‘They’ll probably think he wasn’t bad for his time’

By Tom Mattingly

When word arrived December 15 that former Vol wide receiver Johnny Mills had died at age 77, memories of vintage times in Carter County and his football career at the University of Tennessee dominated the recollections of his friends and associates.

“Mills was the longtime owner of Mills Greenhouse in Elizabethton and a well-respected business owner in the Carter County community,” wrote Jeff Birchfield in the Johnson City Press.

Record-setting performances often happen in unexpected places, at unexpected times. For Mills, it happened in a televised game in the days there were precious few games on the tube.

In the ninth game of the 1966 season, the Vols and Kentucky were squaring off on Shields-Watkins Field in the home season finale, with the game being regionally televised on ABC. The Vols won, 28-19, as Mills racked up seven receptions for 225 yards. The Vols finished 7-3 and squared off against Syracuse in the Gator Bowl.

He set a pass receiving yardage record (225) that stood for nearly 35 years, before finally being broken in the 2001 LSU game. That was the night Kelley Washington caught 11 balls for 256 yards. In 2010, Denarius Moore had 228 against South Carolina.

“Johnny was a competitor,” said quarterback Dewey Warren, who also never flinched on the gridiron. “He didn’t think anybody could cover him one-on-one. He had great hand-eye coordination. He had moves that could fake me out. He always said, ‘I can get open.”’

During Gator Bowl pre-game introductions, residents of Elizabethton and Carter County and surrounding area were no doubt bemused when ABC’s Bill Flemming introduced Mills to a nationwide audience as a native of “Elizabeth-town, Tennessee.”

Mills and Warren were part of a stellar sophomore class in 1964 that had to have caught first year head coach Doug Dickey’s attention, including Austin Denney, Paul Naumoff, Mack Gentry, Joe Graham, Derrick Weatherford, Robbie Franklin, Bobby Morel, Tom Fisher, Art Galiffa, Ron Jarvis, Harold Stancell, Ron Widby, Doug Archibald, and Jerry Smith.

Against Kentucky, Mills had 33- and 41-yard receptions in the first quarter, 12- and 33-yarders in the second period, a 13-yarder in the third, and 21 and 72-yarders in the fourth. His final reception of the day stretched the lead to 28-13, keyed by a downfield block from sophomore wide receiver Richmond Flowers.

“Johnny was another of those route-runner, good-catcher-type guys who did not have great speed, but had the ability to maneuver himself into the openings,” said Doug Dickey, his head coach. “He knew how to fake and move, set up the defender, then end up somewhere catching the ball.”

Mills led the 1966 team with 48 catches for 725 yards, both record numbers to that time. Mills more than doubled what All-American Buddy Cruze had done in 1956, in terms of receptions and yardage. In the Gator Bowl, he caught eight passes for 86 yards.

Willie Gault came closest to Mills with 217 yards against Vanderbilt in 1981. Then came Carl Pickens with 201 against Kentucky in 1990, Cordarrelle Patterson with 219 yards against Troy in 2012, Moore with 205 against Kentucky in 2010, Stanley Morgan with a like number against TCU in 1976, Peerless Price with 199 against Florida State in the 1999 Fiesta Bowl, and Anthony Hancock 196 in the 1981 Garden State Bowl.

Mills had a spectacular two-game run in 1965 and 1966, catching 10 passes in the 1965 UCLA game and coming back in the 1966 season opener against Auburn to catch 11. He was named All-SEC in 1966, one of four Vols so honored, joining Naumoff, Denney, and Bob Johnson.

“I remember thinking after the Kentucky game that I had a great senior season made all the better because I had broken my arm in the 1965 UCLA game,” Mills said. “It was not for sure I was even going to get to play in 1966. I remember finishing the game and looking up in the stands, knowing it was the last time I would ever play in Neyland Stadium. It was a bittersweet moment.”

Mills coached at both Cawood and Harlan (Ky.) high schools in the 1970s before returning home, where he operated a greenhouse with his wife, Carla, until 2019. He is also in the All-Northeast Tennessee and Elizabethton High Athletic Halls of Fame. He was a 2012 inductee into the Carter County Sports Hall of Fame.

“Everybody had a time. I had my time,” said Mills. “They probably look at those old videos and say, ‘Boy, the guy sure is slow. He sure does run archaic routes.’ But as they mature, they’ll probably think he wasn’t bad for his time.”

One conclusion is inescapable. Johnny Mills wasn’t bad for his time, or anybody else’s.