By Tom Mattingly
There was a time from the 1950s into the 1970s, Knoxville News-Sentinel Sports Editor Tom Siler battled the University of Tennessee Athletic Department over kickoff times for Volunteer home football games.
Siler had twice been president of the U.T. Alumni Association, offering him a valuable fans perspective about how hard it was to get into and out of Knoxville each home Saturday, even though average attendance at the games never exceeded 40,000 until 1965.
“Tom was an advocate for the fans,” recalled colleague Marvin West.
An earlier kickoff time, 1 or 1:30 p.m., maybe even noon, Siler reasoned, would help Vol fans get home more quickly, especially those heading outside the Greater Knoxville area. That occurred in the days the interstate system outside of Knoxville was non-existent.
Routes out of Knoxville were U.S. 11 and U.S. 70 to Chattanooga and Nashville, respectively, “Bloody 11W” and U.S. 11E to the northeast, U.S. 25W northward to Jellico (Siler’s home town) and Lexington, Ky., and U.S. 25W and U.S. 70 heading into North Carolina.
His was a voice crying in the wilderness, however, because the 2 p.m. kickoff, a vestige of a long-ago day, stayed with us until the barrage of televised games began taking hold.
In this case, the pen was not mightier than the sword. Not even close.
At Tennessee, the 2 p.m. kickoff seemed sacrosanct, perhaps ordained by the gods of football through Walter Camp, Gil Dobie, Amos Alonzo Stagg, or other early greats of the game, maybe even Bob Neyland.
Another consideration of earlier kickoff times might have been the compilation of the numerous elements of coverage that comprised the sports section in those days. There were coach and player interviews to be conducted, game stories and columns to be written, pictures to be developed and captioned, and the Dyergram to be drawn and placed in its proper place on p. 5 of the Sunday sports section.
That all had to happen before Pierce Holt Carter could appear near the old KUB offices at Gay Street and Church Avenue or Bobby Langston could show up at the Krystal on Cumberland Avenue, both men prepared to sell Sunday’s early edition around 11 or 11:30 p.m. Both venues were popular among Vol fans, who were anxiously awaiting the News-Sentinel’s coverage of the game completed just a few hours earlier.
Tennessee football brochures in those years often carried the 2 p.m. kickoff times, including those rare cases ABC might have wanted a 4 p.m. kickoff for the 1968 Georgia game, a 1:55 p.m. kickoff for the 1969 Auburn game, or a noon kickoff for the 1971 Penn State game, for example.
There were concessions made to start November games at 1:30 p.m., once the time changed, but the 2 p.m. start still ruled the roost. The lack of stadium lighting made things very interesting in November, especially in the southwest corner. That part of the stadium was bathed in shadows very quickly.
Wonder what Siler might think now, with kickoff times being all over the map, the 2 p.m. start being the exception rather than the rule? How many 2 p.m. starts have there been in the last 20 or 30 years or so?
Kickoff times have ranged from noon, in some cases, to 8 p.m. in others, all times Eastern. In SEC games, the 3:30 p.m. kickoff seems to offer the highest prestige value, the noon kickoff less so.
Can anyone believe there was actually an era fans knew the kickoff times well before the season began?
That exigency was not lost on Knoxville gospel music promoter Rev. J. Bazzel Mull. He always wanted to know the schedule and kickoff times. That was in those long ago and much-beloved days, when kickoff times were known well in advance.
Rev. Mull was promoting gospel concerts in Knoxville and his query, received sometime in August each summer, was always the same: “Doc, what time do those football games start this fall?”
The reason he wanted to know? Without fail, he always said, “I don’t want my concerts to hurt the attendance at your football games.”
That never happened, but it was a laudable sentiment.
The 2 p.m. kickoff is now consigned to history, but in a far nobler day, it was a source of stability, an indication that all was right with the world. Tennessee kicked off its home games at 2 p.m., and everybody knew it.