By Tom Mattingly
There’s nothing like a good grudge. Over the years, those sports fans living south of the
Mason-Dixon line have perfected the art of never forgetting even the most minor slight. It’s a way of life in some locales.
Historically, Tennessee has had its hotly debated moments fans have never forgotten. Consider Gary Wright’s missed field goal at the south end against Alabama in the rain in the 1966 game. Was it good or not? Charles W. Bowen, the referee that day, waved it off, and that settled that. There was no replay in those days. When the call was made, there was no appeal.
Then there was the supposed completion to Jabar Gaffney that gave Florida a 27-23 win in 2000. The officials closest to the play discussed it thoroughly as all kinds of projectiles, mostly AA and AAA batteries, headed toward the north end zone. Then came the ruling that the play stood.
Both moments of controversy were followed by Tennessee wins the next season against the same opponents, with these negative events used as motivation.
Consider the afternoon the heavens opened over Neyland Stadium during the 1973 Auburn game. Tennessee led 13-0 in a contest the Vols eventually won 21-0.
Whenever Tennessee got the ball in the monsoon, Vol head coach Bill Battle, acting on advice from Gen. Neyland’s playbook, kept kicking the ball back, letting Auburn handle the slippery pigskin. That offended the visitors, and they weren’t happy again until the next year’s game on the Plains was history. The score that day, at a much drier Cliff Hare Stadium, was also 21-0, but that was just a coincidence.
After LSU ran two pass plays in four seconds against Ole Miss in 1972 to win 17-16, there was a sign on the Mississippi side of the border with Louisiana that read: “You are now entering Louisiana. Please set your watch back four seconds.”
Ole Miss had a creative response to the game’s outcome. The authors of the 1973 Rebel
football guide listed the final score as “Mississippi 16, LSU 10 + 7.”
The Kentucky folks will never forget the ending of the 2002 LSU game. With but a couple of ticks left on the clock, the entire Commonwealth seemed poised to celebrate an upset win over the Tigers, including the team dumping Gatorade on head coach Guy Morriss.
As the game ended, LSU completed one of those “Hail Mary” passes for a score that shocked everyone in blue.
Someone in the Kentucky press corps headlined the frantic finish “Christian Laettner in Cleats,” referencing the game-winning shot in the East Regional Finals at the Meadowlands in 1992, one that also sent the Commonwealth into collective disbelief and Duke into the Final Four.
Here’s a lesson for the ages. Everything in the Commonwealth, especially the bad moments, has a parallel in basketball.
In the 1972 “Iron Bowl,” Auburn had the “Punt, Bama, Punt” win, 17-16. that was the day Bill Newton blocked two punts in the fourth quarter, and David Langner returned both for scores, on plays that looked identical. Alabama won the next year, and the next year, and the next year, not losing again until 1982, a year after Pat Dye became head coach on the Plains.
Arkansas lost the 1971 Liberty Bowl game against Tennessee, 14-13, when someone in the line was detected holding on a successful field goal attempt. Later on, the Vols recovered what appeared to be a phantom fumble to set up Curt Watson’s touchdown run that brought Tennessee the victory.
In 1992, Arkansas won in Knoxville, 25-24, when a first down run by Heath Shuler was nullified by a holding call, and the Vols couldn’t handle an onside kick moments later.
Here’s another lesson. The “make-up call” sometimes takes a while to arrive.
Then there was the line tossed out in North Carolina that brandished the name of the Deity.
“If God isn’t a Tar Heel, then why is the sky Carolina blue?” say North Carolina boosters. The response from everybody else was, “If God is a Tar Heel, it’s the only mistake He ever made.”
In the south, events on or off the playing field often carry over into everyday life, all part of the rivalries, some ancient, dating more than 100 years, along with others of more recent occurrence.
These are figurative and literal lines drawn in the sand between seemingly rational and reasonable people, people who take the proceedings seriously. As the saying goes, it just means more.