Turning down a bowl bid, even before it arrived

By Tom Mattingly

From 1958 through 1964, there were no bowl games for the Tennessee Volunteers. Not a single one. That’s what comes after records of 4-6, 5-4-1, 6-2-2, 6-4, 4-6, 5-5, and 4-5-1.

That’s why the 1965 team and its Bluebonnet Bowl win over Tulsa are so fondly remembered by longtime Tennessee football fans. A bowl game, any bowl game, even one against Tulsa, was better than the alternative. Seven years without a bowl game was too much for Vol fans to bear.

Over those years, there had been losses to Chattanooga and Florida State and no first downs against Auburn in 1958, balanced off by wins over heavyweights LSU and Auburn in 1959. During that time, SEC rivals Alabama, LSU, Ole Miss, and Auburn were all reaching for the stars. There were no radio and television talk shows in those days, but the all-knowing Gay Street quarterbacks had to have been concerned about the downward trend in the program.

There is a story hidden in that succession of so-so records.

During those seven years, there was only one time Tennessee seemed to have a record worthy of a bowl game, but head coach Bowden Wyatt let it be known that the Vols, well, weren’t interested. Not that an invitation had actually been extended, mind you, but Bowden said “no” anyway.

The year was 1960, in the days of Mike Lucci, Bill Majors, captain Mike LaSorsa, two-time Jacobs Trophy winner Jim Cartwright, Wayne Grubb, Cotton Letner, Glenn Glass, and many others.

The Vols did defeat Alabama by a 20-7 count, the last victory over the Tide until 1967. The Vols had a 5-0-1 record entering November, and all seemed well in Knoxville.

The November schedule was the killer. Losses to Georgia Tech and Ole Miss and a tie with Kentucky tarnished the Vol resume. The record in November was 1-2-1, not the stuff of which bowl dreams were made. The Vols ended up staying at home when bowl invites were proffered, with a record of 6-2-2.

As News-Sentinel sports editor Tom Siler wrote, the Vols were “undecorated and unrewarded.”

Shortly after the Vols’ 35-0 triumph over Vanderbilt in the season finale on Nov. 26, someone, maybe the Sentinel’s Red Bailes or Marvin West, or possibly Siler, had asked Wyatt about possible bowl scenarios.

“From what I’ve heard, they’re all filled,” Wyatt said. “Maybe the Gotham Bowl is open, but I’m not interested in that. We’re going to have our banquet and begin thinking about spring practice. In fact, I may start planning before the banquet.”

That settled that.

Haven’t heard of the Gotham Bowl? You’re not alone.

Newspaper stories trumpeted the first Gotham Bowl as a welcome addition to the 1960 bowl scene. So wrote the New York Times, ostensibly with a straight face.

Organizers had grandiose dreams, envisioning a jam-packed Yankee Stadium, brass bands playing, and 55,000 cheering fans in the stands. Wouldn’t it be marvelous, the New York City football bigwigs had wondered, if Notre Dame or Syracuse accepted invitations?

Oregon State was offered a bid, but the bowl found no takers for OSU’s opponent. Notre Dame did not play bowl games in those days. Syracuse turned down an invite, followed by Colorado and Holy Cross.

Good grief. Holy Cross?

Who could blame them? New York City weather in December is usually bone-chillingly cold.

As a result, there was no Gotham Bowl in 1960.

There was a 1961 game at the Polo Grounds (Baylor 24, Utah 9, Dec. 9) and in 1961 at Yankee Stadium (Nebraska 36, Miami 34, Dec. 15). The modest bowl game ended, awash in red ink. Attendance totaled no more than 15,000 fans at both games. There were precious few mourners at the game’s demise.

History is unclear whether the Vols were ever actually invited to play in New York City.

When the Bluebonnet Bowl did come calling in 1965, Tennessee, hungry for post-season play after a number of fallow years, readily accepted.

That set off a succession of bowl bids from that point on, except for a couple of years here and there. When bowl season came around, Tennessee fans were headed somewhere after Christmas to follow the Vols.

It was not the first time Wyatt had turned down a bowl game, also doing so in 1955, when Auburn was to be the foe in the Gator Bowl. Auburn was the opening game opponent in 1956, and Wyatt didn’t want to give the Tigers a free look at the single-wing before then.

At least that season, the Vols had been invited.

There was something intriguing about turning down a bowl bid, maybe even before it had arrived. It would be hard to imagine that happening today.