A big play was just around the corner

A big play was just around the corner

By Tom Mattingly

The year was 1971, 50 years ago. Neyland Stadium seated 64,429, with a new southwest upper deck scheduled to open in 1972.

Fifty years is an eternity by anybody’s standards, but for veteran Vol fans, 1971 was an amazing time, a season that had enough surprises, twists, and turns to keep the most hardened fan glued to the action.

This season was the last call for Jackie Walker, Curt Watson, Bobby Majors, Ray Nettles, and Phillip Fulmer, among others, and marked the debut of the soon-to-be-legendary quarterback Condredge Holloway, albeit in a freshman game.

That season, Tennessee’s tradition of wearing orange jerseys in road games ended with an SEC “Gentlemen’s Agreement,” giving the home team the jersey choice, usually the school-colored shirts, with the visiting team wearing white, except at LSU, where wearing the white shirts at home was the choice.

To his credit, head coach Bill Battle voted against the plan. “You’re darn right I did,” he said years later.

The Vols chose a white shirt with an orange collar that lasted eight games over three seasons, the Vols winning five of the contests.

The 1971 Vols compiled a 10-2 mark that could have been markedly different had defenders been less resolute or a number of close plays had gone another way. A big play always seemed to be just around the corner, when things might have looked bleak.

This was the year of the “offensive defense,” one that set NCAA records for yardage off interception returns (782), average interception return yardage (25 for 782 yards, 31.3 yard average), and touchdowns off interception returns (7). You name it, and Vol defenders did it all with safeties, interceptions, fumble recoveries, punt and kickoff returns.

Carl Johnson and Conrad Graham highlighted the Kentucky and Penn State games, respectively, taking fumbles in for scores, Johnson for 87 yards, Graham for 76.  Penn State had come into the season finale undefeated and ranked No. 5, but the No. 12 Vols were up to the task defensively, scoring on Conrad Graham’s return of a John Hufnagel fumble, a Majors punt return, and a Walker interception return.

In the Florida game, Phil Pierce led a 99-yard scoring drive against the Gators in the third quarter. The game was tied 13-13, and Florida had just punted the ball out of bounds inside the Vol 1. Battle came down the far sideline to the north end to protest the call.

Flags flew, and the Vols received the step-off for unsportsmanlike conduct, with the official picking up the ball and setting it down. Tennessee responded to that crisis with a drive that gave the Vols the lead and the game, the game-winner coming on a 20-yard pass from Pierce to Stan Trott.

Another 1971 highlight was the emergence of Nashville’s Jim Maxwell, the “Blue Max,” part of the 1966-67 recruiting class.

Maxwell had been George Hunt’s kick holder in 1970 and again in 1971, and seemed consigned to have a seat on the bench otherwise until Dennis Chadwick, Pierce, and Chip Howard each fired and fell back. The coaching staff was “at wit’s end over the lack of an effective offense,” as historian Russ Bebb has written, and had nowhere else to turn.

Jim got his chance under center in the Mississippi State game, trotting onto the field in the second quarter and not yielding the position the remainder of the way.

“I probably didn’t hear what coach Battle said when he put me in,” Maxwell said. “He may have just pushed me out there.”

In a Liberty Bowl ripe with controversy, Arkansas had a successful field goal attempt negated for a holding penalty and then lost a fumble in front of the Vol bench in the final minutes. Tennessee capitalized on the bobble, using a 19-yard run by Watson and Hunt’s extra point to take an improbable 14-13 victory.

Walker, team captain, earned All-America honors for a second year, joined by Majors. Walker returned five interceptions for scores during his career, still an NCAA record. The Vols finished No. 9 (AP).

All-SEC honorees included Majors (for a second time), Walker (for a second time), Watson (for a third time), Nettles, and Hunt, the placekicker selected to the Quarter-Century All-SEC team covering 1950-74.

Holloway, a product of Huntsville, Ala., led the Vol freshmen to a 4-1 record and a 30-13 win over the Notre Dame rookies, before 30,000 fans on Nov. 13.

If you truly want an explanation for the way the season went, think of a longstanding Tennessee recipe for winning: defense and the kicking game.

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