‘Pretend Grass’

By Tom Mattingly

When football spring practice and its aftermath were happening in 1968, there were definite undercurrents that would affect the program for at least the next 25 years.

During that time, the Vols were trying to replace stalwarts Bob Johnson, John Boynton, Joe Graham, Charlie Fulton, Elliott Gammage, Dewey Warren, Jimmy Glover, Albert Dorsey, Derrick Weatherford, Walter Chadwick and others, all of whom helped lead the way to the SEC title and a share of the national title a season earlier.

At Neyland Stadium, work was ongoing on the new east side upper deck and auxiliary scoreboard. The picture shows seats being installed in what would become Section FF.

It was definitely a hectic time.

As Tom Siler reported, AD Bob Woodruff had received a call in the spring of 1968 from 3M that there was a new synthetic field available that might alleviate concerns about field maintenance and all those other pesky problems associated with a grass field.

Head coach Doug Dickey and Woodruff made a trip to St. Paul, Minnesota, and followed up with some hasty consultations with the power brokers. After that, Tennessee joined Wisconsin in having a field covered in artificial turf in 1968 at a cost of $230,000, equivalent to $2,072,300 today.

The field became popularly known as “Doug’s Rug,” a tribute to the ultra-successful Tennessee head coach. It wasn’t long before nearly everybody in the SEC, save LSU, Auburn, Georgia and Mississippi State, had some form of the fake stuff. Someone called the new surface “pretend grass.”

“Tennessee fans accepted the news stoically,” Siler wrote.

The sod that had been so carefully maintained by John Deanie Hoskins and others over the years was torn asunder and would have black streaks on its surface about a year later. 3M’s competitors would fly their potential clients over the field to see the carnage.

Season-opening opponent Georgia, Siler wrote, was told of the new field surface by telegram June 17.

The Bulldogs were appearing on the Vol schedule for the first time since 1937 in a nationally–televised contest on ABC on Sept. 14. Kickoff was 4 p.m. A record crowd of 60,603 showed up for the late afternoon encounter.

It had been quite an early summer for Georgia head coach Vince Dooley. He was preparing for a trip to Knoxville to open his season, one that would yield the Bulldogs an SEC title, their second in three years. On June 10, he celebrated the birth of son Derek, who would become an integral part of Tennessee football history in the years to come.

Georgia athletic director Joe Eaves was not dazzled by the news. “It’s a radical move that should have been considered by the conference,” Eaves said. “Why didn’t Tennessee bring this matter up when all of us met in Biloxi in May?”

Eaves said Georgia was thinking about voiding the contract. “Maybe Tennessee can just put on an intrasquad game for the TV audience.”

There was much ado about the deal from the Georgia perspective. There was even some poetry, or what passed for poetry, Siler wrote. One missive concluded as follows, penned by Col. Tom Rogers.

“And when the final score is in, on that Saturday P.M., You won’t have to blame the loss on Dooley, just blame it on 3M.”

The game was a classic. Dan Jenkins and photographer Walter Iooss Jr. showed up from Sports Illustrated, and the game story (“Rouser on a Rug”) was prominently featured in the next week’s issue.

The Vols and Bulldogs were the lead story. Denny McLain had won his 30th game for the Detroit Tigers earlier in the afternoon. He and Al Kaline earned the cover and a two-page story.

The game went past the allotted 60 minutes as quarterback Bubba Wyche threw a TD pass to wideout Gary Kreis that he bobbled. The ball somehow ended up in Gary’s grasp. Bubba then tossed a two-point conversion pass to tight end Ken DeLong.

Did Kreis catch the ball? That depends on your perspective. “It’s never too late to right a wrong,” one Georgia fan wrote Kreis, “Why don’t you ‘confess’?”

Kreis told media that the fan “also told me to stay out of Georgia.”

A year later, Kreis was on the Vol travel squad when the Vols played at Sanford Stadium in Athens on Nov. 1, winning 17-3 under less-than-ideal weather conditions.

Some form of artificial turf stayed on Shields-Watkins Field through the 1993 season. The artificial stuff was then pulled up, and grass has adorned the legendary field from that point on. Vol groundskeeper Bobby Campbell led the way, as happiness reigned supreme across Big Orange Country.