By Tom Mattingly
Record-setting performances happen in unexpected places, at unexpected times.
It happened in a televised game in the days there were precious few games on the tube.
On Nov. 9, in the ninth game of the 1966 season, Tennessee was unranked in AP’s Top 10. The Vols and Kentucky were squaring off at Neyland Stadium in the home season finale, with the game being regionally televised on ABC. That was the good news, other than the Vols winning, 28-19.
The bad news was that the other televised game that gray November Saturday afternoon, the one fans in the Knoxville area couldn’t see, was Notre Dame at Michigan State.
There was, however, history being made on Shields-Watkins Field. Tennessee fans watched in amazement as the Vols continued the development of a passing attack that amassed yardage in big chunks.
Johnny Mills, a wide receiver from Elizabethton wearing No. 85, caught seven balls for 225 yards. (the residents of Elizabethton and Carter County were no doubt bemused when ABC’s Bill Flemming introduced Mills to a nationwide audience before the Gator Bowl as a native of “Elizabeth-town, Tennessee.”)
He and quarterback Dewey Warren combined to set a pass receiving yardage record that stood for nearly 35 years, before finally being broken in the 2001 LSU game. That was the night Kelley Washington caught 11 balls for 256 yards.
Mills had 33- and 41-yard receptions in the first quarter, 12- and 33-yarders in the second period, a 13-yarder in the third, and a 72- and 21-yarder in the fourth. The Vols prevailed 28-19. The 72-yarder was for a touchdown that stretched the lead to 28-13, keyed by a downfield block from sophomore wide receiver Richmond Flowers.
“Johnny was another of those route-runner, good-catcher-type guys who did not have great speed, but had the ability to maneuver himself into the openings,” said his head coach, Doug Dickey. “He knew how to fake and move, set up the defender, then end up somewhere catching the ball.”
Mills and Warren were part of a stellar sophomore class that had to have caught Dickey’s eye in his maiden season in 1964, including Austin Denney, Paul Naumoff, Warren, Mack Gentry, Joe Graham, Derrick Weatherford, Robbie Franklin, Bobby Morel, Tom Fisher, Art Galiffa, Rod Harkleroad, Ron Jarvis, Harold Stancell, Ron Widby, Doug Archibald, and Jerry Smith.
“Johnny was a competitor,” said Warren. “He didn’t think anybody could cover him one-onone. He had great hand-eye coordination. He had moves that could fake me out. He always said, ‘I can get open.”’
Mills led the 1966 team with 48 catches for 725 yards, both record numbers to that time. Mills more than doubled what All-American Buddy Cruze did in 1956, in terms of receptions and yardage.
Willie Gault came closest to Mills with 217 yards against Vanderbilt in 1981. Then came Carl Pickens with 201 against Kentucky in 1990, Stanley Morgan with a like number against TCU in 1976, Peerless Price with 199 against Florida State in the 1999 Fiesta Bowl, and Anthony Hancock 196 in the 1981 Garden State Bowl.
Mills had a spectacular two-game run in 1965 and 1966, during which he caught 10 passes in the 1965 UCLA game and came back in the 1966 season opener against Auburn to catch 11. He was named All-SEC in 1966, one of four Vols so named, joining tight end Austin Denney, linebacker Naumoff, and center Bob Johnson.
“I remember thinking after the Kentucky game that I had a great senior season made all the better because I had broken my arm in the 1965 UCLA game,” Mills said. “It was not for sure I was even going to get to play in 1966. I remember finishing the game and looking up in the stands, knowing it was the last time I would ever play in Neyland Stadium. It was a bittersweet moment.”
Few records have lasted as long as Mills’ did.
“Everybody had a time. I had my time,” he said. “They probably look at those old videos and say, ‘Boy, the guy sure is slow. He sure does run archaic routes.’ But as they mature, they’ll probably think he wasn’t bad for his time.”
Mills coached at both Cawood and Harlan (Ky.) high schools in the 1970s before returning home, where he operated a greenhouse with his wife, Carla, until 2019. He was a 2012 inductee into the Carter County Sports Hall of Fame. He is also in the All-Northeast Tennessee and Elizabethton High Athletic Halls of Fame.
Johnny Mills wasn’t bad for his time, or anybody else’s.