Stop me if you have heard this one …
Tennessee and Georgia Tech, approaching their football opener, agree that the Volunteers hold a 24-17-2 edge in what was once an interesting rivalry.
Don’t accept those numbers. There might be an error. One game is in question.
The best argument in Tennessee football history started 110 years ago, middle of October, downtown Atlanta, first quarter between UT and GT. It continued throughout the game, into the evening, the next day, the next week, the rest of the month and all of November.
The argument was still going in 1908 and, for all I know, may still be smoldering in Southern cemeteries, library archives and other historical places. Best I can tell, there is no end.
Keep in mind that I missed the game. My first boss in sports writing, Bob Wilson, told the story in hand-me-down fashion. Here is an approximation: The Vols stumbled around and got into very poor position, their own 5-yard line. Walker Leach was told to punt toward the other end.
Somebody missed a block. A Yellow Jacket came buzzing into the end zone. Leach shanked the kick or maybe it was deflected. It squirted sideways and hopped out of bounds behind the goal. A Georgia Tech player chased the ball and eventually found it over near the fence. The referee, a Mr. Patterson, signaled a safety. He held up two fingers, home team 2, visitors 0.
Georgia Tech coach John Heisman, legend-to-be (the trophy Peyton didn’t win carries his name), ran onto the field, waving his arms and evoking strong emotions.
Heisman argued that Tech deserved a touchdown. The referee thought it over, realized he was in Atlanta and that at least two fans had pistols, changed his mind and changed the score to 6-0.
Tennessee coach George Levene, a Princeton man, stood up straight, adjusted his tie, cleared his throat and announced that Heisman and Patterson had gone crazy together. Levene said the Volunteers would continue under protest.
Later in the day, a much-improved Leach kicked a four-point field goal. Tennessee thought it was ahead, 4-2. Georgia Tech thought it was still winning, 6-4.
As fate would have it, the game eventually ended. Neither side was sure which had won. Western Union profits soared as everybody sent telegrams to everybody else. Levene’s formal protest was wired to Ithica, N.Y., to the honorable L.M. Dennis, chair of the national rules committee.
Newspapers made an honest effort to report the results. Geography seemed a factor in whether the score was 6-4 or 4-2.
On Monday, the morning Knoxville Journal reported that Heisman had looked up the applicable rule and had sent Tennessee a telegram of concession. The afternoon Sentinel invested in a rare long-distance phone call and quoted Heisman as saying there was no concession telegram, that somebody had made up that story or dispatched fake news over his good name.
The great Fielding Yost, coach at Michigan, felt compelled to express an opinion: Had to be a safety, couldn’t be a touchdown, no way, no how.
Dan McGugin, distinguished coach at Vanderbilt, didn’t really want to side with Tennessee but admitted the score should be 4-2.
As administrators often do, Mr. Dennis of the rules committee passed the buck, ruling that the referee must decide. The referee didn’t say anything. Today, that’s called taking the fifth.
Famous Nashville sportswriter Grantland Rice, somewhere else that particular weekend, said the score should have been 4-2 and that Tennessee should never have accepted the referee’s erroneous ruling.
Grantland didn’t say exactly what the Vols should have done about it.
My Bells Bridge neighbor when I was growing up, Nathan Washington Dougherty, all-Southern guard for the Volunteers, was out on the field during the historic war of words. He credited Coach Heisman with a very persuasive presentation. Transforming an obvious safety into a touchdown was borderline miraculous.
The Spalding Guide of 1908, national book of results and records, proclaimed Tennessee the winner. The argument continued. Old-timers died without knowing whether Tennessee won or lost.
This story would be some better if the schools had embraced the difference of opinion. Alas, UT surrendered. Brochures of both schools show a Tech triumph.
Do you suppose a really good lawyer, maybe Don Bosch or Carl Eshbaugh, could reopen the case?
Marvin West invites reader reactions. His address is firstname.lastname@example.org