‘Tennessee faithful were shocked’

By Tom Mattingly

The date was Dec. 27, 1969. On that day, no one knew what was in store for the Vol football program in the aftermath of Tennessee playing Florida in the Gator Bowl.

The Vols, SEC champ and ranked No. 11 (AP), were squaring off against No. 14 Florida in one of those infrequent games against their rivals from the Sunshine State, the first such contest since a 20-0 Vol win in Gainesville on Nov. 12, 1955.

Events off the field overshadowed the game, a 14-13 win for the Gators. Word got out that there were behind-the-scenes negotiations for Vol head coach Doug Dickey to go to Florida.

“Doug Dickey will have first refusal as the new head coach at the University of Florida,” wrote the Knoxville Journal’s Ed Harris on Dec. 23. That news hit Big Orange Country like a sledgehammer.

Harris also noted, “Dickey admitted he had discussed the possibility…” and followed up with this comment: “All statements must come from Florida.”

Would Dickey, a Florida alum who played quarterback for Bob Woodruff in the early 1950s, leave the “Garden of Eden,” as Kentucky basketball coach Adolph Rupp once called the Tennessee program?

Who would be his successor if he did?

Knoxville News-Sentinel sportswriter Marvin West had seen things come full circle in Dickey’s first tenure in Knoxville. He was at the Southern Railway Station in Knoxville early in the morning on Dec. 2, 1963, when Dickey arrived, and saw the final chapters of the Dickey years in late December 1969 into early 1970.

“Tennessee faithful were shocked,” wrote West. “Thousands were insulted. It was unthinkable that anybody would walk out on the Volunteers.”

Dickey had found five current or eventual All-America selections when he arrived on campus—Steve Delong (1964, having already been honored in 1963), Frank Emanuel (1965), and Paul Naumoff, Austin Denney, and Ron Widby (each honored in 1966).

He and his staff brought in 12 more — Johnson (1966-67), Richmond Flowers and Albert Dorsey (1967), Charles Rosenfelder (1968), Steve Kiner (1968-69), Jimmy Weatherford (1968), Chip Kell (1969-70), Jack Reynolds (1969), Jackie Walker (1970-71), Bobby Majors (1971), and Conrad Graham and Jamie Rotella (1972).

Tennessee could have won the game, probably would have, had the Vols capitalized on several opportunities in the Orange Zone and didn’t give up a blocked punt for a touchdown. It was a frustrating afternoon.

A few days later, Dickey did leave. The final Dickey worksheet at Tennessee was 46-15-4, with two SEC titles (1967, 1969), five bowl games, and the Litkenhous national championship in 1967.

Bill Battle, a 28-year-old ends coach who had played for Bear Bryant at Alabama in the early 1960s and had been on staff since 1966, was Woodruff’s choice.

There were those, including Trustee and Athletics Board chair Col. Tom Elam and school president Dr. Andy Holt, who wanted John Majors. When push came to shove, however, Battle got the call. Holt had told Elam, “Your vote is my vote,” but Elam, ever the believer in the chain of command, reluctantly ended up backing Woodruff’s decision.

Ironically, Tennessee and Florida were scheduled to play the next October. In one of the most anticipated games of that era, maybe ever, the Vols won decisively, 38-7, with Vol fans sitting in the south end of Neyland Stadium giving Dickey a standing ovation as the Gators left the field.

What is the lesson from all this?

There often appears to be another (and better) “Garden of Eden” somewhere else.

That wasn’t the case for Dickey at Florida, however.

“When I went to Florida, there was a lot of dissension among the Florida people about how all this had transpired,” Dickey said. “The press and supporters had been spilt apart between Ray Graves and Steve O’Connell. It was not a happy scene, and I was the victim.”

Graves was from Knoxville. He had captained the 1941 Vol squad and had coached the Gators since 1960. O’Connell was university president. O’Connell wanted Dickey, but there were also a significant number of UF supporters who wanted to keep Graves or promote veteran assistant coach Gene Ellenson.

Dickey stayed at Florida until 1978. He coached at Colorado in 1979, before taking a management position with Florida Tile in Lakeland.

Dickey got a second chance to impact the Tennessee program in 1985, when Woodruff retired, and Doug became athletics director, helping lead another significant chapter in Tennessee sports history.

Few men ever get one chance to have such an impact on a collegiate football program. Doug Dickey earned two chances and made the most of both of them.

On that December day, one era was ending and another was beginning. John Majors came home as head coach in 1977. It would be 1985 before the Vols would win another SEC title. SEC titles would also come home in 1989 and 1990.

Rarely have one day and one game had such an impact on the Vol football program.