Who played in the final Garden State Bowl?

By Tom Mattingly

Who played in the final Garden State Bowl? It’s been more than 40 years since the bowl’s demise on Dec. 13, 1981, but fans in the know in Knoxville, Tenn., and Madison, Wis., know the answer, almost by heart.

Tennessee and Wisconsin squared off that day, with the Vols winning 28-21. Both teams came with 7-4 records. Dave McClain coached the Badgers, while John Majors was in his fifth season with the Vols.

The bowl lasted four years, starting with Arizona State and Rutgers in 1978, Temple and California in 1979, and Houston and Navy in 1980. The games were played at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J., often in weather not conducive to drawing a big crowd.

One website noted, “Freezing temperatures and a lack of successful local college teams contributed to its demise.”

For the Vols, the 1981 season had gotten got off to a rocky start on “Rocky Top,” or, more precisely, away from “Rocky Top.” Tennessee looked dead in the water after lopsided losses at No. 10 Georgia (44-0, with Herschel Walker running for 161 yards) and No. 5 Southern Cal (43-7, with Marcus Allen running for 211 yards). Vol fans had traveled 5,000 miles or so to see their team outscored 87-7.

A season-ending knee injury to promising freshman quarterback Alan Cockrell in the win over Pat Dye’s first Auburn team left Steve Alatorre and Jeff Olszewski under center.

Alan returned to action in 1983, leading wins over Alabama in each of the next two years and berths in the Peach and Florida Citrus Bowls.

The Vols lost only to Alabama and Kentucky and lived on the brink a couple of times to win over Memphis State, Wichita State, Ole Miss, and Vanderbilt.

In the Vanderbilt game, a 38-34 Vol win, Commodore Whit Taylor, a native of Shelbyville, threw for 464 yards, with receivers running loose in the Vol secondary all day. Alatorre wasn’t bad, throwing for 319 yards. Willie Gault had four catches for 217 yards and one score, second best mark in Vol history to that time, behind only Elizabethton’s Johnny Mills (225 against Kentucky in 1966).

There was a key play in the final seconds. Taylor threw for the southeast corner to wideout Allama Matthews. Matthews appeared to be open, before Tennessee’s Carlton Peoples got a hand on the ball to save the game. Matthews would later become an SEC official and be involved in a controversial play 19 years later at the other end of Shields-Watkins Field, the Jabar Gaffney catch (or non-catch, depending on your perspective) in the 2000 Florida game.

Then came the trip to New York/New Jersey for the game against the Badgers.

The game featured the talents of Gault, offensive guard Bill Mayo, defensive tackle Reggie White, linebacker Carl Zander, Alatorre, center Lee North, wide receiver Anthony Hancock, and running back James Berry.

After Wisconsin scored to lead 7-3 in the first quarter, the Badgers kicked off, and 11 seconds later, the Vols led 10-7. All Gault did was return the ensuing kickoff 87 yards for a score. John Ward didn’t identify the specific landmark Willie ran toward, as he did in 1980 at Vanderbilt (“Willie Gault has run all the way to the State Capitol…”), but he didn’t need to.

Alatorre, who shared quarterbacking duties with Olszewski in 1980 and 1981, completed 24 of 42 passes for 315 yards, throwing for one score and running for another.

Hancock had 11 catches on the day for 196 yards and was on the receiving end of a 43-yard strike from Alatorre.

Mendham, N.J., native Zander had 14 tackles on the day, and was even better in the 1984 Sun Bowl with a still-standing school bowl record 20 tackles, a record shared with former Vol Jeremy Banks after his performance in the 2023 Orange Bowl.

The 1981 season was a highlight campaign for Majors and the Vols.

“I was more concerned about the 1981 team than any team in the last 13 years,” Majors said in 1990. “We got tromped the first two games. We came back to win eight games, including the bowl game. That’s one of the best lesson builders — one I’ve used with our team and staff on many occasions — talking about what happens if you keep hanging on, keep fighting, keep coming back.”

The lesson is clear. If you’re going to close out a bowl game, even one with a mere four-year run, do it the right way. The Vols helped close out the Garden State Bowl the right way by defeating Wisconsin.