‘The color they wore was orange’


By Tom Mattingly

There have been some interesting stories about the color orange over the years. In early January 1971, for example, media accounts brought Vol fans the news that SEC had instituted the “white jersey rule.”

That meant the home team got the choice of jersey color and the visitors had to wear white, except at LSU, where the white shirts have ruled the day, and for a year or two at Vanderbilt.

Tennessee head coach Bill Battle voted against the SEC order that is often referred to as a “Gentlemen’s Agreement.”

“You’re dadgum right I did,” Battle said in 2005 when he was asked about the issue for the first “Tennessee Football Vault.” That was as close as Battle ever came to saying words he shouldn’t have.

Orange jerseys were an article of faith for the Vols from 1922-71, home and away, with notable exceptions the 1953 Cotton Bowl against Texas, the 1963 Alabama game at Legion Field, and the 1969 Cotton Bowl, again against Texas. They were all losses by an 87-13 margin. You could understand why the fan base was up in arms over this development. Vol historian Allen Spain also reminds us that the Vols wore white jerseys at home in 1935.

That left the Vols in white jerseys away from Neyland Stadium. That caused great fear and trepidation among the Vol faithful. The debut of the white jerseys came Oct. 2 at Florida Field, as it was known back then.

Not only were the Vols having to wear the white shirts, but first year Florida coach Doug Dickey, aware of the impact white jerseys had on Vol fans, also had the Gators outfitted in orange. The Vols won 20-13, but it wasn’t easy.

The Vols wore the now-famous white shirts with the orange collar that night and seven more times between 1971 and 1973. The Vols were 5-3 (.625) over that time span and won once more in the 2004 season opener against Texas Tech.

The Vols showed up in those jerseys at Alabama (1971 and 1973), at Vanderbilt (1972), at Georgia (1972), at Ole Miss (1973), Kentucky (1971 and 1973), and the aforementioned Florida game (1971). One Vol fan said those white jerseys with the orange collar were “so ugly you just had to love them.”

Those jerseys were put in mothballs after the 1973 season, replaced by ho-hum white jerseys. In 1977, John Majors came marching home, adding some pizzazz to the road shirts with splashes of orange on the sleeves and shoulders. Over the years, Tennessee fans have gradually, perhaps grudgingly, accepted the white shirts. The white shirts did carry the day twice at Notre Dame, in 1991 and 2001, both unbelievably significant and exciting victories.

Only once has there been an issue with the jerseys the Vols wore on the road. An Auburn assistant coach showed up for the 1972 Tennessee-Wake Forest game, the second scouting visit after being there a week earlier against Penn State. The News-Sentinel’s Tom Siler reported his presence, citing that as a violation of another SEC ”Gentleman’s Agreement.”

How did the Vols react? There was little said during game week, but when the Vols ran onto Legion Field on Sept. 30, they showed up in their traditional home uniforms.

A tempest in a teapot? Perhaps. The Vols lost a defensive struggle (10-6), the third loss in three years against Shug Jordan’s crew after winning three of four games played from 1966 through 1969.

There are other interesting sidelights to the orange jerseys over the years. Rumor has it that the legendary Gene McEver was known to change his number every so often, particularly at home games. He apparently had a financial interest in program sales and worked hard to let fans know what number he was wearing on any particular day.

Then there was the day in October 1999 when rumors abounded that the Vols would wear black jerseys (with orange pants) against South Carolina. The Vols warmed up in orange, but, when the “T” opened, here came the Vols in black shirts. It was the worst kept secret in town, but caused a stir all across the expanse of Neyland Stadium. The Vols also dispatched the Gamecocks that night, and all was well.

For the “100 Years of Volunteers” ceremonies in 1990, singer Dave Loggins, a native of Mountain City, performed a song he had written called “Orange Memories.” More than 30 years later, it’s still a classic. It’s a haunting melody and script. “The color they wore was orange” was a dominant theme.

That’s why there’s nothing like the love affair Vols have had with the orange shirts. Take a look at the sea of orange that envelops Neyland Stadium, game after game, season after season. You can have all the “throwback jerseys” you want, on significant occasions, maybe, but there’s nothing like the real deal, the orange shirts with white pants.