The colorful setting, the drama, the stakes, the noise record, the perfect plays, Chase McGrath’s winning knuckleball kick as time ran out – that combination was as good as football gets, any time, any place.
The NFL has never been close in excitement. It lacks passion. This celebration was unforgettable.
OK, there were lapses on defense. That and great quarterback play is how you get to 52-49 and the greatest game ever at Neyland Stadium.
Greatest game? Oh my.
Well, name the ones that were better. Vol historians Bud Ford and Tom Mattingly – with my half-a-historian help – tried. You can vote.
Not everyone in the country was watching but there was a great crowd. The playhouse was full and CBS said the TV audience peaked at 17 million. Some are still wondering how in the world Hendon Hooker connected with Jalin Hyatt for five touchdowns.
Hyatt was No. 11 for the entire event.
Greatest game? The outcome really mattered. Tennessee had not defeated Alabama in almost forever. The Tide so seldom loses, a last-play loss shakes up the football universe. High drama? Bryce Young was brilliant. Seventeen penalty flags dropped on the Tide? Nothing like that had ever happened to Nick Saban.
Could be Tennessee is now “America’s team.” Even Lane Kiffin, Ole Miss coach, applauded. He said “Go Vols.”
Greatest game is settled in my mind. Runner-up is open for debate.
My choice for second most memorable is Tennessee 35, Alabama 28 on the third Saturday of October, 1982, famous coaches (Majors and Bryant), the end of an 11-game losing streak to the Tide. Mike Terry’s end zone interception snuffed out the last threat. Willie Gault set SEC career records for kickoff and punt return yardage.
Third: Tennessee 28, Arkansas 24, Nov. 14, 1998, both came in undefeated, stumble and fumble, rousing comeback from an 18-point deficit in the second quarter.
The Vols were still behind with 1:43 remaining when Billy Ratliff caused a little problem for quarterback Clint Stoerner and recovered the ball at the Razorbacks’ 43. Five consecutive runs by Travis Henry solved that little problem with 28 seconds to spare.
Fourth: Tennessee 20, Florida 17 in overtime, Sept. 19, 1998, both teams nationally ranked, record crowd of 107,653. Linebacker Al Wilson shook up the Gators. They had trouble holding onto the ball. They finished 13 yards below zero in rushing. They racked up 409 yards of passing but were betrayed by five turnovers. Deon Grant had a key pick. Florida’s Jesse Palmer hit Travis McGriff for 70 to tie.
Tennessee took the overtime lead on Jeff Hall’s 41-yard field goal. Florida’s Collins Cooper missed from 32. John Ward said Pandemonium reigns!”
Indeed, bedlam broke out. Shields-Watkins Field was completely engulfed by fans. In less than 35 seconds, both goal posts were downed. Fans were running around digging up turf with their fingers. Fred White remembers how loud the crowd was. He couldn’t hear himself think.
This might have been the most exhilarating night of football until Saturday. Tennessee went on to win the 1998 national championship.
Fifth: Tennessee 38, Florida 7, Oct. 24, 1970, unforgettable because the schedule forced Doug Dickey to return to Neyland Stadium, from whence he had departed. Bobby Scott threw for 385 yards, including two touchdown passes to Joe Thompson. Jackie Walker’s interception return of 19 yards for a touchdown was a spectacular play. After the rout, gracious Tennessee fans gave Dickey a goodbye ovation in remembrance of good times past.
Sixth: Dec. 4, 1971: Tennessee 31, Penn State 11. Spoiler game on the day UT honored the Majors family. Nittany Lions were undefeated and the nation’s most prolific scoring team. You might remember Franco Harris and Lydell Mitchell.
Bobby Majors took over the game. He ran back kicks for 195 yards and scored on a 44‐yard punt return. Joy to the world, Conrad Graham caught a fumble and ran 76 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter. Jackie Walker poured pressure on the visitors and topped it off with a 43‐yard interception return for a touchdown.
It was a crushing defeat for Penn State. It had thought Eastern football was good.
Seventh: Nov. 7, 1959: Tennessee 14, LSU 13, memorable because of The Stop.
The nation’s top-ranked Tigers had Heisman hero Billy Cannon but he lost on a two-point run, the most famous defensive play in Tennessee football history. Wayne Grubb, Charlie Severance and Bill Majors did it with 13:30 left in the fourth quarter. Proud coach Paul Dietzel decided against a tying extra-point kick in favor of taking the lead. Didn’t happen.
The Tigers overwhelmed the Volunteers statistically – 334 yards to 112. Jim Cartwright intercepted a pass and ran 59 for a Tennessee touchdown. An LSU fumble set up a Neyle Sollee score.
Eighth: Sept. 28, 1985: Tennessee 38, Auburn 20. Before the Sugar Vols were famous, they overpowered the top-ranked Tigers, discouraged Bo Jackson and caused Tennessee fans to tear down the goal posts.
The Vols jumped out to a 24-0 lead. Auburn showed some interest in the fourth quarter. Before that, Jackson totaled 80 yards on 17 attempts and removed himself from combat. UT freshman Keith Davis gained 102 on 13 tries. Tony Robinson racked up 259 passing yards and four touchdowns. Darrin Miller was SEC Defensive Player of the Week.
Tennessee would go on to win the SEC title and defeat Miami in the Sugar Bowl.
Ninth: Sept. 30, 1989: Tennessee 21, Auburn 14, great game in the rain, unranked Vols against No. 4 Tigers. Reggie Cobb ran for a career-high 225 yards on 22 carries. Highlight was a 79-yard getaway. Freshman Chuck Webb contributed 93 yards. Orange defense was better. It allowed 29 rushing yards on 31 attempts.
Linebacker Shazzon Bradley made one of the biggest plays, an interception to set up Webb’s TD. Exuberant fans stormed the field with a few seconds remaining.
Tenth: Nov. 28, 1987: Tennessee 38, Vanderbilt 36. This was the George Cafego memorial happening. The Hall of Fame tailback hated the Commodores with 100 per cent fierceness. The game is unforgettable because the Vols set a record for the greatest comeback – from 25 points down.
Coach Majors said it was the most harrowing afternoon he could remember. Vanderbilt coach Watson Brown said: “They scored 17 points early in the third quarter, and we had the ball only two plays. That was the turning point.”
The Commodores jumped to a 20-0 lead in the first. The gap was 28-3 midway through the second quarter. The Vols caught up with 9:45 left in the third after Vandy fumbled a kickoff return.
The offensive line (Harry Galbreath, John Bruhin, Todd Kirk, Phil Stuart, Kevin Simons) led the Tennessee comeback. Linebacker Keith DeLong was everywhere.
There were several other great games at Neyland Stadium and some before it had a name. There were several on the road, too. The Miracle at South Bend comes to mind.
Marvin West welcomes readers’ greatest-game opinions. His address is [email protected]