When things are unsettled at quarterback

By Tom Mattingly

The 1971 Tennessee football season offered Vol fans a crash course in what can happen when things are unsettled at quarterback.

From 1965 on, the quarterback position was in good hands: Charlie Fulton (1965-67), Dewey Warren (1965-67), Bubba Wyche (1966-68), and Bobby Scott (1968-70). There were some justifiable worries about how each of them would play once they got their chance, but things always worked out.

Coming off an 11-1 season in 1970, the Vol defense looked like an old friend. The offense was another story. Scott was gone, and there were a number of contenders for the job.

If two quarterbacks are often perceived as one too many, think about what happens with four on the roster, three of whom never were able to separate themselves from the pack.

When the season began, Dennis Chadwick and Chip Howard each had a shot, but fell back and found themselves at wide receiver. Phil Pierce had a shining moment at Florida, leading a game-winning 99-yard drive in a 20-13 victory, but he, too, didn’t seem to provide all the answers.

There was another quarterback in the wings, fifth-year senior Jim Maxwell, who watched patiently as the whole process unfolded. As things turned out, he was the answer, but nobody really knew it early in the season.

Tim Priest had recalled a moment in 1967 fall drills when freshman quarterbacks (and there were several of them, including Priest) were strutting their stuff for the coaches. Priest and Joe Thompson were watching intently. Bobby Scott and Maxwell came to the front of the line.

Watching them go through their paces, Priest and Thompson looked at each other, with Tim saying, “We’d better find another position.” Priest became a cornerback and 1970 captain, while Thompson became a wide receiver.

Scott started at quarterback in 1969 and 1970, compiling a 21-3 record as a starter. Jim earned his opportunity when Bill Battle called his number against Mississippi State at Memorial Stadium in Memphis on Oct. 23.

Eight turnovers in a 32-15 loss at Alabama a week earlier, four fumbles and four interceptions, clearly defined the problem. The score was 22-15 late in the fourth quarter, despite the spate of turnovers, but a missed fourth down try at the Tennessee 29 and another fumble led to a Tide field goal and touchdown. What was a close game resulted in the first Tide victory in the series since 1966.

Desperate times called for desperate measures. It was time for the coaching staff to make a move. Wisdom has it that a player just needs a chance to show what he can do. That was the case with Maxwell.

Knoxville Journal sportswriter Russ Bebb called Jim’s senior season “a rags to riches story that seemed to be too improbable to be true.” He had redshirted in 1968 and held for placekicks for George Hunt, the placekicker on the Quarter Century All-SEC team (1950-74), in 1970 and 1971.

Maxwell’s season stats ended up to be modest ones, 46 completions in 102 attempts for 544 yards, a couple of weeks worth of yardage for Peyton Manning, Andy Kelly, Casey Clausen, or Hendon Hooker.

The expectations for Maxwell were simple. Keep a steady hand on the throttle and avoid making a critical mistake.

Maxwell’s debut was definitely a baptism under fire. “I figured after being on the team for five years,” said Maxwell, “that the odds were pretty much against me playing at all. You just look on it as one of those dreams that didn’t come true. By then, you have to believe your career isn’t going anywhere.”

All the “Blue Max” did was help lead the Vols to wins over State (10-7), Tulsa (38-3), South Carolina (35-6), at Kentucky (21-7), Vanderbilt (19-7), Penn State (31-11), and Arkansas (14-13). He finished his Tennessee career in Memphis, where it had begun. He survived three interceptions against Arkansas and had a key completion to tight end Gary Theiler just before Curt Watson’s game-winning score.

Somebody, maybe Doug Dickey or George Cafego, had a ready answer for the way Maxwell’s Vol career had ended. Each of them had always said, “If you stay, you’ll play.”

There were times it never looked as if he would see time under center. Vol fans who watched him down the stretch run in 1971 well remember his contributions to that season’s success.

Seen in the perspective of history, Maxwell delivered the goods when his name was called.

He was undefeated as a starter. Tennessee went from 3-2 after the crash landing at Alabama to 10-2 overall.

Score one for the “Blue Max.”

Despite the odds, he stayed… and he played.