By Tom Mattingly
Bowl games are fickle creatures, almost two games in one. One team might dominate for a half, and after intermission the other team comes back and makes a game out of it.
The 1966 Gator Bowl, No. 22 in the bowl’s history, was such an affair. It was Tennessee versus Syracuse in Jacksonville, Fla., Dec. 31, 1966, on ABC television. A crowd of 60,312 gathered for the New Year’s Eve afternoon extravaganza.
As the teams squared off, the Vols appeared to be overmatched, with Syracuse having future pro running backs Floyd Little and Larry Csonka ready to tote the football. The Orangemen were bigger than the Vols (most teams were in those days), and the fear was that they would literally mash the Vols into submission by running the ball relentlessly.
Coming off an 8-1-2 season in 1965, the Vols were 7-3, Syracuse 8-2.
Linebacker Paul Naumoff joined tight end Austin Denney, punter Ron Widby, and center Bob Johnson in earning All-American honors, with Johnson adding Academic All-American honors to his resume. Widby was the NCAA punting leader with a 43.8-yard average.
Quarterback Dewey Warren threw the ball all over the field that season, attempting 229 passes, completing 136 for 1716 yards. He was the team leader, always talking about “hummin’ that tater.”
Johnny Mills, the wide receiver from Elizabethton who was introduced pre-game by ABC’s Bill Flemming as a native of “Elizabeth-town, Tennessee,” set a single game receiving mark in 1966 with 225 yards against Kentucky, a record that lasted until the 2001 LSU game.
Gary Wright kicked field goals of 36 and 38 yards to give the Vols the early lead.
A Warren pass to Denney off a fake field goal attempt stretched the lead to 12-0. Richmond Flowers caught a second Warren TD pass, and the Vols led 18-0. All appeared well, but looks can be deceiving.
Syracuse came roaring back in the second half. Csonka, who rushed 18 times for 114 yards on the day, scored on an 8-yard run on the third period, and Little, who carried the pigskin 29 times for 216 yards, added another from three yards out with 46 seconds left.
Overall, Syracuse racked up 348 yards rushing on 57 carries, yet the Vols came up with enough big plays to take the improbable triumph, 18-12.
For the day, Warren completed 17 of 29 passes, with one interception, for 244 yards. Mills caught eight for 86 yards, with a touchdown grab called back. Flowers caught five for 80, and Denney four for 78.
The game is best remembered, however, for the Vols making two significant defensive plays.
Syracuse had the ball fourth-and-2 at the Vol 4 in the fourth period. With a backfield that had Csonka and Little ready to make the tough yardage, what play do you call?
The ball went to a lesser-known Syracuse player, Oley Allen, and Nick Showalter, wearing No. 88, made the play.
Nick said he knew what was coming, thanks to intense preparation from linebackers coach Vince Gibson. He got around Little, then fought off Csonka to make the play.
“He told us 100 times that when Little lined up as a tight wingback, they were going to run the toss sweep.”
Later in the period, one of the most memorable hits in Tennessee football history took place, Naumoff against Csonka.
“Paul stood him up, and spit and sweat came up like a water balloon,” said Showalter. “You could hear every pad and every part of a Riddell helmet crunch. Those helmets had a special sound to them.”
After spending 1964 as a receiver, Paul had played defensive end in 1965. He was considered an All-American candidate at that position coming into 1966, but moved to linebacker after Tom Fisher died in a March traffic accident near Benton, Tenn.
Thanks to some outstanding performances on the field and some yeoman-like work by the Sports Information Office, most notably Haywood Harris, Paul earned consensus All America honors at his new position and ended up with a long career (1967-78) with the Detroit Lions.
It was part of the everyday routine for Haywood.
“I looked at my job as an opportunity to help people enjoy the Vol experience as much as I did,” said Harris. “That was the joy of the job as far as I was concerned. Any time I get to do some publicity on the local or national level for Tennessee, I’m thrilled.”
Through the years, he did his job quite well. Four All-American selections in the same season would bear witness to that fact.