By Tom Mattingly
Long-time Tennessee fans remember the 1961 football season for events happening on and off the field. A major highlight on the gridiron was a 10-6 win over No. 9 Georgia Tech on Nov. 11 on Shields-Watkins Field. That happened in the days Tennessee’s rivalry with the Yellow Jackets was red hot whether the game was in Knoxville or at Grant Field in Atlanta.
Tech was heavily favored, but sophomore tailback Mallon Faircloth, a 1963 alternate captain, threw a 22-yard touchdown pass to end Mike Stratton, and Gary Cannon kicked a 31-yard field goal to pull off the upset victory. It was the final memorable victory of Bowden Wyatt’s tenure at Tennessee.
The Vols finished 6-4 under Wyatt that season, with losses to unranked Auburn (24-21), No. 5 Alabama (34-3), North Carolina (22-21), and No. 6 Ole Miss (24-10). The Vols blew a two-touchdown lead against Auburn in the season opener, while Alabama defeated the Vols for the first time since 1954 on its way to a national championship. Ole Miss went 9-2, losing to Texas in the Cotton Bowl.
The loss to North Carolina ended the regular season series that had dated to 1893, played 32 times over the years, including the 2010 Music City Bowl. The Vols lead the series 20-11-1.
Center Mike Lucci, who died in October 2021, was team captain and the Vols’ only first-team All-SEC selection. He was better known for a stellar professional career with the Cleveland Browns (1962-64) and Detroit Lions (1965-73). Stratton, a native of Tellico Plains and a legendary member of Buffalo Bills squads of the 1960s, was a starting end.
Pat Augustine, team captain a year later, manned the other end. Kenny Brown and Paul Tilson were the tackles, joined by Ned Sullivan and Larry Richards at guard. The backfield included Faircloth, Wayne Coleman at blocking back, Hubert McClain at wingback, J.W. Carter or Bunny Orr at fullback, and Cannon as the placekicker.
The Vols triumphed 17-3 triumph over Mississippi State on Homecoming Day Oct. 7, despite Maroon defensive end Johnny Baker taking out Vol tailbacks Glenn Glass, Faircloth and George Canale with well-placed forearms.
“I was out until the start of the second half when coach Wyatt sent me back in,” Faircloth recalled. “Baker sent me an apology, and I sent a letter back saying how worthless his apology was. He was a great ball player, but he took some cheap shots that day. I thought his apology was pretty thin.”
Faircloth, a native of Cordele, Ga., led the team in rushing that season and in 1963. He was the last of the Tennessee single-wing tailbacks. He had 1,161 yards in his senior season, 652 rushing and 509 passing. He had 179 yards against Vanderbilt in his final game as a Vol, including a 72-yard TD run.
Faircloth fondly remembered the good times as a Vol tailback, even as he recollected the run-in with Baker.
Another 1961 highlight was the election of Bob Suffridge, a three-time All-America selection (1938-40), to the College Football Hall of Fame.
The 1961 season is also known for the debut of two Tennessee football greats. Dr. W J Julian, often called “Doc,” came from Silver Point, Tenn., in Western Putnam County to take over the band program, and Haywood Harris took over from Gus Manning as Sports Information Director.
Under Julian’s leadership, the “Pride of the Southland Marching Band” became one of the best in the nation, with a spit-and-polish pre-game and halftime show. That was Doug Dickey’s idea, according to Doc’s recollection, and the “T” heralding the Vols’ entrance to Shields-Watkins Field has been with us ever since 1965. Later on, after Julian had died, Dickey gave him the credit.
Harris led the Vol publicity effort after stints with the Knoxville Journal and Charlotte Observer and a time as alumni field secretary.
When Gen. Neyland promoted Manning to Business Manager, he told him to do a “nationwide search” for his successor.
“I think Haywood’s in his office,” Gus said, and that settled that. A course was set that would greatly influence the Vol program over the ensuing years. Haywood joined Gus as a legendary figure in Tennessee athletics and helped numerous staffers move up in the field to head their own departments.
He and Gus became beloved ambassadors for the Vol athletic program, hosting radio and television shows, sharing memorable civic club engagements, and authoring two books on Tennessee football.
The 1961 season does prove one thing.
Sometimes things happening off the field are as interesting as what happens on the field.
That was certainly the case in 1961.