Reaching for the stars


By Tom Mattingly

There are celebrations, and then there are celebrations. When Tennessee defeated Florida 34-32 on Dec. 1, 2001, in Gainesville, Fla., there was a tumultuous celebration, albeit hastily arranged, at Tom Black Track after the team charter had touched down at McGhee-Tyson Airport.

Vol fans packed the track seating area and beyond to welcome their heroes home. It was a magic moment, to be sure, maybe a bit premature, but magic nonetheless.

However, there was precedent for such a welcome home.

Those of us who had been around a while were convinced, we had seen it all before, 34 years earlier, on the night of Nov. 18, 1967.

In that 1967 season, the Tennessee football program was reaching for the stars. There had been an 8-1-2 record and that classic win over UCLA in 1965. There was an 8-3 mark in 1966 that was exciting and oh-so-close to being something really special.

On taking the job Dec. 2, 1963, Doug Dickey had said it would take four years to get Tennessee back as a major player in the college football world. A major step would be winning the SEC title and garnering a big bowl bid.

Tennessee played Ole Miss at Memphis Memorial Stadium that November afternoon, having lost to the Rebels every year since the Vols last won in 1958, 18-16 in Knoxville. It was another of the “key games” in that SEC and Litkenhous national championship season, coincidentally Dickey’s fourth year at the Vol helm.

The Vols were riding a six-game winning streak after a season-opening loss at UCLA. The always-formidable Rebels took their best shot at derailing the Vol express before a packed house in Memphis that was equally divided in its loyalties.

The Big Orange won 20-7 over Johnny Vaught’s talent-laden crew, a squad that was bigger than Tennessee’s, but couldn’t effectively handle the Vols’ speed and quickness.

The Vols won with an attack led by tailback Walter Chadwick, who threw his second touchdown pass of the season to tight end Terry Dalton. Chadwick, who always had a nose for the end zone, also scored on a 9-yard run. Karl Kremser added two field goals to establish the final margin.

Vol fans not in attendance in Memphis huddled around their radios nervously listening to George Mooney’s and Bob Foxx’s call of the game. They had to wait until the next day to see the game film on the “Doug Dickey Show.”

By game’s end, jubilation reigned in Knoxville and elsewhere across Big Orange Country. The powers-that-be decided to have a welcome home ceremony on the site of today’s HPER building near Tom Black Track.

Fans were encouraged not to go to the airport, but to come to campus instead, as Gus Manning told Mooney near the end of the Vol Network broadcast. Fans did show up, with flags flying. There was even a bonfire. Bonfires were popular in those long-ago days. There had been a large crowd at the airport after the Alabama game a month earlier, but nothing like this one.

The welcome home rally was front-page news in the next day’s Knoxville News-Sentinel, with the crowd being estimated at more than 1,000, crammed into a small area. No one sang “Rocky Top,” but that didn’t matter. That song had been recorded two days earlier by the Osborne Brothers and was released on Christmas Day. Five years would elapse before it would be the song of choice wherever the Vols might play.

Dickey said he had “never been prouder” of his team and reminded fans there were two more games to play. Vol fans reveled in the moment. Two weeks later, the SEC crown came home, where the fans believed it belonged, after a 41-14 victory over Vanderbilt, the first title in 11 years. Even a narrow loss to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl couldn’t take the luster off the Vols’ season.

The Vols won nine in a row after a season-opening loss at UCLA, defeating Auburn (27-13), Alabama (24-13), LSU (17-14), and Ole Miss along the way.

They were tough, physical games. The Vols overcame an exorbitant number of injuries, with any number of young players contributing to the Vol effort. Dickey called it a “team” that refused to back down in the face of adversity.

When the Vols did win that year, Tennessee fans knew how to party.

And party they did.