John Majors, Sparky Woods, orange helmets and South Carolina

Marvin Westwestwords

In the early days of 1977, Tennessee’s new football coach, John Majors, was considering alternative uniforms for the Volunteers.

He had players on Shields-Watkins Field modeling different color combinations, all white, white jerseys and orange pants and all orange. No. 66 even had an orange helmet.

High above, in Neyland Stadium, assistant coaches were reviewing the style show and exchanging comments. Joe Avezzano, Bobby Roper and a dozen others were in the group. Graduate assistant Sparky Woods was there.

I thought Sparky’s opinion had validity. He was Tennessee through and through. He grew up in Oneida. He had been to UT games. He had wanted to be a Vol. He had settled for Carson-Newman, quarterback and defensive back. Bill Battle gave him a chance to become a beginning coach.

Woods didn’t like the idea of alternate uniforms. He thought the traditional orange and white was spectacular.

“Why would you ever change?” he asked no one in particular.

In time, Majors came up to conduct a survey. For some strange reason, he questioned Woods first.

“How did you like No. 66?”

“I didn’t,” said Sparky.

That wasn’t what Majors wanted to hear. He told Woods and added that it didn’t make much difference what he thought and that he didn’t make much difference, either.

Soon, maybe because of that incident or more likely because Majors wanted his own graduate assistant coaches, Sparky Woods went away.

He moved on up, into an interesting career, became a very successful head coach at Appalachian State, got paid more as head coach at South Carolina and was in charge of the Gamecocks for the Halloween game of 1992, in Columbia against Tennessee.

The Vols had lost previous games to Arkansas and Alabama. The football scene was tense. The team had dropped from a high of No. 4 in the AP poll to 16th. Tennessee had won big in September when Phillip Fulmer was interim coach, when Majors was recovering from heart surgery.

Pressure was bubbling, about to overflow.

South Carolina was a touchdown ahead in the closing minutes when Heath Shuler threw to Mose Phillips in the flat. The fullback broke 15 or 20 tackles (I looked again at the video; the actual number was eight) on a 39-yard touchdown run with 1:28 left.

I doubt that Majors even considered kicking for a tie. This was Tennessee against South Carolina. Shuler threw for two, to James Stewart. Hank Campbell knocked him out of bounds two yards from the goal. Tennessee lost, 24-23.

Majors was fired the Friday before the next game, at Memphis. In retrospect, Sparky Woods made a difference. Some said it was cruel irony.

Incidentally, Coach Woods, 68, is now senior consultant on Mack Brown’s staff at North Carolina.

Incidentally 2, in all the years between that original alternative uniform review and now, the Vols never wore orange helmets. On Saturday evening, for the first time, they will – at South Carolina.

Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is [email protected]

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