By Tom Mattingly
It’s not how you start.
It’s how you finish.
That was a capsule summary of the 1981 Tennessee football season, marked by a rocky start on Rocky Top.
After losses at Georgia (44-0) and at Southern Cal (43-7), no one in Big Orange Country would have given odds of any kind that the Vols would finish 8-4 with a victory over Wisconsin in the final Garden State Bowl.
“The 1981 Vols were young, inexperienced, and lacking depth,” wrote the Knoxville Journal’s Russ Bebb. “They appeared doomed to an absolutely miserable season.”
Georgia was the defending national champion and ranked No. 10 for the season opener in Athens. Herschel Walker, the 1982 Heisman Trophy winner, was back for his sophomore season. When the Vols came calling the next weekend at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Southern Cal was ranked No. 5 and had Marcus Allen at tailback. Allen won the 1981 Heisman.
Walker ran for 161 yards as the Bulldogs handed the Vols their worst defeat since 1910. Allen ran for 211 yards and four touchdowns. USC racked up 403 yards rushing in the one-sided triumph.
Bebb called it the “low water mark of the Majors Era.” He reported that one sign around town read, “Johnny Majors is in the fifth year of a four-year rebuilding program.”
Countering that was a full-page newspaper ad supporting the Vol head coach, taken out by Majors’ “most loyal backers.”
In the home opener that season, Tennessee unveiled freshman quarterback Alan Cockrell of Joplin, Mo., as the starter against Colorado State. The Vols raced to a 21-0 halftime lead and knocked off the Rams 42-0.
Tennessee defeated Auburn the next week by a 10-7 count, but lost Cockrell for the season to a knee injury.
Two weeks later, Tennessee defeated Georgia Tech by another 10-7 count, the 10 points coming on a 42-yard TD pass from Steve Alatorre to Anthony Hancock and a 25-yard field goal by freshman placekicker Fuad Reveiz, who had signed on with the Vols early in pre-season drills.
“I didn’t know if he could kick a lick,” said Majors, “but sometimes it pays to play hunches.” This hunch proved correct. Fuad kicked 71 field goals and 101 extra points during his career (1981-84) and had a 60-yarder just before halftime of the 1982 Georgia Tech game.
Tennessee lost to Alabama at Legion Field by 38-19, in what would be Bear Bryant’s last win over the Vols.
The Vols then defeated Memphis State (28-9), Wichita State (24-21), and Mississippi (28-20) in ensuing weeks, but lost at Kentucky (21-10) after taking a 10-0 lead.
The Wichita State game featured one of the strangest happenings ever seen on Shields-Watkins Field.
It was 21-21 in the fourth quarter, when Shocker tight end Anthony Jones caught a pass over the middle. Two Vols in pursuit collided, and Jones had a clear path to the south end zone. For no apparent reason, he started veering steadily to his right toward the west sideline.
“I was sitting with former Vol baseball player Robbie Howard,” said the late Bob Campbell, former Neyland Stadium “grass guru,” then a high school baseball coach. “We saw him heading our way, and Robbie said, ‘He’s going to run out of bounds.’”
Three plays later, the Vols intercepted a pass and marched to the game-winning field goal.
The Vols defeated Vanderbilt in the regular season finale by 38-34, despite Vanderbilt’s Whit Taylor throwing for 464 yards. Alatorre threw for 316 yards, and Willie Gault caught four balls for 217 yards, including an 80-yard touchdown strike. The two teams combined for 1,120 yards total offense.
Vanderbilt went down strapped to the mast, with one last toss to Allama Matthews, later an SEC official, falling incomplete despite intense protests from Vanderbilt partisans.
The season ended with Tennessee playing Wisconsin at the Meadowlands on Dec. 13. The Vols won 28-21, as Gault returned a kickoff 87 yards for a touchdown, and Alatorre and Hancock played pitch-and-catch all afternoon. Hancock caught 11 passes for 196 yards, including a 43-yard scoring reception.
The Vols thus overcame the early season adversity—the two lopsided losses and the loss of Cockrell—to finish well ahead of what many of the “experts” might have predicted.
“I was more concerned about the 1981 team than any team in the last 13 years,” said Majors in 1990. “We got tromped the first two games. We came back to win eight games, including the bowl game. That’s one of the best lesson builders—one I’ve used with our team and staff on many occasions—talking about what happens if you keep hanging on, keep fighting, keep coming back.”