By Tom Mattingly
It was a comeback to beat all comebacks in a season of comebacks and close games. Tennessee spotted archrival Vanderbilt a 28-3 lead in the second quarter in the 1987 regular season finale, as the Commodores scored on their first four possessions. Yet, somehow, someway, the Vols rallied to win, 38-36. It wasn’t easy, but nothing came easy that season.
Reggie Cobb ran for 140 yards, and Jeff Francis kept the ship afloat just long enough to secure the victory. Harry Galbreath was a tower of strength up front, winning the Jacobs Trophy as the SEC’s best blocker. William Howard provided a great deal of the leadership to help make his senior year his best. He had better stats in 1986 and always seemed to be in John Majors’ doghouse. That all changed in 1987.
The No. 14 Vols had engineered all kinds of comebacks throughout the year, rallying for wins against Iowa, Kentucky, and in the Peach Bowl against Indiana. There was also a last-minute rally for a tie against Auburn. These Vols lived dangerously and somehow were still standing when the season ended with a 10-2-1 record, the first 10-win season since 1972.
The 1987 campaign saw the Vols recover from a 7-5 worksheet a year earlier. The Vols were 2-5 before a five-game winning streak, including a 21-14 triumph over Minnesota in the Liberty Bowl.
Phil Reich kicked the game-winner against Iowa at the Meadowlands in something called the “Kickoff Classic.” He was awarded a scholarship not long after the game. The winning field goal came in the final seconds and was led by three walk-ons, center Nick Zecchino from Cedar Grove, N.J., holder Lee England of Gallatin, and Reich of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The idea of snap, spot, and kick may seem simple, but it always looks easier when somebody else does it.
The Vols tied Auburn when Cobb scored at the south end with 1:20 left. The Vols had trailed 20-10 with about seven minutes to play, but Francis rallied the Vols. The result was a deadlock that satisfied no one on either side.
The Vols had a frustrating loss to Alabama, 41-22, at Legion Field and lost a close one at Boston College, 20-18, the only game the cat didn’t jump in the Vols’ favor when things were tight late in the game.
At Kentucky, the Vols led 24-20, but the Wildcats were marching for the winning score, when Mike Whitehead, previously buried deep on the depth chart, stopped Mark Higgs at the goal line on fourth and goal from inside the Tennessee 1. He was an unlikely hero. The News Sentinel’s Jimmy Hyams noted that Whitehead had not had a media interview since October 1985 during Florida game week.
John Ward had the call for the Vol Network. “Tennessee lines up in an 8-man line. Kentucky hands off, Higgs. No! He did not make it! He did not make it! He was met! He was stopped! Michael Whitehead at the bottom of the stack. It wasn’t even close.”
The Vols had one final comeback up their collective sleeves in the Peach Bowl at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, one of the few times the Vols have played on a combination football-baseball field.
That was the day Indiana fans got their sports mixed up. At the end of the first half, Reich had a shot at a field goal, but the kick missed badly. The cry from the Indiana faithful came quickly: “Air ball, air ball!” That was a neat touch. Those Hoosiers love their hoops.
Francis led another desperation drive late in the fourth quarter when the Vols trailed 22-21. Offensive guard John Bruhin had told Francis it was going to happen. The Vols were going to take the ball down the field and score. And that happened.
For some reason, no one, fans or media, seems to remember this season as one of the Vols’ better efforts. It isn’t as revered as the 1967, 1970, or 1985 campaigns, among others, perhaps, but it did confirm that you have to play the full 60 minutes against the Vols. As long as there was hope (and time on the clock), there was life. This team had great resilience.
The best memory was, without a doubt, overcoming the 25-point deficit to steal the Vanderbilt game. The Vols stuck with the game plan and got a break or two to bring home an improbable victory in an improbable season.