What generation?

By Tom Mattingly

In this business, people are always asking intriguing questions, whether it’s on the street, in restaurants, via E-mail, or on the telephone. It’s the stuff of which memories are made.

A whole host of memories revolves around Sunday afternoons at 1 p.m. on Channel 6 in Knoxville in the mid-to-late 1960s. John Ward and Doug Dickey co-hosted the “Doug Dickey Show” with analysis of the previous day’s game. It was “can’t miss television.” Watching the show with Bill Dyer’s cartoon summary of the game in hand was a magical experience.

There was a postal employee in Chattanooga who called one year and asked who the third-string tailback was in the 1950s, probably in 1956 or 1957. When I said “Al Carter,” he said “Thanks” and hung up. There was apparently a bet in his section of the North Chattanooga Post Office. I got the impression he dropped 75 cents into the cash box to cover the cost of the call.

I have also been asked who the most underrated player I ever saw was. My answer was Shawn Bryson, one of the captains of the 1998 national championship team. He could do it all, run, block, catch passes, and always be in the right place at the right time. Think about his touchdown catch in the 1999 Florida State Fiesta Bowl game and a very big fourth down reception when the Vols were trying to kill the clock late in the game.

In my much younger days, I always liked 1965, 1967, and 1970. The 1965 bunch was the one that put the Vols back on the national radar. The 1967 team finished 9-2 overall and won the SEC title.  The 1970 team finished 11-1 and defeated Air Force in the Sugar Bowl.

The 1985 team was a personal favorite later on, winning the SEC and pulling off a memorable win in the Sugar Bowl against Miami. There was the 11-1 team in 1995 that defeated Ohio State in the 1996 Florida Citrus Bowl and the 1989 Cotton Bowl team that defeated Arkansas in the 1990 Cotton Bowl.

In the 1998 national championship season, the key moment came in Tennessee’s Nov. 14 game against Arkansas at Neyland Stadium. It was late in the game. Arkansas led and had the ball.

Then came a moment that led to a Vol win and kept championship homes alive.

Billy Ratliff not only caused a fumble but recovered it as well. The play is known as the “Stoerner Stumble,” in honor of Clint Stoerner, that day’s Arkansas quarterback. Billy was an exceptional player, one who suffered more than his share of injuries.

I liked the way the 2001 team came back from the loss to LSU and took Michigan apart on New Year’s Day 2002. Hearing “Hail to the Victors” was a great deal of fun. Watching Vol receivers, most notably Jason Witten, slice through the Wolverine secondary was more fun. That team won at Florida, Alabama and Notre Dame.

To this day, the LSU game was an inexplicable loss. Fourth quarter turnovers were killers. One sportswriter led his game story as follows: “Uneasy lies the head that lies near the crown.” It wasn’t quite Shakespeare but was as good an explanation as any.

I once received a call from SEC referee Jimmy Harper about getting a copy of a Volunteers Magazine cover photo that showed the coin toss of the 1989 Auburn game. There was this deep voice on the phone, and my response was to the point.

“Should I be talking with you?” He said, “Yes,” and later profusely thanked me for the photo.

One of the officials from the 2001 SEC Championship Game, one named Mike Wallace, called from his office in Martin with a similar request. “Why couldn’t No. 14 come up with an interception when he had the ball right in his hands?” he asked.

No. 14 was Vol defensive back Julian Battle, and he nearly had a couple of picks that might have changed the course of the game. I never came up with a good answer to why he didn’t come up with the ball.

When people call and ask about my favorite teams from over the years, I always ask “what generation?” It does make a difference. Right now, we’re in the middle of another special season. The Vols were 3-7 two seasons ago, but have finished an undefeated home schedule with an offensive attack capable of scoring at any moment from any point on the field.