‘I’m not changing my offense for anyone’

By Tom Mattingly

The single-wing offense, a staple of Tennessee football since the ascension of Bob Neyland as head coach in 1926, took its last breath on Nov. 30, 1963, as the Vols took a 14-0 decision over Vanderbilt. It was a cold, wet Saturday on Shields-Watkins Field, the final contest of a 5-5 season.

Mallon Faircloth, a senior from Cordele, Ga., earned the plaudits of history as the last single-wing tailback, running for 179 yards, including a 72-yard touchdown run. Sophomore fullback Stan Mitchell got the other score after a fumble recovery by sophomore linebacker Frank Emanuel. It was also the final game as head coach for Jim McDonald, hired in June after Bowden Wyatt was let go.

No one billed the game as “Tribute to the Single-Wing Day,” but events leading up to and during that weekend made it clear the times were definitely changing football-wise on the Hill.

History was in one of its cycles of change, as News Sentinel Sports Editor Tom Siler wrote in 1970 describing the 1963 college football landscape.

“The high school boy, by 1964 infected with the virus of pro football, saw stardom ahead,” wrote Siler. “He was playing the ‘T’ in high school, wanted to play the ‘T’ in college, and further prepare himself for the golden years in pro football.”

Tennessee “was defeated before it got started in recruiting until Doug Dickey came along,” Siler wrote.

The poster boys for the switch to the “T” from the single wing were both Tennesseans, quarterbacks Steve Spurrier of Johnson City and Steve Sloan of Cleveland. Spurrier ended up at Florida, Sloan at Alabama.

In his book on head basketball coach Ray Mears, Ron Bliss writes that Ray was involved in a momentous plan that could have changed the course of Tennessee athletic history.

Mears wanted to have Spurrier to play football and basketball and asked him “what it would take for him to sign with Tennessee in football,” knowing that he was too good a football player to come to Knoxville for hoops only.

“Steve told me he didn’t like Wyatt’s wingback offense, and he’d have to change to more of a passing offense before he’d consider coming,” Mears said. “So, I went back, told Bowden and he said, “I’m not changing my offense for anyone.”

There was also the reverence among segments of the Vol fan base for the glory days under Neyland and Wyatt. “They had grown up on the single-wing, loved the matchless precision of it, and naturally hated to see it go,” Siler wrote.

There were also indisputable facts, however. The Vols hadn’t been in a bowl game since 1957, and the Vols were in the upper half of the SEC only once between 1958 and 1963. The record in those years was 30-27-3, not what Vol fans had become accustomed to. The Vols had finished 10th in the conference in 1962 and eighth in 1963.

Home attendance in 1963 averaged 30,141 in a 51,527-seat stadium.

There had been highlights, streak-breaking wins over Auburn and LSU in 1959, and lowlights, losses to Chattanooga and Florida State in 1958, but there was a rising feeling the game had passed the single-wing by. LSU, Auburn, Alabama, and Ole Miss were acknowledged national powers. Georgia Tech, another long-time rival, was still strong.

Things came to a head at a contentious meeting of athletics board members and key trustees before and after the Vanderbilt game. McDonald was made an assistant athletic director, and new athletic director Bob Woodruff was given approval to hire the new head coach. That new coach was Arkansas assistant Doug Dickey, Woodruff’s quarterback in the early 1950s at Florida. It was a decision that caught media and fans alike off guard.

After a 4-5-1 record in 1964, Dickey brought Tennessee back to glory in 1965, and the Vols have stayed there over the next decades, with a few, but not very many, rough patches along the way.

Dickey believed strongly in the adage, “If you’re not the lead dog, the view never changes.” Coming to the Vols having played for Woodruff and having coached under Frank Broyles, who played for Bobby Dodd, Dickey understood the Tennessee winning tradition.

“The Neyland years were not that far back. Bowden Wyatt had done a great job of coaching wherever he had been. Things had gotten a little out of hand. Some changes needed to be made by the university, and they were,” said Dickey.

The 1963 Vanderbilt game and its aftermath ended one era and started another, passing the torch to a new generation. It was a significant and memorable time in the history of the Tennessee program.

The transition may not have been picture-perfect, but the verdict of history reflects positively on the happenings that last November Saturday.