‘It ain’t over yet’

By Tom Mattingly

There’s been quite a transformation in the Neyland Stadium crowd that has been obvious to any Vol fan who has walked through the gates of this storied arena since the opening game of the 2021 season.

The Vol fan base, historically one of the best in college football, has taken to the Josh Heupel-coached Volunteers with a significant fervor from well before the opening kickoff through to the playing of the “Tennessee Waltz” at the game’s end.

The most recent three-game home stand, featuring wins over Alabama, UT-Martin and Kentucky, has seen the Vol crowd continue to be part of Tennessee’s winning edge. Heupel’s team has roared up and down the Shields-Watkins Field greensward, putting points on the board at a frenetic pace. Vol fans also deserve credit for having a significant presence at the LSU game down on the Bayou.

Fans have been dazzled at the offensive output, with wide receivers open all over the field and running backs finding holes in opposing defenses. A tight end has scored touchdowns and found a way to throw a touchdown pass. With the defensive effort against Kentucky adding to the fun, the decibel level has reached historic proportions.

Previous measuring sticks for the intensity of the Neyland Stadium crowd have been the 1970 Florida game, the 1972 Penn State game, the 1982 Alabama game, and the 1985 Vanderbilt game, where the first SEC title in 16 years was at stake.

No one exactly knows what the atmosphere in Knoxville was like the day of Johnny Butler’s memorable touchdown run in 1939 (Tennessee 21, Alabama 0), Dick Huffman’s battle with Alabama’s Harry Gilmer in 1946 (Tennessee 12, Alabama 0), Andy Kozar’s game-winning TD against the Tide in 1950 (Tennessee 14, Alabama 9), the Vols’ win in the snow against Kentucky in 1950 (Tennessee 7, Kentucky 0), and wins over preceding national champs Auburn (Tennessee 3, Auburn 0 and Tennessee 14, LSU 13) in 1959. The crowds may have been smaller, but there was still great intensity and jubilation from everyone wearing orange and white.

Here’s a look at some great moments when the Vols and their fan base stood tall, meeting the challenge in front of them.

Tennessee 21, Georgia Tech 7 (Nov. 6, 1965): The Vols put 21 points on the board in the third quarter to post a decisive victory less than three weeks after a car-train wreck in West Knoxville cost the lives of three young and promising assistant coaches. The Vols won SEC titles in two of the next four years, and Vol fans started believing in head coach Doug Dickey working his magic on the Vol sideline.

Tennessee 10, Alabama 9 (Oct. 19, 1968): The Vols led all the way, taking the first drive of the game in for a score, but the outcome was not settled until Jimmy Weatherford blocked a Tide field goal attempt on the game’s last play to seal the deal. For the second consecutive year, Bubba Wyche led a touchdown drive on the game’s opening series.

Tennessee 38, Florida 7 (Oct. 24, 1970): Dickey, Vol head coach a year earlier, returned home to face the team he had left behind. Tennesseans were primed and ready for the contest, with Florida never having a chance. Vol fans seated behind the Gators’ entrance to the field gave Dickey a standing ovation when he left the field, remembering Dickey’s contributions to the Vol program.

Tennessee 38, Auburn 20 (Sept. 28, 1985): Auburn was No. 1 coming in, but Vol defenders put the clamps on eventual Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson. Tony Robinson played brilliantly under center, finding open receivers all over the expanse of Shields-Watkins Field. No one knew it at the time, but this was to be a special season, with an SEC title, a memorable bowl win over the Miami Hurricanes, and final No. 4 national ranking

Tennessee 28, Arkansas 24 (Nov. 14, 1998): In a key game on the way to the national championship, the Vols rallied to win after a key Arkansas turnover led to a 5-play, 43-yard drive in which tailback Travis Henry and the Vol offensive line dominated the action. The Vols looked dead in the water late in the fourth quarter, until defensive tackle Billy Ratliff caused and recovered a fumble that led to the offensive heroics.

The magic is back and not a moment too soon. The Vol fan base has endured a number of years in which things weren’t in fine fettle across Big Orange Country, but things are different now. It’s part of a glorious Renaissance. No one knows what the future holds or what may happen on the field, but fans are cautioned to remember what John Ward once said.

“One thing is for certain, it ain’t over yet.”