By Tom Mattingly
If you’re so inclined, cast a glance toward North Florida today (Dec. 27, 2021) and remember a significant moment in the history of Tennessee football.
The final game of the Doug Dickey era at Tennessee (Sept. 19, 1964–Dec. 27, 1969) came at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville.
SEC champ and No. 11 Tennessee was squaring off against No. 14 Florida. It was the first such contest since a 20-0 Vol win in Gainesville on Nov. 12, 1955. NBC had the broadcast.
The final Dickey worksheet at Tennessee was 46-15-4, with two SEC titles (1967, 1969), five bowl games, and the Litkenhous national championship in 1967.
Knoxville News Sentinel sportswriter Marvin West saw things come full circle. He was at the Southern Railway Station early in the morning on Dec. 1, 1963, when Dickey arrived in Knoxville. He also saw the final on-the-field chapter of the Dickey years in late December 1969.
“Tennessee faithful were shocked,” wrote West. “Thousands were insulted. It was unthinkable that anybody would walk out on the Volunteers.”
Dickey had found five current or eventual All-American selections when he arrived on campus: Steve Delong (1964, having already been honored in 1963), Frank Emanuel (1965), and Paul Naumoff, Austin Denney, and Ron Widby (each honored in 1966).
He and his staff brought in 12 more: Bob Johnson (1966-67), Richmond Flowers and Albert Dorsey (1967), Charles Rosenfelder (1968), Steve Kiner (1968-69), Jimmy Weatherford (1968), Chip Kell (1969-70), Jack Reynolds (1969), Jackie Walker (1970-71), Bobby Majors (1971), and Conrad Graham and Jamie Rotella (1972).
Events off the field overshadowed the game, a 14-13 win for the Gators. Tennessee could have won the game, probably should have, had the Vols capitalized on several opportunities in the Orange Zone and didn’t give up a blocked punt for a touchdown.
Word also got out that there were behind-the-scenes negotiations for Dickey to go to Florida.
“Doug Dickey will have first refusal as the new head coach at the University of Florida,” wrote the Knoxville Journal’s Ed Harris on Dec. 23.
Harris also noted, “Dickey admitted he had discussed the possibility….” Dickey also added to the suspense with this comment: “All statements must come from Florida.”
Would Dickey, a Florida alum who played quarterback for Bob Woodruff in the early 1950s, leave the “Garden of Eden,” as Kentucky basketball coach Adolph Rupp once called the Tennessee program?
Who would be his successor if he did?
Not too long after, Dickey did leave.
Bill Battle, a 28-year-old ends coach who had played for Bear Bryant at Alabama in the early 1960s and had been on staff since 1966, was Woodruff’s choice.
There were those, including trustee Col. Tom Elam and school president Dr. Andy Holt, who wanted John Majors. When push came to shove, however, Battle got the call. Holt had told Elam, “Your vote is my vote,” but Elam, ever the believer in the chain of command, and Holt ended up backing Woodruff’s decision.
The Vol program survived an iffy end to the 1969 season (losses to Ole Miss and Florida and tense victories over Kentucky and Vanderbilt) well enough, rolling to an 11-1 record and Sugar Bowl triumph in 1970.
In one of the most anticipated games in Tennessee football history that season, the Vols defeated Florida, 38-7, with Vol fans in the south end of Neyland Stadium giving Dickey a standing ovation as the Gators left the field.
What is the lesson from all this?
There often appears to be another (and perhaps better) “Garden of Eden” somewhere else.
That wasn’t the case for Dickey at Florida, however. Going home wasn’t what it was cracked up to be.
“When I went to Florida, there was a lot of dissension among the Florida people about how all this had transpired,” said Dickey. “The press and supporters had been split apart between Ray Graves and Steve O’Connell. It was not a happy scene, and I was the victim.”
Graves was from Knoxville and was captain of the 1941 Vol squad. He had coached the Gators since 1960. Florida president O’Connell wanted Dickey, but there were also a significant number of UF supporters who wanted to keep Graves or promote veteran assistant coach Gene Ellenson.
Dickey stayed at Florida until 1978. He was an assistant at Colorado in 1979, before taking a management position with Florida Tile in Lakeland.
Dickey got a second chance to impact the Tennessee program in 1985 when Woodruff retired, and Dickey became athletics director, helping lead another significant chapter in U. T. athletic history.
Few men ever get one chance to have such an impact. Doug Dickey earned two chances and made the most of both of them.
Rarely have one day and one game had such an impact on the Vol football program.