

You may not remember it, but there was once a 9-3 Tennessee team that was not ranked by The Associated Press (AP) during the entire season. (In a major contradiction, the Vols did finish No. 17 in the CNN-USA Today poll.) That was in 1983.

John Majors said he saw light at the end of the tunnel, even after a 1-2 start.

“For the first time in six years, I see daylight,” said Majors. “I know I may sound like a crazy man, but I feel confident we are now building a good program, and I am not going to change my mind one iota.”

Defensive tackle Reggie White was team captain and was a dominating figure up front for the Vols, earning All-SEC and All-American honors.

Junior Alan Cockrell was the quarterback, his second year back under center after his 1981 knee surgery. He threw the ball all over the field in a 41-34 win over Alabama at Legion Field in October. His performance included two 80-yard TD passes, one to Lenny Taylor on the Vols’ first play from scrimmage. That came after the Tide had taken the game’s opening drive in for a score. The other went to Clyde Duncan.

Munford’s Johnnie Jones gained 1161 yards rushing that season, 66 of which came on a memorable run at Legion Field. A crowd of 77,237 watched as Jones hit left end, cut back to his right, and etched his way into the series history books. The play, called “49 Option,” culminated a 17-point rally from 34-24 down to the eventual 41-34 margin.

During his recruitment, Ed Murphey, a Vol fan from nearby Brownsville, had told Johnnie he would score the winning touchdown against Alabama. Jones initially thought Murphey was just blowing some recruiting smoke, but thought differently as the years progressed.

“After all these years,” said Jones, “it looked like he knew what he was talking about. At least that’s how it happened that day in Birmingham.”

The Vols were coming off a 6-5-1 season that ended on a two-game losing streak, to Vanderbilt (28-21) in the season finale at Nashville and to Iowa (28-22) in the Peach Bowl at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.

The Vols got off to a 1-2 start, with losses to Pittsburgh (13-3) and Auburn (37-14), sandwiched around a 31-6 win over New Mexico.

After that, the Vols played well, defeating The Citadel (45-6), LSU (20-6), and No. 11 Alabama. There was no hangover after the Alabama game, as the Vols found their way down from the clouds to win decisively against Georgia Tech by 37-3.

After a 7-0 win over Rutgers at the Meadowlands, the Vols inexplicably stubbed their collective toes in a Homecoming night loss to Ole Miss by a 13-10 count. That was the night it was so cold at Neyland Stadium that U.T. president Ed Boling said “No” to future November night games. That policy lasted until Notre Dame came calling Nov. 6, 1999.

The Vols ended the regular season by knocking off Kentucky (10-0) and Vanderbilt (34-24). The Vols trailed 24-20 against Vanderbilt, but rallied behind Jones, who had 248 yards rushing for the game, Cockrell, and Duncan for 14 fourth quarter points. In one historic moment, Tennessee alumnus Lindsey Nelson did the play-by-play for the CBS telecast.

The Florida Citrus Bowl win over No. 16 Maryland (30-23) capped the Vols’ finest season since 1972 (10-2) with a 9-3 record.

The Vols trailed 20-16 entering the fourth quarter, but Jones, who gained 154 yards on 29 carries, scored twice to give the Vols a hard-earned victory.

In his final collegiate game before moving on to pro baseball, Cockrell threw a 12-yard TD pass to Taylor, part of his 185 yards passing on the night. Fullback Sam Henderson scored on a 19-yard run, with Fuad Reveiz adding a 25-yard field goal. Linebacker Alvin Toles recovered a fumble and intercepted a pass.

Fans recalled the success of the 1983 season when the news broke that White had died Sunday, Dec. 26, 2004. Under his leadership and the careful tutelage of defensive coordinator Larry Marmie, the Vols went from worst to first defensively in the SEC.

“Reggie White could turn a football game around like no one else,” said Majors. “He could dominate not only the man in front of him, but also the side of the line of scrimmage he was on. People changed their game plan to run to the other side, and he could still make plays. He was a lovable and likable guy with a great sense of humor, who was also serious about football and serious about his religious beliefs.”

One national ranking service may not have honored the Vols this season, but there were a number of memorable moments that engendered hope for the future.