‘Often in error, but never in doubt’

By Tom Mattingly

Several years ago, my wife and I went to Chattanooga to meet the posters on one of the “chat boards” so prevalent on the Internet. It was a chance to see the faces behind the names of those guys who freely offer their opinions on any number of subjects, mostly the ebbs and flows of Tennessee football. I had been asked to share my thoughts on Tennessee football history,

When I arrived, there was someone there I didn’t expect, but someone I was glad to see. He had already commandeered the podium and showed no signs of letting go.

I had been “upstaged” by the inimitable “Swamp Rat,” Dewey Warren. Vol quarterback from 1965-67, who always talked about “humming that tater” and making things happen on the football field. He hailed from Savannah, Ga., hence the nickname.

He was the kind of guy people seemed to instinctively follow, just to see where he was going. The saying “often in error, but never in doubt” certainly applies. An hour or so with Dewey was a roller-coaster ride through mid-1960s Vol history. You just asked a question, then sat back and enjoyed the ride.

Somebody asked if he really scored the winning touchdown in the 1965 UCLA game. I had expressed some modest doubts, having recently looked at the film. Dewey answered quickly: “The official raised his hands over his head, didn’t he?”

It was fourth-and-goal at the UCLA 1, UCLA leading 34-29, maybe the longest yard in Tennessee football history. A crowd of 40,000-plus had never seen such offensive fireworks.

Dewey told of having two pulled groin muscles and ace receiver Johnny Mills being out of the game. When he found no receivers open, he beat a not-so-hasty path to the northwest corner of Memphis Memorial Stadium, the new stadium in the Bluff City at that time. He eventually scored, and the history books have recorded that Tennessee won, 37-34.

“The play opened up like the Red Sea,” former Vol center and 1965-66 All-American selection Bob Johnson told Marvin West in “Legends of the Tennessee Vols,” “but I thought Dewey would never get there.”

Dewey also told of drawing up plays in the dirt in the huddle that weren’t in the playbook and having to explain to Doug Dickey why he did so. He was more eloquent when the plays worked than when they didn’t. Dickey’s exact response is unknown, but all of us have our opinions about what they were.

“Dewey was a T-formation quarterback nobody else wanted,” Dickey said. “I don’t think anybody ever expected him to play.”

Dewey was adamant in insisting that two of the most historic missed field goals in Vol history, one in 1966 against Alabama and the other in the January 1968 Orange Bowl game against Oklahoma, were both good.

“We had driven all the way down the field against Alabama and were on the 4-yard line,” he recalled, speaking as the quarterback on the drive and as the holder on Gary Wright’s fateful kick.

“I was going to run the ball to the middle of the field and call timeout, so we could have a straight-on kick, but someone called timeout.

“We should never have been in that position. What do you do? It was a tough angle. A lot of people thought the kick was good. I thought it was good.”

The kick against Alabama was close. The one against the Sooners wasn’t. In neither case did the official raise his hands over his head. The passage of time hasn’t softened Dewey’s opinion in the least. He’s sticking to his view of history.

He told a marvelous story about forgetting his helmet his first chance against Mississippi in 1965, right after Charley Fulton was injured. There he was, standing sans helmet in the huddle, with teammates snickering and blue-shirted Rebels ready to get after him. That cost the Vols a time out.

Dewey Warren is not far removed from the signal-caller who led the Vols to glory in his day. He still has the swagger.

The “experts” of his day wondered whether he could play.

“I really didn’t look like a quarterback,” Dewey told West. “I couldn’t do a lot of the stuff quarterbacks are supposed to do. But I knew my limitations. I knew what to do to help us win.”

He spent his 1963 freshman season at linebacker, playing in a not-so-memorable 70-0 loss to Kentucky’s rookies, then being redshirted a year later. Vol broadcaster George Mooney took one look at Dewey on the scout squad and said, “There’s my quarterback.” It took a year or so, but there he was under center, leading the Vols to football glory.

He was one of 26 legends whose careers West chronicled. Dewey was No. 20 on the list on the printed page between Bowden Wyatt and Frank Emanuel, each an All-American selection. Whoever told Dewey, “If you stay, you’ll play,” knew what he was talking about. Dewey stayed… and played.

When Dewey finally got his chance, it was like a wolf getting its first taste of sheep.

Even if he did forget his helmet.