The most exciting moment of their lives

By Tom Mattingly

Seldom has one game attracted the attention of the “Tennessee Nation” as did the 1986 Sugar Bowl win over Miami. The 35-7 win, seemingly against all odds, is one of the first games mentioned when Vol fans begin choosing their favorite games… and favorite teams.

Tennessee head coach John Majors saw it all from a front-row seat and declared it something special.

“There’s probably no way to explain what it was like,” said Majors. “One of the most moving things of my life was the bus ride from the airport back to Gibbs Hall and seeing people waving their Tennessee banners, stopping their cars, and flashing their lights. I was touched to the point I couldn’t fight back the tears.

“I doubt I’ve gotten any more pleasure out of a victory, because it meant so much to so many who been have loyal to Tennessee over the years.”

Ken Donahue’s defense shut off every avenue of attack, and the Vol offense made every play needed in a dominating performance. Majors called Donahue’s work with the Vol defense, “the most amazing feat I have seen in all my years of football.”

Donahue, a 1950s-era tackle from Corryton, is remembered fondly across Big Orange Country for his defensive scheme that night. Tennessee defenders came at Hurricane quarterback Vinny Testaverde from nearly every angle and caused six turnovers and had seven quarterback sacks accompanied by five tackles for lost yardage.

One media representative voted Donahue the game’s Most Valuable Player, with The Tennessean’s David Climer writing that Ken won the game with a clipboard and pencil, “writing a masterpiece in X’s and O’s.”

Donahue had returned to Knoxville in 1985 after a heralded career with Bear Bryant at Alabama.

Ken’s Vol defensive unit, one that improved game-by-game and highlighted a 38-20 win over No. 1-ranked Auburn, was a major factor in an amazing season. His floppy, Sherlock Holmes-type hat was a fixture on the practice field.

Ken was awarded a game ball after the Vols won 16-14 over Alabama that October. Receiving the ball from defensive end Dale Jones in the excitement of the Vol locker room, Donahue said, “This one will go right at the top.”

It all started coming together after the Vols had suffered an apparently crushing blow against Alabama when starting signal-caller Tony Robinson, who had graced the cover of Sports Illustrated after the win over Auburn, went down with a knee injury.

The loss thrust Daryl Dickey, son of former Vol head coach and first-year AD Doug Dickey, into the spotlight, and Vol fans, mindful Daryl had played sparingly to that point, were concerned about the stretch run of the season.

They shouldn’t have been. Daryl showed uncommon smarts in leading the Vols. After a 6-6 tie with Georgia Tech, the Vols proved to be in the discussion with the great Tennessee teams of years past by season’s end.

Vol defenders were relentless down the stretch, shutting out Rutgers (40-0), effectively shutting out Memphis State (it was 17-7, as the Tiger score came off a blocked punt), defeating Mississippi (34-14), and finishing the season with shutouts of Kentucky (42-0) and Vanderbilt (30-0).

Walk-on running back Jeff Powell rose from obscurity to make a significant contribution when the Vols nearly ran out of running backs. When he broke the line for a 60-yard run that made the score 28-7 in the third quarter, happiness reigned supreme all across Big Orange Country.

It was a certainty that no one, save Willie Gault, could catch him. The Superdome exploded in a torrent of noise, as fans in orange were ecstatic at what they were seeing. It was amazing.

“Powell just came roaring down the greensward,” John Ward said.

Sometimes teams find the magic and ride it all the way to a more-than-successful season, one that no one could have expected. The 1985 Vols created a special niche for themselves in the hearts of Vol fans. All the little pieces fell together in exactly the right way to create a magical season.

“It meant so much to the players and coaches and the great Tennessee people who were there physically and on television,” said Majors of the Sugar Bowl triumph. “I’ve heard people say that, other than the birth of their first child, their marriage, or the first Christmas they remember, it was the most exciting moment of their lives.”

The 1985 Tennessee Volunteers demonstrated the power and triumph of a team, individually and collectively… and the triumph of two men, one named John Majors, the other Ken Donahue.

No Vol fan will ever forget this bunch.

Or forget two Vols for Life, John Majors and Ken Donahue.