By Tom Mattingly
If Crump Stadium in Memphis helped define the Tennessee football series with Mississippi and Mississippi State before the advent of Memphis Memorial Stadium, then the history of Stoll Field, the site of the Tennessee-Kentucky game every other year before Commonwealth Stadium/Kroger Field arrived on the scene, helps us better understand this heated border state rivalry.
The Lexington venue was more properly called Stoll Field/McLean Stadium. The stadium dated to 1880, became Stoll Field in 1916, had an announced seating capacity of 37,000 and was host to some wonderful moments for both sides during its existence.
There was a Thanksgiving Day game in 1929, when the Vols and Wildcats played in a “blinding snowstorm,” as News-Sentinel sports editor Tom Siler termed it in a 1961 book (“Tennessee: Football’s Greatest Dynasty”). Kentucky scored early in the fourth quarter and kicked the ball to the Vols every possession thereafter, often on first or second down. Late in the game, Gene McEver returned a punt to the Tennessee 45, and the Vols were in business.
Bobby Dodd then completed a pass to Buddy Hackman for a touchdown that appeared to tie the game, but on further review, once the officials cleared the snow from the field, they discovered it was six yards short of pay dirt, doing all that without the benefit of video replay. Then things got complicated.
Bob Neyland had inserted his placekicker, Charley Kohlhase, “a fine drop kicker,” but had to remove him once the officials ruled there had been no score. According to the rules of the day, he couldn’t return.
Hackman scored, tying the game 6-6, but the extra point failed, and the game ended that way. It was the third tie in the last four Tennessee-Kentucky games, second in a row in Lexington. Siler wrote that “it amused the Kentuckians to spoil Tennessee’s all-winning ways for the second consecutive year.”
During the Babe Parilli era, 1949-51, Tennessee knocked off Kentucky three times. The Parilli teams never scored on the Vols, and Bear Bryant ended his Kentucky tenure two years later, having beaten the Vols but once.
Kentucky started a home field winning streak of its own against Tennessee in 1953, winning that season and in 1955, 1957, and 1959, before the Vols won in 1961 and didn’t lose at Stoll again.
In 1957, Kentucky’s Lou Michaels dominated the game in a 20-6 Wildcat win, recovering two fumbles, one for a touchdown, and kept the Vols at bay with his booming left-footed punts. Vol lineman Bill Johnson, 1957 co-captain, had painful recollections of his encounter with “Big Lou.”
John Majors had a comment about this incident in the book, “You Can Go Home Again,” written with Knoxville Journal sportswriter Ben Byrd.
“Johnson, who was an All-America guard that year,” Majors and Byrd recounted, “told me that all game long Michaels kept looking for him. He’d yell, ‘Where’s Johnson?’, and Bill said he would scrunch down as low as he could to escape notice. During the game, Michaels splintered Johnson’s face mask and split his face open from his lower lip to his chin.”
The Vol finale at Stoll Field came in 1971 when the No. 11 Vols came to town in the white jerseys with the orange collar. Tennessee had a tenuous lead, 14-7 late in the final quarter, but the Wildcats were moving, seemingly at will, toward the Vol goal. The “Offensive Defense” was reeling, but as always seemed to happen, it made a big play when it counted.
Defensive end Carl Johnson intercepted a pitchout and lumbered 87 yards for a score.
“The quarterback came down the line on the option. He kept coming closer and closer, and I wanted to stay in position,” said Johnson. “I punched him with my left arm, and he pitched the ball at the same time.”
Then came the miracle, the game-turning play.
“There was the ball. I ran it back some 87 yards. Half the team caught up to me because I ran out of steam about halfway there.”
Two years later, as the magic of Stoll Field somehow transferred to Commonwealth Stadium, the Vols barely escaped their first game there. Kentucky missed a field goal at the horn, final score Tennessee 16, Kentucky 14.
Tennessee has found life at the new stadium to be equally tough going on numerous occasions. Many of the contests at Stoll Field helped set the standard for this hard-fought rivalry.
Alas, Stoll Field is no more, but the memories linger for fans of both schools.