I knew I wouldn’t forget. To my surprise, Liberty Bowl godfathers remember.
On very cold December evenings in 1971 and 1974, Tennessee made successful post-season football appearances in Memphis. Late rallies were decisive. The first was spiced with exciting controversy. The second had a sad postscript.
All these years later, the Auto Zone Liberty Bowl has selected an all-star lineup from those who played during the decade of the 1970s. Old Vols Curt Watson, Bobby Majors, Phillip Fulmer, Ernie Ward and Steve Poole are among the honorees. Bill Battle, 2-0, is coach of the decade.
Memphis was two steps down for those who didn’t get invited to New Orleans. There were worse places to go. That there was a Liberty Bowl was intriguing. It started in Philadelphia (thus the name Liberty), suffered starvation, moved and almost died in the Atlantic City Convention Center, attendance 6,059. This was social spacing before the virus.
Atlantic City did OK with Miss America pageants, the Democratic National Convention and a Beatles’ concert but not so good with indoor football and many loads of dirt dumped onto the concrete floor. The city did get a break on the haul bill – the good, ol’ Teamsters Union helped.
Liberty moved to Memphis for life support. The ninth-ranked Volunteers assisted in ’71. They helped set an attendance record of 51,410. The friendly neighborhood bookie was spot-on with his forecast. Tennessee was favored by one. It defeated Arkansas, 14-13. Three generations of Razorbacks still don’t believe it.
Their quarterback Joe Ferguson set three records. Their defensive back Louis Campbell intercepted three of Jim Maxwell’s passes. Tennessee had some good plays. Majors averaged 43.8 punting and stopped one at the Razorbacks 1.
Fullback Bill Rudder unexpectedly threw a pass to Emmon Love, no style points, but a big gain. Rudder’s two-yard run produced a TD. George Hunt converted.
Arkansas scored the next 13 points and almost several more. David Allen picked off a pass. Conrad Graham got a hand on a field-goal try. Arkansas kicked another three-pointer but a very alert official flagged a tight end for holding. Coach Frank Broyles reacted as if he had never heard of a tight end holding on a field goal.
A more important officiating decision was yet to come. Jon Richardson caught a screen pass. Graham clobbered him. He fumbled. Arkansas guard Tom Reed offered to swear on a stack of Bibles that he recovered. Several Vols admitted they saw it.
Nope, didn’t happen.
An official with much sharper vision awarded the ball to Tennessee. Carl Witherspoon got credit for the remarkable turn of events. He never said much about it.
Watson, limited by injured ribs, was suddenly healed. He made a great move and ran 17 yards for a touchdown. Joe Thompson took out two foes who ventured near the path. Hunt kicked the winning point with 1:56 remaining. Eddie Brown intercepted Arkansas’ last-gasp pass.
Tennessee players hoisted Battle to their shoulders and carried the coach off the field. Arkansas whining and complaining intensified. The official who caught most of the flak was Preston Watts. If you really must know, he got the assignment to save travel money. He lived in Memphis.
The 1974 game was less dramatic, Tennessee 7, Maryland 3.
A long punt return set up a short field goal for the Terps. Ricky Townsend was going to tie the score but Condredge Holloway juggled the snap and Maryland great tackle Randy White blocked the kick.
Late in the evening, Maryland blundered. A center snap sailed over the punter’s head. Tennessee reserve quarterback Randy Wallace threw high to Larry Seivers. As you might expect, Seivers leaped above two Terps and snagged a touchdown pass with 2:38 remaining. Don’t believe that movie title which says white men can’t jump. Some can.
Maryland launched a counter-attack. Ward’s interception at the UT 2 put him on the all-decade team.
A few minutes later, Coach Battle was told that his father had suffered a heart attack during the game. He died that night.
The Tennessee coach, William Raines Battle III, fit perfectly into this distinguished family. William Raines Battle II was athletics director at Birmingham–Southern College. The original William Raines Battle was a Methodist minister.
That Liberty Bowl was a historic event for a Knoxville sportswriter. His boss, Tom Siler, elected to stay home by the fireside and put up Christmas decorations. His go-go pep talk was “You can do this one by yourself.”
I did – game story, column, two sidebars and the Battle obit. I helped close the press box. I finished at the Press-Scimitar office downtown. It was time for breakfast.
I told you in the first sentence that I wouldn’t forget.
Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is [email protected]