By Tom Mattingly
Rarely have three consecutive December Saturdays been as significant as Dec. 4, Dec. 11, and Dec. 18 were in 1965.
The time was Doug Dickey’s second season as head coach. At age 33, Dickey had compiled an 8-1-2 1965 record following a fallow period between 1958 and 1964, 34 wins, 32 losses, four ties. There were no bowl games and precious few high moments, mostly in 1959 when the Vols upset SEC and national powers Auburn and LSU.
What happened over those three Saturdays encouraged those Tennessee fans looking for signs that better days were ahead.
On Dec. 4, the Vols played a classic game with UCLA at the new Memorial Stadium in Memphis, a step-up from the antiquated Crump Stadium.
Athletic Director Bob Woodruff termed the Bluff City a “neutral site.” UCLA head coach Tommy Prothro, a Memphis native, was more skeptical. “Playing Tennessee in Memphis is like playing Notre Dame in Rome,” he said.
Woodruff always laughed heartily when he talked about Prothro’s comments.
With a crowd of 44,495 in attendance, the final tally was in favor of the Vols, 37-34. That offensive explosion that had to have shocked Vol fans who had learned their football, highlighted by defense and the kicking game, at Robert R. Neyland’s knee.
A glance at the history books reveals that the Vols had given up more than 30 points or more only 14 times in 475 games between the start of the 1915 season and the 1965 Vanderbilt game and had lost every one.
The game had everything a fan could want: excitement, big plays, drama, and a considerable amount of controversy, leading to a memorable finish.
Vol quarterback Dewey Warren, playing with two pulled groin muscles, but never with a lack of confidence, scored at left end on fourth down on a 1-yard run that seemed to take forever. Somehow Dewey found the end zone. When asked whether or not he had actually scored, Warren has always responded, “The official raised both hands, didn’t he?”
Had the game had been played today, Warren’s face and the game highlights would have been all over ESPN’s Sports Center.
The next Saturday was signing day, the beginning of recruiting season. The Vol performance that season had to have had a positive impact on prep prospects in Tampa, Cincinnati, Chattanooga, Kingsport, Jackson, Johnson City, Nashville, and Oliver Springs.
That’s where many of the top prospects for the 1966 freshman class were located, and the Vols would get them all once the dust cleared from the recruiting battles. The big names were Steve Kiner and Jack “Hacksaw” Reynolds (both All-SEC and All-American selections, Kiner twice), Steve Carroll, Vic Dingus, Don McLeary, John Rippetoe, Mike Jones (who made the cover of the post-Alabama issue of Sports Illustrated in late October 1967), and Gary Kreis.
There were others, such as Nashville’s Tommy Baucom, Manley Mixon, Wayne Smith, Bubba Dudley, and Bobby Patterson, Steve Wold of Port Orange, Fla., Lanny Pearce of Stone Mountain, Ga., and Herman (“Thunderfoot”) Weaver of Villa Rica, Ga., so named during his Detroit Lions pro career by ABC’s Howard Cosell.
The Vols also signed running back Jim McEver out of Davidson, N. C., the son of the legendary tailback Gene McEver, who helped jumpstart the Tennessee tradition with his kickoff return opening the 1928 Alabama game.
This group never lost a home game during their time in Knoxville, with only a 17-17 tie against Georgia in the 1968 season opener marring their careers on Shields-Watkins Field.
The third weekend sent the Vols to Houston for the Bluebonnet Bowl, and Vol fans had to have been enthused by a 27-6 win over Tulsa, in a game played in a driving rainstorm.
Warren ran for two scores and tossed a 4-yard TD pass to inspirational team captain Hal Wantland. Fullback Stan Mitchell scored on an 11-yard run.
“I remember it was wet as in real rain and mud and soup—a perfect fit for Dewey Warren’s famous nickname, ‘Swamp Rat,’” said Marvin West. “Tulsa kept shooting itself in the foot. Tennessee had trouble with stopping the short passing game to Howard Twilley, but Tulsa would lose a fumble or interception, and the Vols would capitalize.”
Dec. 18, 1965, was, therefore, a beautiful day, regardless of the weather. Vol fans had the feeling Tennessee was “back.” And they were.
These were three December Saturdays that forever changed the face of Tennessee football, on the field and on the recruiting trail.
Not before or since have three December Saturdays been so important to the Vol program.