John Shearer: Hank Lauricella And The Tennessee Vols Of The Early 1950s, Part 1

Sunday, April 06, 2014 - by John Shearer
Hank Lauricella
Hank Lauricella

About two years ago, I decided to look up some information about Tennessee football during its successful run in the early 1950s under Gen. Robert Neyland.

Not born until 1959, I was curious to know about one of the glory periods of old for Big Orange fans. I ended up printing off some of the articles of the games from the early 1950s newspapers on microfilm, thinking I might be able to use them at some point in a historical story.

As it turns out, some of the articles have come in quite handy following the unfortunate death of former great Hank Lauricella – a key member of the 1950 and 1951 teams -- on March 25 at the age of 83.

Because of his recent passing and the fact that Tennessee is presently involved in spring football practice, here is a look at the 1950 squad, or Team 54 as coach Butch Jones would call the group.

A second article in the near future will look at the similarly memorable 1951 season.

Mr. Lauricella – a Louisianan who was remembered as a modest and humble person – was certainly a key member of the 1950 team and would become an even bigger star in 1951.

But Tennessee in those days had plenty of horses at a number of positions. Even in the backfield, where Mr. Lauricella was a single-wing tailback, the Vols had such other stars as the popular Andy Kozar from Pennsylvania.

The 1950 Vols had reported for practice on Hudson Field on Sept. 1, and had their first game on Sept. 23, a normal time of the month to open the season in those days. Yes, the regular season actually began in the fall.

The opponent was Mississippi Southern – or Southern Miss as it later became known. Only 23,000 packed into Shields-Watkins Field – as Neyland Stadium was known in those days – to see Tennessee win by an easy score of 56-0.

Mr. Lauricella scored a touchdown, as did Dick Ernsberger, Gordon Polofsky, Herky Payne, Andy Kozar (twice), the switch-hitting Vol baseball player Bert Rechichar and Francis Stupar. Perhaps the busiest person that day was Abe Shires, who kicked seven of the eight extra points.

Defensive standouts included John Michels, Ted Daffer and Doug Atkins.

Tennessee was definitely loaded that year, and everyone knew it.

As Tom Anderson of the Knoxville Journal wrote after the game, “Few have ever seen such a superlative bunch of athletes gathered together at the same time and on the same team,” he said. “The general, as everybody knows, never tries to build up a high score. (But) there was nothing he could do about it yesterday because each replacement, striving to better himself, did as well or better than his predecessor. Lauricella would come out and Harold Payne would run all over the place.”

While the team was loaded with talent, the players might have briefly been full of thoughts of their abilities as well. This was made evident by the fact that the Vols were upset the next Saturday, Sept. 30, in Gen. Neyland’s first visit to Starkville’s Scott Stadium, which was a 10-hour drive away on early 1950s’ highways.

However, Gen. Neyland took the loss with outward class, simply praising Mississippi State.

The next week the Vols traveled by air to Durham, N.C., to face annual rival Duke under coach Wallace Wade, who was actually in his last year. And Duke was favored after Tennessee’s bad showing against the Maroons.

But this time, Tennessee was ready to play, reportedly in part because player Ed Sherrod had called a players’ meeting in the clubhouse on Monday.

Among the eager Vols was Mr. Lauricella. Early in the game, he threw a pass that was incomplete. On the next play, he appeared to be attempting the exact same play, but this time he faked the throw and sprinted 62 yards for the Vols’ first score. The Vols – and Mr. Lauricella – were in business, and he was continuing on the fast track to stardom.

He later made a TD pass to put Tennessee up 14-0 on its way to a surprisingly easy 28-7 victory.

After noticing that Notre Dame had lost that day, Knoxville Journal sports writer Ed Harris pointed out that Mr. Lauricella had wanted to attend Notre Dame coming out of Holy Cross High School, a Catholic school in New Orleans. But Irish coach Frank Leahy thought he was too small.

His high school team had run the single wing at a time when many schools were switching to the T formation, so the single wing-running Tennessee proved to be a good fit for him.

The next week, Scrappy Moore’s outmanned University of Chattanooga Mocs traveled to Shields-Watkins Field and lost 41-0 to the Vols in front of 20,000. Mr. Lauricella threw a touchdown pass to the wingback Mr. Rechichar, but the passer who most impressed Knoxville Journal sports writer Ben Byrd that day was UC’s Hal Ledyard, a Chattanooga High graduate.

“A fine passer, he seemed to throw better with three or four Vol lineman hanging on him,” wrote Mr. Byrd.

This was also an interesting matchup between Red Bank High brothers Tom Jumper of Tennessee and Jim Jumper of the Mocs. In 2014, Jim Jumper’s grandson, Baylor School graduate Colton Jumper, is attempting to make the Tennessee Vols football team.

The next Saturday, Oct. 21, was the biggest rival on the schedule at that time – Alabama. Because of their closeness in consistent success dating back to the 1920s, the two teams had naturally gravitated toward being rivals – even though several SEC schools were closer to Tennessee and Alabama in distance.

Some 51,000 fans jammed Shields-Watkins Field for what would be one of the most famous of the Alabama-Tennessee games. Led by the stocky sophomore Bobby Marlow, who had been an orphan raised in a Baptist children’s home in Troy, Ala., the Crimson Tide led 9-7 late.

However, a Tennessee player would end up becoming the hero, but it was not Mr. Lauricella, a junior. It was sophomore Andy Kozar, who scored with just a minute left.

Writer Mr. Harris called the end of the game “a Hollywood finish.”

Alabama coach Red Drew, who had once coached at Chattanooga, agreed. “It was the wildest Tennessee-Alabama game I’ve ever seen,” he said.

The next week, also at home, the Vols obviously had an emotional letdown, beating Washington and Lee, 27-20. This was during a high sports period for W&L, which featured future pro star and NFL New York Jets coach Walt Michaels.

“Booked originally as a breather, the game almost developed into a strangler,” wrote sports writer Tom Anderson.

The next week, also at Shields-Watkins Field, the Vols enjoyed a 16-0 victory over North Carolina, another annual opponent during that period. Mr. Lauricella’s big play was a touchdown-saving tackle following a first quarter fumble.

On Nov. 11 against small Tennessee Tech, or Tennessee Poly as it was known then, Mr. Lauricella went 81 yards for a TD on the Vols’ first play from scrimmage in front of 15,000 shivering fans. He later threw a touchdown pass to Vince Kaseta in the 48-14 Vol victory that was actually fairly close at the half.

Playing the smaller schools was over for the year, though, and Mr. Lauricella and UT had three games remaining against traditional season-ending SEC foes Mississippi, Kentucky and Vanderbilt.

On Nov. 18, in the sixth of seven straight home games, the Vols entertained Ole Miss coached by John Vaught.

Coach Vaught tried an unusual strategy of allowing the players to roam around Knoxville unchaperoned after the Rebels arrived in Knoxville that Friday morning. As a result, players could be seen on the UT campus and on Gay Street selling their ticket allotments.

Coach Vaught’s thinking was that Ole Miss had little chance of winning, so they might as well enjoy themselves.

His thinking proved to be correct, as Tennessee won 35-0 in what was described as a nearly perfect game by the Vols in front of 25,000 fans on what had been another chilly-for-November Saturday.

Mr. Lauricella did not score, but Andy Kozar did twice, as did Herky Payne on a run and pass. Gordon Polofsky had a first quarter interception return for a touchdown on a one-handed, Joe DiMaggio-like catch.

The defense did a great job stopping All-American and future Chicago Bear running back John “Kayo” Dottley.

The next week, Kentucky under future legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant came to town. And the Wildcats, whose players included quarterback Babe Parilli and 1950 Outland Trophy winner Bob Gain, were actually favored.

Both teams were hot, as Kentucky had beaten North Dakota, 83-0, the week before after suffering its only loss of the season so far the week before to Mississippi State.

The weather conditions, in contrast, were quite cold. As was documented in a detailed chattanoogan.com story in 2012, a rare November snowstorm dumped six inches of snow in Knoxville and brought a temperature of 18 degrees by game time. However, 45,000 of the originally expected 52,000 attended.

Mr. Lauricella also showed up, at least emotionally, as he hit Bert Rechichar on a 27-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter to put the Vols up 7-0 at the half.

The score would remain that way at the end, despite a tense second half, including one Kentucky fumble recovery in Tennessee territory in the fourth quarter. Because the Vols were able to keep Kentucky out of their end zone, however, they had a victory to remember for years along with the equally unforgettable weather situation surrounding the game.

Gen. Neyland was given a ride on the shoulders of his players afterward.

By now, Tennessee was said to be in line for a Cotton Bowl berth, while Kentucky had received one to the Sugar Bowl after the game, despite the loss.

The final game of Tennessee’s first-ever 11-game regular season came on Saturday, Dec. 2, at Vanderbilt’s Dudley Field. With the help of a 27-yard touchdown pass from Mr. Lauricella to Vince Kaseta in the first quarter and some great second half running by Herky Payne, Tennessee won 43-0 to finish the regular season 10-1.

In those days when the polls were conducted at the end of the regular season, Tennessee was voted first in the 21-year-old Dunkel poll. However, in the Associated Press poll announced before the Vanderbilt game, the Vols were fourth behind Oklahoma, Army and Texas. They were fifth in the United Press poll.

But they would get a little chance to play one of those teams ahead of them – Texas – in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 1.

But first came time to sit back and enjoy the regular season.  Mr. Kozar had been the leading rusher on the season with 543 yards, while Mr. Lauricella had 444 yards and a punting average of 36.5 yards to go along with some passing yardage.

But neither of those players finished in the top 10 of the 1950 Heisman Trophy voting, although Babe Parilli of Kentucky finished fourth behind winner Vic Janowicz of Ohio State and runner-up and future sports announcer Kyle Rote of SMU.

On the Wednesday after the Vanderbilt game, the Vols held their annual football banquet open to the public at the S&W Cafeteria on Gay Street. Films of the season were shown, and the players were presented with gifts from the Jaycees.

As Tennessee was getting ready to play Texas in the Cotton Bowl on New Year’s Day, some were wondering if Tennessee would have to wear white jerseys for the first time since the 1930s, since Texas also wore orange.

On Dec. 7, the Knoxville papers announced that 10,000 tickets had been allotted to Tennessee for the Cotton Bowl. And in contrast to today, students – not big donors and season ticket holders – received first priority.

After that, the others in a ranking system of hierarchy could order what tickets were left. And Athletic Council chairman Nathan Dougherty said applicants should include a check, but without a specific amount on it. It was evidently a much more trusting time in those days.

This was to be Tennessee’s seventh bowl visit dating back to its first post-season visit to the Orange Bowl after the 1938 season, but first since the 1946 season and first visit ever to the Cotton Bowl.

As bowl preparations began, Tennessee arrived in Dallas on Dec. 26 after a week off for the Christmas holidays. Texas, meanwhile, flew in from nearby Austin and practiced on Dec. 29 at Southern Methodist University’s Ownby Stadium. Texas coach Blair Cherry was retiring and was to be replaced by assistant Ed Price.

Tennessee’s regular practice facility during its stay was Dal-Hi field, a now-razed, 22,000-seat facility near downtown that had been built by the Works Progress Administration in 1939 for use by the Dallas independent high school district.

Tennessee guard Doug Atkins had missed some practice time due to tonsillitis, while guard Roy Smith had an upset stomach, apparently from too much food at a wild game dinner the day before.

Also as part of the bowl festivities, the Vols’ players posed for a photograph while wearing 10-gallon hats at the still-standing Melrose Hotel.

Also on hand before the day of the game was the UT Pride of the Southland band. The members held a practice session lasting more than two hours on Dec. 31 on the SMU practice field. At the suggestion of school president Dr. C.E. Brehm and others, their show was to be a combination of some of the best numbers presented over the last three years.

Most observers seemed to think Texas would win in the game, which was to be broadcast over NBC and televised over the Dallas and Fort Worth television stations. The Longhorns had lost only to national champion Oklahoma.            

Because he had broken a jaw against Vanderbilt, Vol captain Jack Stroud was to wear a special protective facemask. But he went on to play magnificently in playing both offense and defense after Looney Smith injured his leg.

So did most of the other Vols against the oversized Longhorns on New Year’s afternoon in front of 77,000 fans braving a cold New Year’s Day drizzle.

The Vols – who were wearing orange jerseys as they always did and did not have to switch to white after all -- jumped out to a 7-0 lead in the first quarter on what was senior John Gruble’s only touchdown catch of the season. But the drive had been set up by a spectacular 75-yard run by Mr. Lauricella.

However, Texas came back to take a 14-7 lead, including on a pass, before the half.

During the intermission, the two college bands, the Texas Rangerettes and some high school bands entertained the fans.

When the second half began, the Vols continued to trail the Longhorns, with some worsening weather adding to the bleak feeling for the Vols.

However, despite all that and the disappointing results the Vols had enjoyed in bowl games under Gen. Neyland for the most part, the tide was about to turn in the Vols’ favor in sterling fashion.  A drive that began in the third quarter resulted in a touchdown, with Mr. Kozar scoring from the 5-yard run on a play in which he carried two Longhorns with him.

The Vol cheering section by this time was full of excitement. Unfortunately for Tennessee, however, the extra point attempt was a little wide and the Knoxville squad still trailed by a point.

But Jimmy Hill from Maryville was about to help save the Vols not once, but twice. Texas was driving the ball again when Mr. Hill intercepted a pass intended for the Longhorns’ Ben Proctor and took the ball from the Vol 25 to midfield.

The Vols tried to move the ball, but Mr. Kozar fumbled on a failed fourth-down attempt. But Mr. Hill again saved the day by recovering the ball on the next play.

However, only 5 minutes and 32 seconds remained in the game. Mr. Kozar ran hard for seven yards on the first carry. Texas decided to key on him on the next play, but, instead, Mr. Lauricella dropped back and passed to Bert Rechichar to put the ball on the 13.

And you know what happened next? That’s right, the Vols went on to score the winning touchdown. After a fake and carry by Mr. Lauricella, Mr. Kozar went over from the 1-yard line, with first-year players Earl Campbell and Charlie Stokes opening the hole.

The Vols would hang on to win 20-14, giving Tennessee a 10-1 season and Gen. Neyland his first season of no more than one loss since the great 1940 team before he left for military service during World War II.

“Tennessee’s Volunteers, as heroic and courageous as their pioneer forebears who migrated to this spacious state, placed their brand on a claim for the national football championship here today in a 20-14 victory over the Texas Longhorns,” wrote an excited Ed Harris of the Knoxville Journal.

“It was sheer determination on the part of the under-sized Volunteers plus the explosive shots of Andy Kozar and Hank Lauricella that produced a pair of last-period touchdowns and victory before 77,000 fans who braved a cold drizzle. Kozar, the transplanted Rebel from Pennsylvania, and Hank Lauricella, the diminutive runner from Louisiana, gained the spotlight here this afternoon. But their spectacular exploits would not have made Cotton Bowl history had it not been for the raw courage of the Tennessee line.”

Yes, happy days had returned to Tennessee football.

Jcshearer2@comcast.net

 

An older part of Neyland Stadium around in the early 1950s
An older part of Neyland Stadium around in the early 1950s

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